Original article by Joan Froling; Edited by IAADP Board of Directors, 2022
Part 1: FINDING A SUITABLE CANINE CANDIDATE FOR ASSISTANCE DOG WORK
WHAT KIND OF DOG IS NEEDED?
Assistance dogs face special challenges that pets and even some other working dogs never encounter. Public access work creates extraordinary demands on a dog’s emotional and physical well-being. It is critical to the success of an assistance dog/human partnership to find a dog with the proper temperament to handle the job. Good health and other factors are important, but they will be meaningless if the dog is temperamentally unfit to handle this career. The most common mistake is taking an unsuitable dog and trying to force them to become an assistance dog, creating problems for the relationship.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?
Ideally, assistance dogs should be able to work cooperatively with their disabled partner in busy airports, restaurants, malls, public schools, theaters, museums, hospitals, churches, office buildings, sports stadiums and many other public settings, taking the constant bombardment of strange noises, new sights and unfamiliar odors in stride. They must ride calmly on elevators, subways, ferry boats, trains, buses, planes, and other forms of public transportation and tolerate strangers reaching out to pet them without permission. The dog must not retaliate for a yank on their fur or somebody who steps on a paw or tail. An assistance dog should not become agitated in the presence of another dog, even if the other dog acts aggressively. An assistance dog must be willing to ignore food temptations, people calling or whistling, kids whizzing by on skateboards or bikes, and many other distractions while “on duty.”
It is asking a lot of a dog to cope with these challenges. Most dogs would find it too stressful no matter how much training they received. Experienced trainers look for a dog that is calm, friendly, and confident. Luckily, this kind of temperament is not exclusive to one breed and allows for more than one personality type. For example, adult dogs with the following personality traits could be classified as good candidates for training:
* Placid, gentle, tolerates strangers petting but is not overexcited.
* Laid back, amiable, shows pleasure if petted but doesn’t beg for attention.
* Happy go lucky, seeks affection, willing to play or go for a walk with anyone.
* Sensitive, anxious to please, prefers owner but may seek attention from others.
* Energetic, thrilled by outings to new places, convinced the world is populated entirely by his fan club members and he intends to meet every one of them.
To find a dog with the appropriate temperament, programs, private trainers, and experienced owner-trainers traditionally use a variation of three important tests that tend to reveal the dog’s fundamental nature. A dog scoring well on all three tests is not a guarantee the dog will make it through training, but the results will help the trainer decide if a dog should go through more extensive evaluations of their suitability for this career.
1. The Noise Sensitivity Test: Outings could be ruined by a dog’s intolerance for loud traffic, thunder, firecrackers, balloons popping at a party, doors slamming, and other loud noises a team may encounter. A trainer should test the canine candidate for noise sensitivity. One method is to drop a pot lid or similar object that makes a loud clatter on hard floor or pavement. Ideally the range would be no closer than four feet away from the dog to avoid the dog thinking the object was deliberately thrown at him. If possible, drop the object when the dog is not expecting it. If the dog cringes in fear and won’t stop trembling, pees on the floor, or tries to bolt from the room in terror, the dog is likely noise sensitive.
An appropriate response would be a dog that startles but recovers quickly. Some label this “medium” or “normal” sensitivity. If the dog shows curiosity about the object and wants to sniff it, that is a great indicator. A “nerves of steel” reaction from a supremely confident dog is also ideal, but harder to find. Maybe the dog won’t even turn around to look, with indications they heard the sound, but their tail keeps wagging.
Ideally, a dog should be tested on a variety of noises in several locations during the next step, an evaluation period. How should you think about a dog that becomes nervous when exposed to loud or unfamiliar noises, but not to the point of being terrified? The dog seems unable to relax or resists lying down, appearing watchful and wary. They may ignore commands or reluctantly comply but can’t be comforted and may refuse a treat if offered, too stressed to eat. This would likely be labeled high sensitivity. If mere lack of socialization to an urban environment is the problem, sometimes it may be possible to overcome it with counter conditioning, noise desensitization, and field trips. If it is unsurmountable, the dog’s nervousness will be generalized to most loud noises, not to just one or two specific sounds or to one public setting. Behavior modification, socialization, and training won’t cure a dog’s innate, fundamental lack of tolerance for loud noises. From the standpoint of an assistance dog partner, a dog that is stressed by exposure to loud or unfamiliar noises and cannot learn to relax likely lacks the proper temperament for this career.
2. The Body Sensitivity Test: The way a dog responds to this test is a pretty good indicator of what will happen in public if somebody accidentally steps on their paw or the partner’s mobility equipment bumps into the dog. An appropriate response is for the dog to withdraw their paw or move away from the tester, indicating they noticed the pinch, but almost immediately, the dog turns around and “forgives” the tester. The ability to quickly recover and the willingness to “forgive” the offender is essential in a dog who is being considered for a career in the assistance dog field. It is a trait that will protect toddlers who give their fur a painful yank and will prevent the dog from becoming fearful of people who use mobility equipment, like a wheelchair or crutches, after one unpleasant experience.
3. The Fetch Test: In this test, the tester takes a sock, slipper, or other item that may appeal to a puppy or adult dog, briefly tease the dog with the item, toss it, and observe the dog’s behavior. If the dog chases after it and picks it up, they show promise; if they bring it back, they pass the test. Coaxing and encouragement are allowed. The test should be repeated three times and is most accurate when the tester is alone with the dog in a distraction free environment. A poor score does not mean the dog is totally devoid of potential, since any dog can have an off day, or have better potential in other areas.
If a dog continually runs off with the item without bringing it back, they may grow up to be more independent in nature than is desirable for an assistance dog but would be preferable to a dog that makes no effort at all to retrieve. Of course, almost any dog can be trained to retrieve on command, but here, the test is aimed at finding a dog that is eager to please and wants to cooperate with and interact with a human partner. If the dog exhibits an eagerness to please, but refuses to retrieve, there are a number of methods, such as clicker training, shaping, and friendly competition with another dog that can be explored in the attempt to interest the dog in retrieving something voluntarily.
Evaluation Period: If a dog passes the initial tests, it is customary to evaluate the dog further by exposing them to “field trips” to shopping centers, parks, stores that allow dogs inside, heavy traffic, kids, animals, and as many different kinds of footing, strange sounds, odors, and sights as possible.
Adult dogs need up to three weeks to settle into a new home and show their true colors. A dog that fears something new, like the sound of an electric garage door going up and down, may be completely over it by the third week. A dog that trembles the first time he goes inside a store or barks at a stranger in a parking lot on your first outing is potentially not a suitable candidate, but if they seem promising in other respects, it’s fair to give the dog a few more weeks to settle in. Some dogs need to have their confidence built up. A lack of improvement – or even worsening fear and reactivity – become a problem if the dog makes no progress over a few months.
Part 2: SCREENING FOR AGGRESSION/REACTIVITY PROBLEMS – Note: If in doubt about a dog’s potential aggression, consult with an experienced dog trainer.
A dog that exhibits aggressive behavior toward people, other dogs or other animals is not suited to be an assistance dog. In the U.S. you will lose your access rights if you have a dog that barks in a menacing way or growls or lunges at people or at other dogs. The U.S. Department of Justice and National Association of [state] Attorney Generals makes this quite clear in their July 1996 Frequently Asked Questions document educating businesses, the public and other interested parties about a disabled person’s access rights with a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Department of Transportation prepared a similar document for Airlines and Passengers interpreting the Air Carriers Access Act. To summarize, any dog exhibiting disruptive behavior like aggression toward people or other animals demonstrates he has not been successfully trained to function as a service animal in public places and does not have to be treated as a service animal even if he performs an assistive function for the disabled individual.
People Aggression/Reactivity: Working with any kind of aggression or reactivity is extremely complex. You are encouraged to seek out a veterinary behaviorist and experienced trainer to assist you if you have assistance dog candidates displaying this type of behavior.
During a trial period, as you deliberately expose the dog to a variety of real-life situations, you should be looking for how the dog reacts to the public. Observe if the dog has a negative reaction to children, men, people in uniform, people with an umbrella, hat, dark clothing, canes, wheelchairs, walkers, or other mobility equipment. If possible, test to see if the dog can tolerate being in a crowded elevator or handle a dense crowd situation with a bunch of strangers without becoming protective or panicked.
Stress-Related Aggression/Reactivity: Consider carefully exposing an assistance dog candidate nine months old or older, at least once, to a stressful situation with loud noises to test for reactivity or aggression if they are nervous and distracted by the commotion around him. For example, how would they act if you went to see a parade, a rock band, a symphony, a concert in a park, or a fireworks display? In the U.S., with a state that permits trainers public access rights, a person could expose the dog to a movie theater. A good candidate should pass the test with no problem or have a very manageable recovery. If the dog is not aggressive or reactive, but is panic-stricken due to the noise, you will know of a possibly very serious problem before investing months of training in the dog. Being slightly nervous the first few times is not unusual, and such dogs might benefit from further exposure and counter conditioning, but any aggressive or reactive behavior towards the trainer or a member of the public would be inexcusable.
Dog Aggression/Reactivity: Aggression and reactivity toward other dogs is unacceptable in an assistance dog. The kind of dog aggression or reactivity that is inappropriate in an assistance dog is unwanted aggressive or reactive behavior that occurs when the dog is “working mode.” There should be no barking, growling, lunging, snarling, or snapping. An assistance dog is not permitted to exhibit aggressive or reactive behavior that is defensive in nature, such as a growl, curling a lip back, or raising hackles if another dog approaches them while they are lying down, passes them in a hallway, or approaches from behind. Some dogs can learn this; some cannot and are not suited for the demands of assistance dog work. Most assistance dog trainers would not accept a dog that shows signs of reactivity, extreme shyness, or fear of other dogs.
Dog aggression or reactivity may be tested by arranging a series of visits to a local obedience training class. Start with an advanced class where handlers keep their dogs under good control. If the dog does well, try a beginner class, hoping for dogs that may be more unpredictable, to get a reading on how the new candidate is likely to behave when another dog acts less controlled in their presence.
Another possible test is to walk the candidate past the yards of dogs who will bark and lunge at the fence. The potential assistance dog may become excited and distracted, but obedience training may get the otherwise excited and distracted candidate under control. If there is any doubt as to whether the dog’s response is playful excitement or reactive or predatory in nature, you should arrange to obtain a second opinion from someone with some expertise on dog aggression or reactivity.
Territorial Aggression/Reactivity: It is normal for a dog to display some level of “watchdog” behavior, and it is up to the dog’s trainer or handler to set limits on what is acceptable.
During the course of the evaluation, watch the dog’s reaction to people crossing the front yard, and entering the backyard. Two or three barks would be acceptable if the dog was able to otherwise respond to the command of “quiet” or “down”. If the dog refused to listen or calm, they may not demonstrate a suitable temperament for assistance dog work. A dog that exhibited aggression toward a canine trespasser or a dog accompanying a visitor may also not demonstrate a suitable temperament.
Sometimes, despite everything you do to discourage it, a dog will become extremely overprotective of the home, to the point where people are afraid to enter. This is not a trait that manifests itself in a kennel situation, so it is not something all programs or private trainers will be able to screen for in advance. As a general rule, paramedics, a doctor, a relative, or a neighbor should be able to enter the home and never have to fear for their safety from an assistance dog, in the event the human partner needs immediate medical assistance. When a dog is overprotective to the point of aggression or causing fearfulness in people to enter your home, it is not a candidate to be an assistance dog.
Aggression/Reactivity with Other Animals: Training an assistance dog to ignore cats, squirrels, and other animals is part of the educational process. A dog with low prey drive is fairly easy to discourage. A dog will a medium prey drive will be eager to chase and will require more than one lesson to obtain reliable and appropriate behavior if they encounter one while on duty. A dog with high prey drive will chase and possibly kill a cat, squirrel, or other animal if given the chance. A dog with high prey drive is not a suitable candidate to become an assistance dog.
OTHER PROBLEMS TO BE AWARE OF
A lack of proper socialization in puppies can result in adult dogs that are indifferent, suspicious, or fearful of people. While socialization can continue throughout a dog’s lifetime, it can become very time-intensive and may not ever completely solve a dog’s behavioral concerns. Oftentimes, these dogs benefit tremendously from being well-loved pets instead of an assistance dog. Asking an ultra-sensitive dog that wants to please and will perform tasks because the owner asked – not because the dog has an innate confidence and joy in their work – to work in public is unfair to the dog.
The evaluation period or first month of placement is useful in assessing the “compatibility factor.” Once in a while, a dog may simply be “too much dog” for a particular person to handle safely, or may just not be a good match for the person. Some handlers can easily adjust their handling style to suit a dog’s personality. Others require a very confident dog who tolerates human foibles with good-natured stoicism.
One of the most important factors in successful matchmaking is a dog’s energy level. Someone with a busy lifestyle full of extracurricular activities outside the home won’t find a calm, laidback couch potato dog to be a good choice for their particular situation. Someone who leads a quiet sedentary lifestyle won’t get along well with a high energy dog who needs plenty of work and stimulation to keep them content and out of trouble.
Occasionally, the dog’s companionship potential can make or break a partnership. Some people want a dog with a “Velcro” personality: one that is demonstrably affectionate, loves to cuddle, prefers to sleep on their bed, and rarely leaves their side. A dog with a “Velcro” personality will need a human partner who is delighted to meet the dog’s emotional need for close proximity and frequent displays of affection. Some people would prefer or be just as happy with a more independent dog who is content to curl up in their own favorite spot and ignore us while we carry out work that requires long hours of concentration.
Other factors which may be extremely important to some people is the breed choice, the dog’s color, gender and size. If one of these factors will skew the way you feel about the dog, you should inform a program director or a private trainer from day one. If there is something you strongly dislike or fear, that too should be discussed in advance. Owner-trainers should do their best to do an honest self-assessment and search for a dog whose energy level, companionship potential, personality type and other factors will be compatible with their way of life.
Part 3: HEALTH SCREENING
All potential assistance dogs should be put through a very thorough health screening to ensure the dog is physically fit for this career. Program dogs typically undergo this rigorous screening with the organization before placement. For private and owner trainers, depending on geographical location, specialist fees, and any extra testing, such as X-rays or orthopedic evaluations, may be costly, but can also save a fortune in future veterinary bills and spare an assistance dog partner a great deal of heartbreak. Replacing a dog that must be retired prematurely due to health problems can take many months and will be emotionally exhausting and financially draining. The following tests and procedures are routinely performed by reputable schools, conscientious private trainers, and experienced owner-trainers.
Hip Dysplasia (HD): This hereditary disease causes a malformation of the hip joints in a young growing dog, which leads to disabling osteoarthritis. It can cost thousands of dollars for surgery or drug treatments that attempt to slow down the degenerative process and control the pain. All reputable schools and trainers in the USA now x-ray hips. They put a puppy or adult candidate that shows evidence of hip dysplasia into a “career change” home. Such dogs are still wonderful pets but lack the healthy bone structure needed for a career as a working dog.
It is recommended all potentional assistance dog candidates get hip X-rays that are interpreted by a specialist in orthopedics or canine sports medicine to ensure an accurate picture of the dog’s hip health. It is also recommended that a private trainer consult one of these specialists prior to commencing any service dog task training that may put a strain on a young dog’s joints.
Elbow Dysplasia: Like hip dysplasia, programs generally will not accept a dog for training that has an orthopedic problem caused by an injury or bone disease, even if surgically repaired, due to future susceptibility to problems. Quite a few guide dog schools and service dog programs now check dogs for elbow dysplasia by X-ray. Some also check for shoulder dysplasia. Consider this possibility if the service dog candidate is destined to become a balance support for someone with an ambulatory disability such as cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s Disease.
Eye Check-Up: All breeds are susceptible to eye diseases leading to blindness, but some like a Collie or a Labrador Retriever may be prone to breed-specific eye problems. Most programs insist a donated puppy or adult be checked by an ophthalmologist, with Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) clearance on the parents of a pup or litter someone wants to donate. CERF is similar in concept to OFA. It is a national registry set up to help breeders detect and eliminate dogs with hereditary eye diseases from their breeding program. A private trainer or owner trainer should have the eyes examined if the breeder/owner selling the dog hasn’t done so. Progress has been made in detecting an eye disease called Progressive Retina Atrophy (PRA); there is now the option of checking the DNA of a puppy candidate or young adult candidate for this disease.
Thyroid Disease: A blood test can detect a hereditary thyroid imbalance. If detected, treatment usually consists of daily medication and periodic blood test to ensure the dog receives the correct dosage of medication. Radioactive isotope therapy may be suggested in a severe case of hyperthyroidism. A sluggish disposition and excessive hair loss are some of the classic signs of hypothyroidism.
Heart Disease: All puppy and adult candidates should be examined by a vet to screen for a heart murmur or evidence of other congenital heart problem.
Chronic Skin Diseases: Dogs with chronic skin problems often require the help of a veterinary dermatologist and a lot of trial and error. Chronic skin problems due to disease or allergies may require many years of expensive treatment (pills, special baths, ointments, shots) and could periodically interfere with wearing a harness or the dog’s ability to concentrate on their work.
Regular Heartworm Testing: All candidates should be routinely tested for heartworm disease, which is lethal if left untreated; treatment is expensive and may be dangerous to the dog. All candidates who test negative for heartworm should be kept on year-round preventative medication to ensure the dog is properly protected and able to travel anywhere at any time of the year. Heartworm preventative pills, such as Heartgard, come in once a month chewable tablets, and cost less per year than to treat for heartworms.
Internal Parasites: A fecal check and treatment for internal parasites (if any) such as hookworm, roundworm, whipworm, etc. should be a routine part of a health screening and should be performed routinely under your vet’s guidance and recommendation to ensure an assistance dog remains fit for duty. A stool sample is collected and brought to the vet for this test. There are products available from your vet that can protect dogs from heartworms, internal parasites, and fleas. Talk to your vet about the best product for your dog.
External Parasites: Ear mites and flea infestations are common in shelter dogs and can spread like wildfire in breeding, boarding and training kennels. Dogs should be kept on year-round flea and tick prevention to avoid infestations.
Breed-Specific Diseases: Some breeds are susceptible to breed specific diseases or ailments, like copper storage disease in Labrador Retrievers, bladder stones in dalmatians and disc problems in dalmatians. Talk to your vet about testing, prevention, and care, if applicable.
Vaccinations: If a candidate’s shots are not up to date or a shelter dog’s vaccination history is unknown, veterinarians recommend you protect the dog with (1) a rabies shot, (2) a DHLPP booster (combination of distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvo and para-influenza vaccine), (3) a Bordetella booster, and (4) depending on your geographic area, (5) a Lyme disease booster. Talk to your vet about appropriate vaccination protocols for your individual dog.
Spaying/Neutering: If the candidate has not been spayed or neutered, the dog should receive this operation prior to placement. Guide dog schools often wait until dogs complete training so the best can be selected for breeding stock, while most hearing and service dog schools have it done as soon as the evaluation period is up. Owner trainers will find it can reduce management problems and there are long term health benefits. Talk to your vet about spaying and neutering recommendations for your candidate.
Part 4: BREED CHOICES
Many breeds of dog have been experimentally drafted into the assistance dog field. The most popular for service dog work are the Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever. German Shepherds, Samoyeds, Smooth Coated Collies and Rough Coated Collies are breeds that show promise. There are other, more ‘unusual’ breeds used as assistance dogs, such as Pointers, an Irish Setters, Papillon, and Standard Poodles. Guide dog schools typically use Labs, Goldens, German Shepherds, and Lab-Golden crosses. Many mixed breeds adopted from animal shelters have become successful hearing dogs, such as terrier or spaniel mixes.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER IN MAKING A BREED CHOICE:
Size at Maturity: What is the size range of the breed that interests you? It is especially important to investigate this if selecting a breed for mobility assistance work. While a large male Samoyed could pull a wheelchair and open heavy commercial doors, a smaller female of the same breed may be too petite for this kind of work. A small female Newfoundland might be a good fit for someone needing balance work and wheelchair assistance, whereas the typical male of that breed would be too large and unable to fit into taxis, buses, airplane cabins or under a table at a restaurant, etc. Identifying a very knowledgeable breeder who can accurately predict the size of their puppies or young dogs at maturity is the next step in ensuring that the dog’s size will be compatible with the job you would like them to do.
Longevity: Another factor to investigate is the average lifespan of a breed. Most large breeds have anywhere from a 10-12 year lifespan. Small and medium size dogs might live well into their teens. One giant breed only has a lifespan of four years, while another averages ten years. Research the realities and expectations of different breeds prior to purchasing or rescuing the puppy or dog.
Coat Care – the Amount of Work and Expense: An important consideration in breed choice is the physical and financial ability of an assistance dog partner to manage the grooming needs of a particular breed. Some long-haired breeds may require a two-hour long comb out each week. Some only require intermittent brushing. A breed with a hypoallergenic coat like a Standard Poodle or Goldendoodle will need weekly comb outs and professional grooming on a regular basis. A short-coated breed will only need to be brushed a few times a year and receive a bath as needed to remain healthy. Shorter hair does not mean less shedding; Labs and Golden Retrievers shed year-round, requiring frequent brushing.
Some breeds like the Samoyed have a completely odor-free coat. Some like a Smooth Collie may be odor free if bathed several times a year. Some like a Golden Retriever or Labrador Retriever exude an aroma when they get wet from rain, snow or a swim. Some breeds have a faint persistent odor all the time. A perfumed spray/coat conditioner can be useful in masking a doggy odor. Routinely washing dog bedding and equipment is also helpful. The odor issue is irrelevant to many dog lovers, but for someone who has a spouse or family member or a co-worker who will complain if there is a “doggy odor,” this may be a factor to consider in choosing a breed.
Innate Breed Traits: Each dog breed has a purpose. If considering a breed developed for hunting, herding, or guard work, realize that the traits that made a dog of that particular breed an excellent hunting dog, an effective sheepdog, or a successful guard dog do not disappear just because the dog is trained for assistance dog work. The ancestral urges to hunt, swim, chase livestock, sound an alarm, kill predators or drive away strangers are innate in certain dog’s genetics. Some of these traits could interfere with an assistance dog’s reliability.
Breeds classified as guard dogs, livestock guardians, or fighting dogs have breed traits that are particularly worrisome. Assistance dog partners who do not have previous experience handling a dog with a strong protection drive, territorial instincts, or hereditary dog aggression drive should not attempt a partnership with one of these breeds. Hereditary breed traits should always be considered part of the package when making a breed choice.
Part 5: OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
Gender: A female dog usually is generally smaller in stature than the male in many breeds. If not spayed, a female’s ability to work is compromised by her menstrual cycles. Drawbacks include hormone-related behavior problems, the risk of unplanned pregnancy, and days of blood spotting that require confinement and clean-up.
Male dogs may be easier to manage in the presence of unspayed females and intact male dogs if they themselves are neutered. However, spaying and neutering are not a “cure-all” for behavior problems. They will not completely eradicate inappropriate aggression toward people or other dogs. Hereditary temperament, poor socialization, reactivity, and psychological trauma are not magically fixed by spaying and neutering. However, vets generally agree that spaying and neutering is a good health choice.
Age: One of the most important decisions to make is whether to start out with a young puppy from 8 weeks or to start with an adult dog, between 18 months and 3 years old.
THE HIGH-RISK GAMBLE – A PUPPY CANDIDATE
It may be less expensive at the outset to purchase a puppy than it would be to buy a healthy well-bred adult dog that already has received OFA clearance on their hips and CERF clearance on their eyesight. By the time you add in the cost of puppy supplies, veterinary care, X-rays, dog food, treats, toys, equipment, puppy kindergarten, obedience classes, and training, the adult candidate often proves to be a better bargain.
It also takes months – if not years – of consistent hard work to psychologically prepare a puppy for their potential adult role. To that point, you can prevent a puppy from developing bad habits, create a strong bond between handler and dog, and socialize the puppy to your particular liking. However, even the most experienced training programs with puppies bred specifically for guide dog and service dog work, nurtured and socialized in the homes of foster puppy raisers, still only achieve a 50% success rate. Half the puppies wash out of the program due to temperament unsuitability (low work ethic, high prey drive, surface sensitivity, fear) or health problems before placement with a handler. Schools that accept donated puppies are probably doing well if 25% of the pups grow up to become successful guide, hearing, or service dogs. There is no special magic to protect a puppy from genetic illnesses, injuries, temperament problems, socialization outings gone awry, and anything else that can go wrong. If the gamble is lost and the puppy or dog must be washed out, rehomed, or even euthanized, it is going to be emotionally devastating. The grief is different as it is not a pet you are losing, but your future partner.
No one likes to contemplate the prospect of failure, much less plan ahead for it, but it is the prudent thing to do if you are determined to go ahead with the idea of raising a puppy candidate. Ask yourself honestly if you can keep the dog as your pet if needed or arrange a career change home just in case. Scout around for a suitable adult candidate and explore other alternatives for acquiring an assistance dog. By carefully working out a backup plan ahead of time and resolving to go forward even if the first candidate proves to be unsuitable, the chances of achieving a successful outcome will not rest entirely on the fate of one small puppy. Hopefully the backup plan will not have to be implemented, but it would be a sensible, realistic approach.
THE QUEST FOR THE SUITABLE ADULT CANDIDATE
Transferring the Bond: Many people wonder if an adult dog will be able to bond to them as closely as a puppy they raise from scratch. In most cases, the answer is “yes.” A well socialized puppy grows up to be a dog with the capacity to form deep emotional attachments. They are eager to give and receive love and companionship and are excited to please their new person. For the past half century, dogs’ marvelous ability to bond to new people has been demonstrated again and again. Thousands of programs trained dogs have transferred their love from a foster puppy raiser to a trainer and from a trainer to an assistance dog partner.
Recruiting from the Show Ring: One possible good source for adult dogs of the caliber needed for assistance dog work would be serious breeders who exhibit their best stock at dog shows. They generally give the pups they keep for themselves a great start by carefully socializing them to people and new places. The dog is trained to let strangers come up and examine them. The dog must concentrate on their handler’s signals and work cooperatively with that individual in order to win prizes. Such a dog must learn to ignore hundreds of barking dogs, the loudspeaker system, the noisy crowd and other distractions while “working.” They will be traveling to new places on a frequent basis, competing both indoors and outdoors, if the breeder wants them to win a title. All of this can be excellent preparation for a career as an assistance dog.
There are a number of reasons why a show dog may be retired from competition between the ages of one to three years old. Some dogs earn a title but are not really needed in the breeding program, and some may be sound but aren’t able to outshine all the others and win a title. Some breeders can only afford to campaign one dog at a time or are limited by city ordinances on how many they can keep. It is possible to find a healthy two-year-old with OFA, CERF clearance, housebroken, well socialized, beautiful, eager to please. Some breeders are thrilled to have one of their dogs become a service, guide or hearing dog and may sell one they’ve decided not to show anymore for a discount. Some may even consider donating a dog.
But a note of caution: not ALL show dog candidates are created equal. Some may not have the necessary health clearances or may not be housebroken or well-mannered if they were kennel raised. Some show dogs will have just the right temperament, but some won’t. Ask plenty of questions before making an investment in a retiring show dog. A 30-day trial period should be included in the purchase agreement so the dog may be returned for a full refund if not as well suited for this career as the breeder and buyer anticipated.
Animal Shelters: Finding a suitable candidate for assistance dog work in an animal shelter can be challenging. According to a 1997 poll of the nonprofit training programs that belong to Assistance Dogs International, only a small percentage of the dogs evaluated by them at animal shelters over the course of a year were able to pass the initial screening tests.
Adoption fees will vary but generally are very modest compared to what you might have to pay if purchasing a dog from a breeder. On the other hand, some of the expenses that a breeder may cover, such as the cost of the OFA X-ray and the dog’s first vaccinations, won’t be covered by an animal shelter.
If the 25% success rate achieved by programs with expertise in evaluating shelter dogs holds true for an owner trainer or private trainer, you may have to put three or four dogs through this process to find one that can pass all the tests and make it through training. This may be less expensive than purchasing a dog from a breeder if you get lucky with the first or second candidate, but it could equal or exceed the price of a dog with OFA clearance from a breeder by the time you put a third or fourth candidate through a health screening.
Other Potential Sources: Other strategies for locating a good candidate may include talking to breed clubs and looking at rescue groups. Breed-specific rescues will often pull dogs from shelters that are the types of breeds they focus on, such as a Labrador Retriever rescue pulling Labs, Goldens, and mixes. Breed clubs are tightly knit with “dog people” that know each other and the local community well and may be able to point you in the right direction.
ADVANTAGES OF AN ADULT CANDIDATE VERSUS A PUPPY
A big advantage of starting with an adult candidate vs. a puppy is the fact the adult could begin serious training almost immediately. The results of the health and temperament screening are far more meaningful if performed on an adult (roughly 18 months to 3 years old) rather than on an 8-week-old puppy. Occasionally, an adult may fail due to a latent health or temperament problem that doesn’t manifest itself for several months, but the risk of this happening is lower than the risk of a puppy failing because of a serious health or temperament problem after a year of careful nurturing. An emotionally mature adult will master the schooling for good manners faster than puppies or adolescent dogs. The guide dogs and other assistance dogs trained by programs may be ready for placement (team training) in as little as four to six months. A service dog’s education may take 8 months to a year, but if living with the person while undergoing training, an adult could begin performing simple tasks around the house in as little as six weeks. The advantages of starting with an adult should be carefully considered when selecting a dog for this career.
This information is provided as a public service, with the hope it will lead to a better understanding of what a program, a private trainer or an owner trainer needs to consider when selecting a dog for this career. The goal is to help people who are disabled improve their chances of achieving a successful canine partnership. Expect to put some time into this quest for a suitable candidate. Have faith that somewhere out there, the right dog is waiting for you to find them. When you do, they will be worth all the paperwork, phone calls, networking, health screening tests, and patience you invest.
This document is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not written by a professional dog trainer, veterinarian, or other veterinary professional. It is written by a former assistance dog handler and details their experiences and opinions. IAADP does not provide training advice beyond Minimum Training Standards, and readers are encouraged to seek advice and recommendations from professional trainers, veterinary professionals, and other professionals in the assistance dog field.