Daisy, a black and tan Bloodhound, stands on a wooden bench on a bridge with a river in the backdrop. She is wearing a black vest with a semi-rigid mobility handle and a patch that reads "SERVICE DOG IN TRAINING DO NOT TOUCH."

Picking the Right Breed for Your Service Dog

cover photo credit: Sarah Stevenson

In the service dog world, there are the Big Three Breeds: Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Standard Poodles. The popularity of these breeds as service dogs has a solid foundation; Labs, Goldens, and Poodles have all been used as working dogs throughout history. All three are a part of the “gun dog” group of breeds traditionally used for aid in hunting waterfowl, like ducks. They’re intelligent, eager to please, active, and people-focused.

However, though their reputations precede them, many service dog handlers have found that other breeds work for them just as well as, if not better than, the Big Three. So if you’re starting the search for the service dog prospect of your dreams but the Big Three just don’t appeal to you, don’t lose hope.

Put Your Needs Before the Breed

The most important part of choosing the breed of your service dog prospect is remembering that you’re choosing a dog to do a job. Evaluating what you need assistance with is integral to choosing the right dog. Without knowing what tasks you will need to train, you’ll be at a loss.

If you or your doctor have decided that a service dog is right for you, you should have a tentative idea of what the dog will do. For instance, someone with vertigo may need balance assistance. Someone with diabetes may need a dog to alert to the change in their blood sugar levels. Someone with an anxiety disorder may need to be guided out of an area during an anxiety attack.

Once you have an idea of what tasks you need to train, you can start to breed match. Start broadly.

For example: someone who needs a dog to pull their wheelchair should adhere to a height and weight ratio to ensure that they do as little damage to a dog’s body as possible. According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, a wheelchair-pulling dog should be at least 22 inches in height and a minimum of 55 pounds. Working breeds that meet these standards in one or both genders include: Labs, Goldens, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Newfoundlands, Great Pyrenees, and many others.

With this many options laid out, you can then parse through the ones that you like. If you prefer a short-haired dog, you have two great choices: Labs and Dobermans.

Another example: someone with OCD may experience “pathological grooming” symptoms, causing them to compulsively pick or pull at their skin or hair until they cause themselves harm. A psychiatric service dog can be trained to interrupt this behavior, but must be able to be easily trained to notice subtle movements and insistently respond to them.

Bones, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, is a psychiatric service dog for his handler and author of this blog, Gem Aragon.

Some breeds that could excel at this task include: Goldens, Labs, Poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and others.

However, if the handler doesn’t have any mobility needs they may prefer to work a smaller dog for ease of travel or other personal preferences. From there, they could narrow their choices down to Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, and Chihuahuas.

You may be absolutely in love with one breed, but if it can’t do the work that you need it to, start looking at alternatives.

Keep the Roots of the Breed in Mind

Choosing the right breed means knowing the fallbacks, in addition to the positives, of the dogs you’re interested in. Many dog breeds were created with specific goals in mind, and though breeds do change over time, it doesn’t mean they don’t retain some of their roots.

Dogs like American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Cane Corsos, Boxers, and other “fighting” group breeds do have tendencies toward behaviors such as reactivity and even aggression. This isn’t to say that the breeds can never succeed as service dogs—there are many well-trained, well-behaved service dogs made of these breeds. However, the puppy prospect has to be chosen carefully. If a service dog ever shows signs of aggression, it must be pulled from public access immediately to reassess whether or not it can continue working.

Breeds like German Shepherds, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Old English Sheepdogs, German Shorthaired Pointers, Weimaraners and other high-drive, high energy breeds have tendencies toward anxiety, neuroticism, and destruction if they’re poorly bred or even under-exercised. They’re intelligent and incredibly eager to work, which makes many of them fantastic service dogs, but for people in need of psychiatric service dogs they may not be the right choice as the dogs can feed off their owner’s energy and possibly exacerbate the problem.

This infographic depicts the height and weight ratios for mobility service dogs. A dog who performs light mobility tasks like momentum pulling and guidework should be 33 percent of the handler's weight. A dog who performs heavy mobility tasks like bracing and wheelchair pulling should be 50 percent of the handler's height and weight.
This chart explains the height and weight ratios for light and heavy mobility work.

Every Breed Has Its Issues

Large breed dogs like Goldens, Labs, Great Danes, Poodles, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, and Mastiffs are prone to major health problems like hip dysplasia and bloat, which can significantly shorten their working lives. Small breed dogs like Chihuahuas, Malteses, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Pomeranians are predisposed to heart and eye problems.

Herding breeds can be hypervigilant, high energy, and nippy. Hound breeds can be loud, have high prey drives, and be more interested in following their nose than working. Small breed dogs can be yappy. Extra large dogs can scare people.

There is no perfect dog breed, but more than likely there is a breed that fits nearly everything you want in your service dog. Who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with a breed you never expected to along the way.

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