How to Pick a Service Dog

Updated: Mar 7

So you’ve come to the decision that you want a service dog. Great! Service Dogs have helped people with disabilities become more independent for years! Here is a video that goes over everything this article covers!

Overall you want your service dog to be calm, but friendly. A hyper or shy pup won’t work for a service dog. The dog should be able to be touched by anyone, including strangers. She should also have a willingness to please you. In order for the foundation of a service dog to be strong, the pup should be socialized to many different situations and environments. A quick thing to note is that if you are going to be getting a puppy that will be a service dog, it should be from a breeder. Don’t get me wrong, I love shelter dogs and I think they make great companions and pets. But your service dog will not be a pet. It has a job to do and you don’t want it to have any pre-existing fears or baggage that could make training your pup even harder. Find a reputable breeder that works from their home and socializes/exposes the puppy to a lot of things. The prime socialization period is the first 16 weeks of a dog’s life. For 8 of those weeks, the puppy will be with the breeder. This is why it is so important to find a good, reputable breeder.

I got my puppy, Orisa, in October of 2019 to train to be a service dog. The following “tests” are what I used to determine if she would be a good prospect. 

1. Retrieving 

You want the puppy to retrieve a crumpled up piece of paper or a small toy tossed about two or three feet away and bring it back to you. This is a great  indicator of willingness to please you and work with you. A dog that will retrieve for you as a puppy will be willing to be trained. Sit on the floor. Put the puppy in your lap, facing away from you. Toss a wadded up piece of paper in front of you about two or three feet away. Make sure the puppy sees the paper being tossed. Do this a few times if the puppy doesn’t go after it immediately as the puppy may not have noticed the paper toss the first time or needs to think about it. You want the puppy to leave your lap, get the paper, and bring it back to your lap. A puppy that leaves your lap, grabs the paper and drops it on the way back to you is an acceptable response also. 

2. Quick recovery from startling experiences

Drop a metal pan on a hard floor near the pup. The puppy can startle but should recover quickly and perhaps show some curiosity. Pop open an umbrella and set it down. Again, the puppy can startle but should recover quickly and perhaps even investigate the umbrella. Attacking either item isn’t a good response. If the puppy doesn’t recover quickly it will never have the steady nerves to be a service dog or a good all round pet dog. I would not bring a dog that fails this test into a home with children either. Ignoring the pan/umbrella may indicate sight or hearing issues.

3. Drop test

This goes hand in hand with the quick recovery test. What you are going to do is pick the puppy up two feet off the ground and drop them. The fall won’t hurt them as long as you just let them fall. Don’t throw them to the floor because that could potentially hurt them. Let gravity do its thing. The reason for this test is to see how quickly a dog will recover. A dog that is confused for more than 15 seconds or doesn’t really know how to stand or walk after the drop will not make a good service dog. Your pup should almost instantly recover and come walking back to you like nothing happened. 

4. Order in which the puppies greet you

Never take the puppy that runs up to you first and then runs away. Take the puppy that comes up to you a little later, crawls into your lap and doesn’t leave. The first puppy will be a handful and have his own ideas about things. The second puppy will bond easily with you and be more likely to follow your moods and stay by your side. If a puppy doesn’t interact with you at all or does a quick “drive by” or nips your hands, then you definitely don’t want that one.

5. Acceptance of being held

I prefer a puppy to feel limp when I pick them up. The puppy might wiggle a little at first, but the puppy you want settles quickly and cuddles. Avoid the puppy that squeals in fear or nips/bites your hand at being restrained or “held”. I don’t like a puppy that doesn’t seem to enjoy being held. This is something that can be changed a bit by the breeder. A puppy that isn’t held much by the breeder may not like to be held.

6. Following

Individually take each of the puppies that are doing well and go to a spot they haven’t been before. Speak softly to the puppy and begin walking away. You want the puppy that quietly follows you because he will follow your lead in life. Don’t take the puppy that follows but bites your ankles or the puppy that hides or runs away.

7. Forgiveness

Pinch gently between the puppy’s toes. If the puppy gives you a dirty look and then goes away, this pup is a poor prospect for service dog work. It will tend to get offended easily and then not work for you. You want the puppy that snuggles up to you or perhaps licks you in response to the toe pinch. This pup will forgive you when you get manic or angry and will help you when you need it.

8. Food Motivated

Bring a small strainer and some treats with you. Show the puppy the treats and then put it under the strainer. Watch to see how determined the puppy is to get the food out from under the strainer. This will show you how food motivated the dog will be. You want a puppy that will not stop trying to get the food. The puppy may have never had a treat before and might not know what it is. I would recommend feeding it a few treats beforehand to allow them to see how tasty the treats are! 

Inheritance considerations

It was found that if you breed dogs that do well on these tests as puppies, they will produce puppies that do well on these tests. What does this mean to you? If the parent dogs are biddable, like to play fetch, are obedient and free from aggression and fear of loud noises and visual stimulus, then chances are the puppies will be too. It also means that if there is something you don’t like or is “strange” about the parent dogs, chances are it will show up in the puppies later on.

You want a puppy that has been left with its littermates till they are eight to nine weeks old at least. Puppies removed prior to this may have issues as adults with other dogs and with aggression toward humans. I will usually wait till the ninth week to bypass the eighth week fear period. Don’t have an eight-week-old puppy shipped. It may cause fear issues later. It is okay for a puppy to spend more time with the breeder, but only if the puppy is given some training, plenty of individualized attention, and socialization.

Everyone mentions health checks. You should check with the breed’s parent club and find out what sorts of health checks to look for because this is different for each breed. Also keep in mind that while health checks in the parent animals and immediate ancestors decrease the chances of your puppy having one of these issues, it is not an absolute guarantee that your dog will never have an issue.

Also, a mention on show breeders. Some are good and some only care about the dog’s looks. Many show breeders are only concerned about how their dogs do in the conformation ring. This has led them to ignore hereditary behavior flaws and breed dogs that are not good candidates for being a service dog. You are better off finding a breeder that produces dogs doing well in obedience or some other activity. Best of all is the breeder that produces service dogs.

Breeder socialization of puppies

The most important socializing your puppy will ever have happens at the breeder’s. Before the pups are 12 weeks of age, they absolutely must:

• already have gone for many car rides

• be used to household noises

• have been exposed to different types of flooring

• have been handled by different people of all ages and preferably different races and sexes

• have had things to climb over, walk on, and play with

Kids are one of the greatest socializers of puppies, that is if the children play with the puppies. Some of the best show breeders (and hobby breeders) are guilty of not giving much attention to their puppies, so watch out! They will keep the dog in the kennel for 6 months and then have a look at it for showing—or sell the dog to you. A dog raised in a kennel is almost NEVER a good prospect. A service dog puppy should be raised in the home.

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