More Than A Furry Face: How To Choose The Right Service Dog

Service dogs play a significant role in society. If you have a disability, then a service dog can help you stay active and live independently; the right dog can even act as an ambassador to help people understand you.

Choosing the right dog is key, but it is no easy feat.

One common thing that most people look at when considering a service dog is breed. Considering the breed of a service dog can be a valuable predictor, but it is no guarantee. It is also important to note that there are no breed restrictions in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which governs service dogs in the United States.
Courtesy of the US Army via Flickr

While most service dogs are medium to large breeds, including Labradors, golden retrievers, border collies, and German shepherds, smaller dogs do sometimes qualify.

Most people prefer larger dogs because many dogs assist with physical tasks. While the classic example is the guide dog leading a blind handler, there are many lesser known disabilities. Epilepsy and diabetes dogs alert their owners before a seizure or blood sugar incident, and size is not always a requirement for these dogs. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder love psychiatric service dogs. The dogs can do everything from physical tasks, such as providing a barrier between strangers and their handlers, reminding their busy handlers to take necessary medication, and receiving essential materials.
Courtesy of Lisa Norwood via Flickr

Lifespan and health are also important factors. Many purebred dogs suffer from genetic health conditions that shorten their lives and limit their working years. It may take approximately two to three years to train a service dog, and it can be an expensive process. Although there are no guarantees, it’s good to do as much as you can to make sure your dog will live a long and healthy life.

Temperament and energy are possibly the biggest determining factors for choosing a service dog. Service work requires an unusual mindset. Your dog’s dedication needs to be to you, but it cannot be aggressive toward or afraid of other people and dogs. It must have enough drive and dedication to work all day, but not so much that it looks for entertainment when you’re doing something less exciting, such as waiting in line at the DMV.
Courtesy of Jeremy Keith via Flickr

Your dog has to have the willpower to ignore all kinds of distractions, including strangers, offers of attention or treats, unattended food, and other dogs straining to say hello. The same dog has to be motivated enough by rewards to learn some very complex and challenging behaviors.

Your personal activity level is also a factor. People in need of service dogs can have varying needs. Some people struggle to leave the house long enough to check the mail while others work full time and are always on the move. Your service dog needs to be able to match your lifestyle.

All of the above are somewhat tangible, but one oft-overlooked, dire factor is personality compatibility. Even the most dedicated dog-lovers bond with certain dogs more than others. Your service dog is going to be your constant companion for years to come, so making sure you get along is crucial.

Do you prefer a quirky, playful critter, or one who simply does the job and otherwise maintains stoicism? One who loves cuddles, or prefers the occasional quiet path? There is a dog out there for almost any personality, but try to take the time to find the best match for you.
Courtesy of Alden Chadwick via Flickr

Finally, consider the dog’s grooming requirements. Dogs with longer hair or certain coat textures require grooming, which can pose a problem for people with limited mobility. Some may even need clipping or trimming. Service dogs can be denied entrance to businesses if they are dirty or excessively smelly, so even if your dog doesn’t mind, his or her presentation can affect your life.

Choosing the right service dog is a long and highly personal process. Keep these factors in mind when making your decision, and consider working with an experienced service dog trainer if possible.

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