International Association of
Assistance Dog Partners


               by Joan Froling

Note:  As author, I have decided to avoid gender preference by referring to a dog as "him," but either gender can be a fine service dog.


All assistance dogs should be put through a very thorough Health Screening to ensure the dog is physically fit for this career.   It may cost up to $400, depending on geographical location and specialist fees and type of x-ray opted for [i.e. with or without anesthesia], but it also can save a fortune in veterinary bills and spare an assistance dog partner a great deal of future heartbreak.  Replacing a dog that must be retired prematurely due to hip dysplasia or some other health problem the trainer failed to screen for can take many months and it 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:    This hereditary disease causes a malformation of the hip joints in a young growing dog, which leads to disabling osteoarthritis.  It is the scourge of the assistance dog field, for it cripples many good dogs with pain by middle age.  It can cost thousands of dollars for surgery or drug treatments that attempt to slow down the degenerative process and to 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 can still be pets but lack the strong healthy bone structure needed for a career as a working dog.

Schools generally won't accept a donation of a puppy unless the pup's parents were x-rayed and both received an OFA Good or Excellent rating.   OFA stands for the veterinarian administered Registry called the Orthopedic Foundation of America.  If only one parent had hip dysplasia (HD), 80% of the litter will have it, and if both parents are dysplastic, the whole litter is probably doomed.

A Penn Hip x-ray at age 4 months or an OFA preliminary  x-ray at age 6 months are valuable tools for predicting if a dog will develop HD, but not foolproof, of course.  According to the latest major study, if a dog receives an OFA  Preliminary rating of Good or Excellent between 6 to 18 months of age, chances are very high he'll remain free of this joint deforming disease.  Those who get an OFA  Preliminary rating of Fair or Mild Dysplasia between  6 to 18 months of age from OFA are the most likely to undergo further changes, seldom for the better.  Age Two is the earliest age at which OFA will give a dog a permanent Fair, Good or Excellent rating on x-rays submitted for grading.   Borderline or Dysplastic could be the verdict too.

There are degrees of HD.  If a pup is too crippled to walk, he will be euthanized.  A mild case, if treated with reduced calorie intake and avoidance of strenuous exercise may stave off arthritic changes till late middle age.  Maybe.  Unfortunately, there is no guarantee a mild asymptomatic case will remain mild.  By age four or five the deterioration could be so grotesque,  the dog could be at the "end stage" with expensive surgery (a femoral head excision, $750 per hip or a hip replacement, $2500 per hip) being the only way to alleviate the constant pain.   That is what happened with my Samoyed service dog, Nikki.

Nikki's x-rays at 14 months of age did not show  hip dysplasia.    I assumed I would not have any further worries on that score.    His OFA x-ray, taken at age three, shocked me with the news he had developed Mild HD in one hip.   The veterinarian predicted Nikki would remain a mild case, free of symptoms until old age, but unfortunately the vet's crystal ball was flawed.   At age four, Nikki began having difficulty jumping into my van and soon needed to use the electric lift.  He began to cry out with pain when getting up after a long nap.  A new set of x-rays showed degenerative arthritis had destroyed some of the cartilage in the hip joint.   Over the next 12 months, in spite of $1200 spent on Adequan shots, plus pain killers and a halt to any strenuous service dog tasks, Nikki's  condition continued to rapidly deteriorate till surgery became the only option.  It cost me $1000 for another set of x-rays under anesthesia and the operation itself - a femoral head excision.  After a six month long recovery period, he was much improved, but could never work again.  Nikki now lives with me in retirement.

To my great distress, my next service dog candidate also developed HD.   Lucky was a brilliant puppy whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all had OFA clearance.  I'd heard that if a pedigree shows three generations of ancestors free of HD, it's practically an iron clad guarantee that the puppy will grow up free of HD.  It is certainly better than a pedigree full of ancestors with hip dysplasia but evidently there are no "ironclad guarantees," when it comes to a puppy.   I took Lucky to an orthopedic specialist at the age of six months for evaluation.  The veterinarian took an x-ray and broke the tragic news to me.  A second set of x-rays by another specialist to obtain a second opinion confirmed the verdict.   In retrospect, I'm very glad I spent the money to have the pup checked at six months old, even though x-raying is expensive.  The heartbreak would have been far worse if I had invested another 18 months of training in the dog, only to learn at age two, when I had him x-rayed for an OFA rating,  my service dog had bad hips and I needed to start over with a new candidate.

As a result of these experiences,  I've decided that personally, I will not consider any dog for this career who does not already have an OFA Good or Excellent rating.   When I searched for a successor to Lucky, the most promising candidate I found was two months shy of his second birthday.  I would not spend the money to ship him out here for a Thirty Day Trial Period till he was old enough for an OFA rating.  One's life can only take so much heartbreak.  Fortunately, this particular dog's hips received an OFA Good rating. Eventually, he passed all the training requirements and became my next service dog.

I've been encouraged to relate these personal experiences to you to underscore the importance of screening service dog candidates for hip dysplasia ahead of time.  The whole process, from the time Nikki was diagnosed as having HD, till I finally had a brand new fully trained service dog took three years.   Nikki's vet bills related to the "Mild HD in one hip" have exceeded three thousand dollars.   But that has not been the only price I've paid.  Watching Nikki suffer has been excruciating.  Add to that the dreadful loss of personal freedom and other hardships when I did not have a functional service dog to depend on.   Factor in the steep expenses involved in obtaining a successor dog.  Plus the many months of hard work invested in socializing and training new candidates.

It is estimated that as many as 50% of the adult dogs in every large breed and giant breed of dog may show evidence of Hip Dysplasia if x-rayed.  Small and Medium size breeds also are prone to it.  Mixed breed dogs are not free of the malady, either.  A study of more than 600 dogs from animal shelters that were hand picked by professionals because they showed considerable aptitude for service dog work revealed over a third of these candidates had to be "washed out" of training due to bad hips when x-rayed.

It is recommended all hip x-rays be taken by and interpreted by a specialist in Orthopedics or Canine Sports Medicine to ensure an accurate judgement call.  It is also recommended that a 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.    Some breeds mature faster than others, of course,  but it is unlikely an orthopedic specialist would sanction anyone training a puppy less than nine months old to pull a wheelchair or to do walker dog balance support work..   It is highly improbable a specialist would approve of pups under a year old actually working as service dogs, performing strenuous tasks like wheelchair pulling, hauling open heavy commercial doors and/or walker dog work that involves weight bearing due to the stress it would put on a young dog's skeleton at a vulnerable stage in the development of those bones.   A conservative approach, one that seems sensible and currently is the practice of most owner-trainers, private trainers and programs is to wait till a dog becomes a physically mature adult before training him  to pull a wheelchair or perform other joint stressing tasks.

Elbow Dysplasia and Hip Dysplasia: Schools generally will not accept a dog for training which has an orthopedic problem caused by an injury or one of the other bone diseases young dogs are prone to, even if surgery was successful, 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.  Especially consider this option if the service dog candidate is destined to become a "walker dog" for someone with an ambulatory disability such as cerebral palsy or Parkinson's Disease, since the task of assisting a human with balance problems by supporting the person as he or she is walking and preventing falls will put extra pressure on these joints.

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 schools insist a donated pup or adult be checked by an opthamologist.   Most require CERF clearance on the parents of a pup or litter someone wants to donate. The Canine Eye Registration Foundation (i.e. 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 an owner trainer should have the eyes examined if the breeder/owner selling the dog hasn't done so.  Consider contacting breed clubs and local vets to inquire about the next CERF exam opportunity within driving distance.   Also you may wish to take advantage of a break through in detecting a common form of  Progressive Retina Atrophy (i.e. PRA).   Instead of waiting until the dog is over two years old before finding out if  the dog will go blind from PRA, assistance dog programs, private trainers and owner trainers will now have the option of checking the DNA of a puppy candidate or young adult candidate  to receive an immediate verdict.

Thyroid Disease:   A blood test can detect a hereditary thyroid imbalance.  It is optional to test for it.   Treatment usually consists of daily medication and periodic lab work to ensure the dog receives the correct dosage.  Radioactive Isotope therapy may be suggested in a severe case of Hyper- thyroidism.  A sluggish disposition and excessive hair loss are some of the classic signs of Hypo-thyroidism.

Heart Disease:  All puppy and adult candidates should be examined by a vet with a stethoscope for a heart murmur or evidence of some other congenital  heart problem as part of a routine health screening.

Chronic Skin Diseases:  Experienced trainers would not accept a dog with mange.   We don't know why some dogs are much more susceptible to mange than others, but once it appears, it typically heralds a lifetime of expensive and ugly skin problems.   It may only be visible to a veterinarian or experienced breeder at the outset, especially if the animal has been treated for it to keep the animal in saleable condition.   Also avoid dogs  exhibiting evidence of other chronic skin problems like weeping eczema.  Chronic skin problems due to disease or allergies can require many years of expensive treatment (i.e. pills, special baths, ointments, shots) and could periodically interfere with wearing a harness or the dog's ability to concentrate on his work.  Disabled people on a fixed income could not afford this ongoing expense.  If in doubt as to whether a certain skin problem is serious or not,  an allergy specialist should be consulted to determine if  a simple remedy like a fatty acid supplement might work, or if this is a complex problem requiring constant vigilance and lifelong treatment.

Heartworm Test:   All candidates should be routinely tested for  heartworm disease, which is lethal if left untreated.   Often you won't spot any symptoms before the dog drops dead.  All candidates who pass the blood test should be kept on year round preventative medication, so as to ensure the dog is well protected and able to travel anywhere at any time of the year.   Heartworm preventative pills come in once a month chewable tablets, costing about $70 per year.   Don't gamble.  Protect that dog from the day you get him!   The pharmaceutical companies now offer a "Plus" brand which  contains extra ingredients to help control or eliminate other kinds of worms for a few dollars extra.  That is optional but seems to be a good investment in preventative health maintenance.

Internal Parasites:  A fecal check and treatment for internal parasites (if any) such as hookworm, roundworm, whipworm, a tapeworm etc. should be a routine part of a health screening and should be performed every six months to ensure an assistance dog remains fit for duty.   A stool sample must be collected and brought in for this test.

External Parasites:   Ear mites and flea infestations are common in shelter dogs and spread like wildfire in breeding, boarding and training kennels. You don't want to introduce a potentially infested dog into your home.  Stopping off at a veterinary clinic   for treatment of ear mites and a bath with a flea dip is a wise precaution. An appointment for a bath usually needs to be set up a few days in advance.  A year round flea prevention program is mandatory in warm climates.

Breed Specific Diseases:  Some breeds like a Doberman are susceptible to breed specific diseases like Von Willebrand's which can be detected by a blood test.  Discuss the advisability of such testing with your veterinarian.

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, which is a combination shot for Distemper, Hepatitis, Leptospirosis, Parvo and Para-influenza., (#3) a Corona virus shot (#4) a Borditella [nasal dosage] and in some areas, (#5.) a Lyme Disease vaccination might be prudent.   If a dog is sick or just getting over a problem like diarrhea, be sure to inform the veterinarian and ask if immunization should be postponed until the dog fully recovers to ensure it "takes."

Spaying or 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 Thirty Day Evaluation Period is up.  Owner-trainers will find it can reduce management problems and there are long term health benefits as well.

© Copyright Joan Froling, 1998.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.

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