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.


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.  Samoyeds, Smooth Coated Collies and Rough Coated Collies are some of the newer breeds that are showing promise.  Some of the more unusual breeds out there assisting disabled handlers are a Pointer, an Otter Hound, a Dalmation, an Irish Setter, a Papillon, and a Greyhound, showing you can't always judge a book by its cover. Guide dog schools primarily use Labs, Goldens, German Shepherds, Lab-Golden crosses, some Smooth Collies,  a few Flat or Curly coated Retrievers, a few Vizslas, a few Standard Poodles, an occasional Boxer, some Australian Shepherds and a small number of carefully screened Dobermans.  Some of the breeds placed by Hearing dog schools include Welsh Corgis, Poodles, Shelties, Springer Spaniels, Labrador and Golden Retrievers.  Also many mixed breeds adopted from animal shelters have become hearing dogs, generally ones that appear to be of spaniel or terrier ancestry or a collie mix.


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, 23" high, 65 lbs. in weight could pull a wheelchair and haul open heavy commercial doors,  a small female of the species may only be 20" high and 40 lbs. at maturity, which is much too petite for this kind of work.  A small female Newfoundland 27" high, weighing 100 lbs. might be invaluable to a man with Lou Gehrig's Disease who weighs 250 lbs, needing walker dog support and future wheelchair assistance, whereas the typical male of that breed would be much too large as he couldn't 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 her pups or young dogs  at maturity is the next step in ensuring that the dog's size will be compatible with the job he is supposed to do.

As a rule, a dog should stand a minimum of 22" and weigh a minimum of 55 lbs. for wheelchair assistance work, if pulling a child or a small woman.  For adults weighing over 130 lbs., the dog should be 60 lbs or larger in size.  Dogs trained for walker dog support work typically are a minimum of 23" in height for an average size woman, if a harness is available with a sturdy handle tall enough to bridge the gap between the human's hand and the dog's withers.  Lacking such a handle on a harness, just gripping an ordinary nylon harness for balance support, a much taller dog is needed, 27" to 30" tall so the person's hand can rest on the dog's back.

Longevity:  Another factor to investigate is the average lifespan of a breed.  For example, the majority of Bernese Mt. Dogs only live to be  about six years old.  Most large breeds have 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.  It is unwise to make assumptions.  If not sure, research the answer prior to taking the plunge.

Coat Care - the Amount of Work and Expense:  An important consideration in breed choice  is the physical ability and/or 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 Pin-brushing.  A breed with a hypo-allergenic coat like a Standard Poodle will need weekly comb outs and expensive visits to a professional grooming shop on a regular basis.  A short haired breed like a Labrador Retriever will only need to be brushed about five minutes per week and receive a bath once or twice a year to remain healthy.  Shorter hair does not mean less shedding; daily shedding is probable on a year round basis.

A Doggy Odor versus An Odor Free Coat:   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 unpleasant 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.  Having the dog sleep on a cushion stuffed with cedar shavings also is 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 is likely to complain if there is a "doggy odor," this may be a factor to consider in choosing a breed.

Hereditary Breed Traits:   Each breed was developed for a purpose.  If considering a breed developed for hunting, herding or guard dog 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 traits are no longer highly desired by most dog owners.  The ancestral urges to hunt, swim, chase livestock, sound an alarm, kill predators or drive away strangers  that dare approach are lurking under the surface.  Some of these traits will interfere with an assistance dog's reliability.

Breeds classified as Guard Dogs, Flock Guardians or Fighting Dogs have aggression related breed traits that are particularly worrisome.  Assistance dog partners who do not have previous experience handling a dog with a strong Protection drive, a fierce Territorial instinct or a hereditary dog aggression problem should not attempt a partnership with one of these breeds.  Those who do choose to work with one of these breeds must respect the darker side of its nature, learn how to avoid triggering it and never ignore the potential for a misunderstanding.  Occasionally one hears of a Doberman or German Shepherd or a Rottweiler that seems to lack the normal hereditary breed traits that earned such dogs the reputation of being formidable guard dogs.  But atypical specimens like that are extremely difficult to find, nor do they come with a lifetime guarantee.   Realistically, your odds on a pup from those breeds growing up to be an adult that lacks his breed's guard dog instinct is very slim.   Hereditary breed traits should always be considered part of the package when making a breed choice.


Gender:   A female usually is smaller in stature and lacks the profuse feathering and coat length of the male in many breeds.  If spayed, a female is equal to a male in terms of competency in this career.   If unspayed, a female's usefulness is compromised by her
bi-annual menstrual cycles.  Drawbacks include hormone related behavior problems, the risk of many unplanned pregnancies and days of  messy 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 neutered.   However, neutering is not a "cure-all" for behavior problems.  Neither is spaying.  It will not eradicate inappropriate aggression toward people.   It seldom treats the root causes of  dog aggression in a particular dog.  You can't cure hereditary temperament traits,  poor socialization, dominance issues or psychological trauma with surgery.  It is just not that simple.

On the plus side of the coin, millions of satisfied owners can attest to the fact there is no detectable change in the dog's personality after a sterilization procedure.   Fears a dog may lose her sweet femininity or a handsome male dog may become less masculine after the operation have proven to be groundless.

Age:     One of the most important decisions to make is whether to start out with a young puppy or to seek an adult dog, age 18 months to 3 years old, which can commence training immediately.

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

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