Lots of people say “I think my dog would be a good service dog, he’s so friendly!”
Truth is, it’s really hard to become a service dog. Friendliness is just one of the many things a dog needs to be good at to meet the high standards of service work.
As we evaluate our latest service pup in-training and her progress, here are some of the things we’re looking for.
- ability to bounce back quickly from something scary
- adaptability — can she transition easily between crowded public places like the supermarket, to quiet locations like the library
- go with the flow attitude
- physical health and structure — is she physically built to do the job of a support/brace dog? Does she have any allergies or other medical conditions that would prevent her from working a full career
- can she learn all the basic good-manners behaviors quickly and incorporate those into her daily life easily without contsant reminders
- can she learn to walk nicely on a leash all the time — no matter what distractions pop up in her environment
- is she able to tolerate loud noises, sirens, flashing lights, bangs, and clattering? Many dogs are undone by the applause of an auditorium or the public address system — a service dog has to be rock-solid regardless of the noise or commotion going on in their environment.
- is she able to walk on any type of surface, even if she’s never seen it before? Even if it’s wobbly?
- can she adapt to new people quickly and easily? Being comfortable with strangers is very important for a service dog because in the event of an emergency, they may need to be separated from their partner.
- does she enjoy seeing new places, getting attention from strangers, having a crowd around her, seeing many hands come toward her at one time? Service dogs sort of stick out in a crowd — especially a big, spotted Great Dane. She needs to be able to handle the crowds of people that will inevitably surround her at some point during her career.
- can she sit to be petted? A service dog will rarely be asked to put her paws on people and in fact, jumping on people can lead to a quick dismissal from the program if that behavior can’t be modified. This is where most people who think their dogs would make a good service dog have trouble.
- friendly with all other dogs. This one can be tough, as service dogs need to be able to tolerate other dogs, but not want to play with them or be distracted by them no matter what else is going on. This is a common reason that service dogs are released from service work.
- a real desire to work with their partner. Lazy dogs don’t make very good service dogs! Service dogs need to be able to sleep quietly under a desk for a few hours, then at a moment’s notice be able to get up and thread through a crowd and help their partner navigate the subway system.
Most pet dogs have some of these qualities. Service dogs need to have them all!
Even though many service dog organizations select breeders specifically for dogs with good temperaments and excellent health, the release rate can be high. Our three dogs: Lily, Tango, and Nemo were all released from the program. Lily wasn’t comfortable in public, she was also reactive to other dogs. Nemo was a bit nervous in public and had a very bad fungal infection when he was just a year old. Tango would have been a fantastic service dog, but he has a bum leg (shoulder/elbow) that precluded him from having a full service dog career. He’s now a registered therapy dog which makes him very happy. He was born to do service work, and thankfully therapy work allows him the best of both worlds — he can still go into public places when he’s doing therapy work, but he’s able to get a lot more rest and preserve his health.
Some dogs have all the right skills to do service work, but just aren’t happy doing it.
Lily is an example of a whip-smart dog who could be a star service dog. But she doesn’t like being in public. That’s enough to keep her out of the program. An unhappy working dog doesn’t make a good partner for someone. And we want both ends of the leash to be happy together!
We will continue to watch Siena and evaluate her through the lens of a service dog partner for someone.
She’s already passed the “good pet” tests — if she doesn’t make it in the tough world of service work, she’s going to make someone very happy as she lounges on the couch or takes long walks with them.