How to Select a Service Dog Prospect

service dogs May 15, 2024
Trainer standing in front of yellow lab puppy service dog in training on shaded sidewalk surrounded by trees

It takes a very unique type of dog to succeed as a working service dog. Most any dog could be trained to perform tasks that aid their handler, but having the right aptitude and temperament are critically important for long term success. Read along as we dive into the types of dog breeds that typically perform well as service dogs, things to consider when selecting a breeder,  attributes to look for in a service dog prospect, how much to expect to spend, and preparing for the possibility of washing (or retiring) a prospect.

Common Breeds Used as Service Dogs and Why

Successful service dogs are defined by their desire to work, their calm demeanor, their intelligence, and their dedication to their handler. Service dogs do not have to be friendly towards strangers, but neutrality and stability around both people and dogs is crucial since they have to work in all sorts of environments.

Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Standard Poodles are often referred to as the “golden three,” the quintessential service dog breeds. Some other popular breeds are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Great Danes, and Poodle mixes. 

Oftentimes, handlers have specific needs that lend themselves to certain breeds. Great Danes, for example, along with other large breeds are popular for mobility-related tasks. More intimidating looking breeds like German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are often chosen for PTSD-related tasks because they act as a deterrent for undesired interactions and help their handler feel safe in a variety of environments. For those with allergies, Poodles and Poodle Mixes are becoming increasingly popular because of their hypoallergenic qualities. 

When selecting a service dog breed, it is important to consider temperament and natural aptitude for specific tasks above appearance, coat type, color, etc.

Things to Consider When Selecting a Breeder

Do you have to get a service dog prospect from a breeder? No! Many rescue dogs go on to be successful service dogs. Going this route is much more of a gamble, though. When you rescue a dog, rarely do you know much about the dog’s lineage, the way they were whelped, the environment they were raised in, stimuli they’ve been exposed to, their health, etc. Rescues used as service dogs tend to have a higher likelihood of being washed or retired early which is important to consider when investing a significant amount of time, money, and energy into training.

When you purchase a dog from an ethical, intentional breeding program, you have a higher overall likelihood of success, especially if the breeding program has produced working service dogs. A good breeder will provide detailed information about a puppy’s lineage, the service dog’s their program has produced, the temperament of the puppy’s dam and sire, the way the puppy was whelped, the environment they were raised in, the stimuli that was introduced in their first weeks of life, etc. 

Among other things, a good breeder will…

  • Encourage and allow you to visit their facilities (all areas) and get to know their dogs. Areas where dogs are kept, particularly areas where dogs are whelped, should be clean, well-maintained, and calm.
  • Do extensive health and genetic testing for breed-relevant conditions and practice responsible breeding practices to ensure the health of all puppies. They should be able to produce evidence of health and genetic screenings upon request. 
  • Not produce large quantities of puppies per year. A good breeder will focus on quality over quantity. A waitlist is typically a positive sign that a breeder is not over-breeding their dogs.
  • Be passionate about their chosen breed. They should be knowledgeable about temperament, size, health issues, bloodlines, etc.
  • Title their dogs in breed-appropriate sports, conformation, hunt trials, etc. 
  • Extensively vet potential buyers. They should have potential buyers answer questionnaires, provide personal recommendations, conduct interviews, etc. If a breeder cares about their dogs, they will go to great lengths to ensure that they are ending up in the best possible homes.
  • Match dogs with owners based on temperaments, not coloring or place in line. In particular for potential buyers who are looking for a service dog prospect, extensive temperament testing should be done prior to assigning puppies to families. 
  • Be dedicated to early socialization and exposure. They will implement structured programs like Puppy Culture or Avidog and use techniques like Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) to give puppies the best start possible. 
  • Be able to provide detailed medical records for each puppy including immunizations, deworming, etc. 
  • Be able to supply references from previous buyers. 
  • Make every effort to ensure a smooth transition for puppies including starting crate training before sending puppies home, providing several days worth of kibble to prevent digestive upset, etc. 
  • Encourage and maintain frequent contact after puppies go to their new home. 
  • Have a detailed contract that includes taking puppies back for any reason including behavioral and health issues, at least for some period of time. They will request or require that they are your first contact if you decide to rehome your dog.  
  • Provide detailed pedigree information and registration in your name. 

Attributes to Look For in a Service Dog Prospect

Every service dog handler’s needs are different so it is difficult to make blanket statements about what to look for in a dog. There are some attributes, though, that are universally beneficial such as…

  • Moderate energy and drive - too much energy and drive can be hard to manage depending on a handler’s disability and too little can make for a dog who is unmotivated or finds their workload too demanding
  • Intelligence and trainability
  • Biddability and eagerness to please
  • Stability and neutrality around dogs and people
  • Environmental confidence and quick recovery around novel stimuli

Essentially you are looking for a blank slate that has the aptitude to learn and perform tasks with minimal existing behavioral issues and little fear. Additional traits are going to be dependent on handler needs. 

How Much to Expect to Spend

There are many factors that can impact how much you can expect to spend on a service dog and every situation is different. One of the most important factors to consider is whether you are purchasing a green (untrained) prospect or a fully trained dog who is ready to jump into work without any additional training. 

If you are purchasing a green dog or a young puppy, the initial cost may be low (a few hundred to a few thousand dollars), but it’s likely that you will need to invest a significant amount of money (and time) in training. Even if you plan to do the majority of the training yourself, consider the cost of purchasing online courses, books, training supplies, etc.

On average, most service dogs will cost $15-30k by the time they’re fully trained, and in some cases, the cost may be as high as $50k. Medical insurance in the US does not cover the cost of a service dog so it is important to consider this financial investment when deciding if a service dog is right for you. Many handlers will plan, save, fundraise, etc., for years in preparation for acquiring a service dog. 

Preparing for the Possibility of Washing a Working Service Dog or Prospect

An unfortunate reality that must be discussed is the fact that service dogs don’t always pan out the way we hope. There are many reasons why a dog may be “washed” or retired from service work. They may be diagnosed with a health condition that prevents them from doing their job, they may experience a traumatic event that causes a change in their behavior, they may begin to show a distaste for the work that is required of them… any number of unexpected changes can take place so it is important to be prepared for this potential reality. 

In our next post, we’ll be discussing KeenDog’s potential role in selecting, raising, and training the service dog of your dreams!


Want to learn more about service dog puppy raising? Check out our YouTube series Raising a Service Dog Puppy with Tidal Retrievers! As part of this series, we check in with service dog prospect Cove at 2 weeks6 weeks12 weeks, and 21 weeks of age.

Interested in a service dog of your own? Schedule a virtual consult with us (free of charge)! We'd love to discuss your needs and help you along this journey!



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