Monday, January 3, 2011

Why do we breed service dogs?

SSD Midge is pregnant, and tonight, we find out if SSD Pearl is also going to have puppies. In approximately one month, we could have two litters of puppies!

Both Midge and Pearl were bred to specially selected males, and we're hoping for two litters of healthy puppies with the right temperament to become service dogs. One of our fans asked a great question about breeding dogs on our Facebook page. She said, "I love what you're doing to help people with physical challenges, but why aren't you adopting and training dogs from shelters when there are millions of dogs euthanized each year?"

This is a great question and an important one. Thank you for asking!

We believe that dogs should never have to end up in shelters. When we first started training dogs to be service dogs, we went to humane societies and Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever rescue groups to find dogs to adopt and train. However, it was very challenging to find dogs who would be appropriate for service dog work. Many of the dogs who would be suited to service dog work are the ones who would be instantly adopted. We usually use labs because they tend to love people, they enjoy working, they're easy to care for, and they have soft mouths, meaning they can retrieve and hold objects without damaging them. However, labs tend to be quickly adopted from humane societies and shelters.

When we did find dogs to adopt and train, most of them didn't make it through our program. We had to discharge most of the dogs because they had health and temperament issues. Many of the dogs developed hip or elbow dysplasia, which can cause early arthiritis. The dogs would not be able to work for very long, they may need medications, and ultimately they would not be able to meet their partner's needs. We cannot in good conscience place a dog with a person when we know that dog will only be able to work for a few years before retiring and needing expensive medication that their partner may not be able to afford. When we place a service dog with a partner, our goal is to enrich that person's life with a dog that can assist them to become more independent. All of our dogs must pass health exams showing that they have good eyes and bone structure.

Besides being healthy, service dogs must have a good temperament. We look for dogs that are calm, have the ability to focus despite distractions, have self control and can easily adapt to different environments and situations. Dogs that are too timid or excitable may not be suited to service dog work. For example, a dog that is easily frightened in new environments may freeze in place instead of retrieving their partner's keys that were dropped in the mall parking lot. A dog that is too excitable may dash after a squirrel rather than staying right next to his partner to help them balance as they walk. In this particular example, the excitable dog may actually unintentionally harm his partner.

We also think about the dogs themselves. It wouldn't be fair to try to turn timid or excitable dogs into service dogs. Because of their temperaments, they wouldn't be suited to service dog work, and they would be constantly stressed out. We look for dogs that can easily relax in almost any situation. We always think about what would be best for both the people and the dogs.

Since we began breeding labs to become service dogs, we have had a 70-80% success rate. We know the health histories of the dogs, and most of our dogs have a temperament that makes them well-suited to service dog work. We feel confident that when we place a dog with a person, that dog will be able to meet that person's needs and assist them to be more independent for many years.

We feel very strongly about not adding to the dogs who are already unfortunately in shelters and humane societies. If we do need to discharge a dog, we always find a loving home for him. Always. And once a dog has been placed with a person, we will always take the dog back if that person needs to return him for whatever reason. Dogs that come back to us may be re-trained for another person, depending on how old they are, or they may retire and become beloved pets.

Thank you so much for your question!


  1. Thank you so much for posting this! We get the question constantly from people about why shelter dogs cannot be used as courthouse dogs.
    Celeste Walsen

  2. Thank you, Celeste! People sometimes think that if a dog likes people and follows cues, it will make a good service dog. However, it really does take the right combination of health, temperament and training. We're happy to see that your website mentions Assistance Dogs International!

  3. "However, labs tend to be quickly adopted from humane societies and shelters."

    What humane societies and shelters are you looking at? It's an honest question. Our rescue and local shelters are filled with labs. Big black dogs are statistically the least likely to be adopted.

  4. We looked at the Harrisburg Humane Society, as well as local rescue groups. Unfortunately, the humane society had very few labs that would be appropriate for service dog work.

    We also have an age requirement for adopted or donated dogs - we will only accept them into our program if they're two years old or younger. It's not that we think that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. It's just that it takes a while to specially train each dog for their partner's unique needs, and younger dogs will be able to spend more time as working service dogs. Our dogs usually serve as working service dogs for 8-10 years and sometimes even longer.

    We recently contacted the local rescue groups looking for taller dogs to train as balance dogs. As their name suggests, balance dogs assist people with mobility issues to balance when they walk. There was one beautiful dog who would have been tall enough to be considered as a balance dog. However, although the dog may have been very sweet, we couldn't accept him into our program because he was too excitable to go out in public to places such as the mall.

    We wish we could have accepted him into our program, but service dogs truly do need to have the right temperament in order to be successful and happy in their job.

  5. Thank you for doing this! I would love to be able to do work like this.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this. I am a kennel manager at an assistance dog organization and so many people crucify us for not using shelter dogs, and I myself was a shelter staff for years- so I know just how many animals need homes, but I also know just how many animals are appropriate for this work. In my 5 years of being apart of this organization while still volunteering at shelters and several rescue groups, I had only ever found 3 dogs that went through all of the appropriate tests and excelled as service dogs. However, one of those dogs ended up having epilepsy and didn't show symptoms until after her graduation. So where as the two are still happy and healthy while serving their handlers- the other that we spend two years of training on and thousands of dollars between food, health screenings, and other care didn't work out. That's funds and training that could have gone to make another dog a working service dog. Not that I regret any of it- it was worth it for the dog who got a home in the end, but for the staff who was pulling for this dog and the woman that the dog was matched to, it was far too devastating to ever make us want to take the risk again. It's good to know that there are other groups who have come to the same conclusion.