Monday, November 25, 2013

An Important Question: Why Breed Service Dogs When You Could Rescue?

We have received a lot of questions lately about why we breed dogs to become service dogs when there are so many dogs in shelters looking for good homes. This is an excellent question, and it’s one that we’ve given a lot of thought to over the years.

In our early days, we used to rescue dogs from local shelters and humane societies to train as service dogs. There was a growing need for highly trained service dogs, however, and although we don’t like seeing any dog in a shelter, we were unable to meet that need by training rescue dogs.

Twenty years ago, we discovered that there were very few dogs in shelters that would be suitable for service dog work, and today, there are even fewer. We mostly train Labrador Retrievers, and while we understand that there are many labs in shelters, especially black labs, very few of these dogs could become service dogs. When we were searching for rescue dogs, we often found that the dogs that met our temperament, age, and health requirements were the dogs that were adopted quickly.

Not just any dog can become a service dog. The dog needs to have the right temperament, meaning they need to be calm with the ability to relax for extended periods of time, have no prey drive, and be willing to work. Service dogs need to be able to easily adapt to stress because they will be going almost everywhere with their person. They need to be able to stay calm around crowds, loud noises, strange surfaces, other animals, and more. Most importantly, they need to be able to continue to work despite the distractions around them. We met many lovely dogs when we were searching the shelters, but very few of them could handle the stress of working in public.

The dogs also need to meet certain health requirements because we cannot place a dog with a person if that dog has health issues or a high probability of developing health issues in the future. All of our dogs have their hips, elbows, and eyes checked, and they’re screened for several genetic diseases. Our goal is to provide people with a healthy, highly trained service dog that will be able to mitigate a variety of disabilities. We do not want to give someone a dog that will need to retire in 2-3 years, nor do we want to provide a dog that is going to require expensive vet bills, which the person may not be able to afford. We want people to have a dog that will be able to safely and comfortably work until they’re 9-11 years old.

The breed of dog that we train is also very important to us. As we mentioned, we usually train Labradors Retrievers. We also occasionally train golden retrievers and standard poodles. Although there are many reasons we use these breeds, one of the biggest reason is the public perception of these types of dogs. The public perceives labs to be very friendly dogs, which makes people more apt to interact with the person holding the leash. And that’s key. Our goal is for the service dog to help their person interact with the community and make new friends.

By breeding service dogs, we have more control over the dogs’ temperament and health. In fact, we recently joined the AssistanceDogs International North America Breeding Cooperative, which gives us access to expert advice on breeding. There is a lot of research that goes into each individual breeding that we do. We look at the individual dogs, as well as their history, and if they have had puppies, we also look at the puppies. Our goal with each breeding is to improve the genetic line and the quality of service dogs that are produced. We never randomly breed any of our dogs. If one of our broods is in heat but we can’t find a suitable stud, we will skip that heat cycle rather than breed her to an unsuitable stud.

All of our breeding dogs live in family homes, and when they’re not breeding, they have jobs, which allows us to see the dog’s actual potential as a service dog. Some of our broods and studs work as demonstration dogs, visiting groups and organizations to demonstrate what service dogs can do. Others work as interview dogs where they show people who have applied for service dogs how a dog can help them.

All of our puppies are born in the homes of our volunteer breeder caretakers (although some puppies have been born at the vet or en route to the vet). We monitor the puppies and the mother very closely. From the time the puppies are born, we begin preparing them to become service dogs. Every day until the puppies are 18 days old, we do early neurological stimulation (holding the puppy on its back, holding the puppy vertically with its head up, holding the puppy vertically upside-down, tickling between its toes, and placing the puppy on a cold towel). This early neurological stimulation makes the dogs more adaptable to stress later in life.

We also make sure we provide plenty of toys and other objects for the puppies, so they can play and start solving problems. If you watch our puppy cams, you’ll see all kinds of toys in the whelping box. All of this adds up to highly intelligent dogs who are highly adaptable to any situation—very important traits in a service dog.

Our broods have several litters and then they are spayed and retired. Our broods will never continually have puppies for their entire lives. Depending on the age of the dog at retirement, they may be trained as a working service dog or they may be adopted by their breeder caretaker family or another family.

In fact, any dog that does not make it through our program is adopted or finds another job. Our dogs never end up in shelters. We will find another job for the dog, such as with the CIA, ATF, or state police, or we will find a loving family home—and we always try to match the dog and the family. Similarly, if one of our partners is no longer able to care for their service dog for whatever reason, we will take the dog back and find it a new home.

It was a tough decision to decide to breed rather than rescue, but it was necessary if we wanted to provide high quality service dogs for people with disabilities. 


  1. It should be noted that a prominent service dog training organization that still accepts a small number of rescues (they primarily breed) gave the following statistics at a conference: for every 10 *preselected* (by the rescue/shelter) dogs that they assess, they find 1 acceptable candidate. For every 10 dogs they accept as candidates, 1 dog makes it. So they must screen 100 shelter dogs to find 10, of which 1 will be successful. This is not a sustainable plan.

    Similarly, Texas Hearing & Service Dogs (now Service Dogs, Inc.) looked at 4,945 dogs to select 17 candidates - I do not know how many ultimately graduated, but we're still talking about a tiny, tiny fraction of suitable dogs that can be pulled - and they were looking at both large and small dogs (for hearing work).

    The decision is not an easy one, but at some point it must be asked if a school exists to serve people or dogs. This is not to say the other half should ever be neglected - but if a school exists to serve its clients, the next question is how can the clients be best served. This may be at odds with how dogs can be best served (getting out of shelters), but specialization requires choices.

    1. Thanks for sharing those statistics, Cindi!

  2. There are dog owners who prefer purebreds, possibly because they're in love with a particular breed or are considering showing the dog or breeding it themselves. Knowing a dog's entire ancestry can be an added joy to ownership, and, in some cases, may even open the door to entering your dog into competitions.
    puppies for sale

  3. All responsible breeders do the things mentioned in this blog, whether they're breeding service dogs, for the show ring, for working dogs, or simply for companion animals. The general public still largely has no idea how to find responsible breeders, nor do they understand what they're getting in return for the (sometimes) higher price - a dog whose parents have been tested for genetic problems known within the breed, not just "vet checked"; whose temperament, size and physical characteristics will be largely predictable; who had the early stimulation described here to ensure the puppy will be able to tolerate stress and have a stable temperament; and who will always have a home with the breeder should the buyer ever become unable to care for the dog at any point in its life. The breeders I know all write that last part into their contracts. Some puppy buyers simply don't like being screened to ensure the puppy is good match for them - they get insulted that the breeder is sticking his nose into their business, when they should be happy that the breeder is trying to make sure they'll be happy with a puppy they take home. Some people get offended that a particular breeder turns them down. Lack of adequate time/attention or space for that particular breed, or from those particular parents, is often the case when people choose a breed for its looks that will not be suitable for their lifestyle. Should people rescue? YES! If they don't mind having a little unpredictability, or can accomodate a dog that may (or may not) need a lot of training or medical care, then absolutely. As the article mentions, dogs with few problems are adopted quickly, so they're out there in the shelters. Many people need the predictability of a RESPONSIBLY bred dog, however, and this article very eloquently states what ethical breeders do for a person looking for a purebred puppy.

    1. "Should people rescue? YES! If they don't mind having a little unpredictability, or can accomodate a dog that may (or may not) need a lot of training or medical care, then absolutely."

      Any dog, no matter how well bred, no matter how well you know its genetic history, has the possibility of having some unpredictability (they are animals, after all) & will need varying levels of training & medical care. Breeding dogs for a specific working purpose is smart, & if you need a dog for a specific working purpose, buying it from a responsible breeder is smart. But the vast majority of dog owners in America want a family pet, and in my experience, for that purpose, shelter dogs are generally on par with responsibly bred dogs in terms of cost, medical & training needs, behavioral issues, and time required. If you factor in the HUGE numbers of irresponsibly bred dogs, one could easily make the argument that for family pets, shelter dogs are a better bet.

    2. Responsibly bred dogs are not on par with shelter dogs in health and temperament. Dogs in shelters come almost exclusively from bad breeders, or are randomly bred at best. Nothing is 100% certain, but stacking the deck in your favor can't hurt!

  4. There is a reason Golden Retrievers and Labs are often the dog of choice for service dogs. They are obedient, intelligent, well mannered, playful and socially good with kids. The breeding and innate characteristics of breeds for assistance work need a solid temperament and should not be protective, or overly energetic. They need to be confident without dominance, and you don’t want them shy. The needs of the person for the dog also determines the size of the dog needed. Smaller dogs may have a harder time picking things up and reaching the disabled person and larger breeds can be harder to put out of the way of foot traffic, under tables and on public transportation.

    A dog that has any aggression to other dogs, is shy or growls, will NOT be a good candidate for assisting an individual no matter how much training they have and this is why the breed characteristics really do matter. A good breeder that home raises from birth is very important so training begins in early handling and socialization. Next there is basic obedience, good citizens testing is another good certificate created by the American Kennel Club and then task training specific to the person’s needs. Disruptions in the process to a dog that does not have the right characteristics, happens easier to a breed that is more skittish naturally, more vocal, etc. They must undergo rigorous testing of the things they might encounter out in the world doing things and going places pet dogs would not go. Paying attention to their historical tendencies in their breeding, bloodlines and how they were used for work, hunting, herding etc., is also a good gauge.

    This is not to say there are not great unexpected breeds that have exceeded expectations and saved lives through their service, or countless cases of Labs and Goldens that could not pass the tests. So do your due diligence because the promise of a happy working life lies in the effort.