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. 

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