The answer to the question ‘What is the best service dog breed?’ will vary by dog trainer and that should give you pause. It really shouldn’t. But there is a reason. Let’s take a look at the sorry state of service dog training and what the criteria should be versus what they are. To explain this, I need to provide some background.
The Reality of Selecting the Best Service Dog Breed
First, the service dog industry as a whole has a wash-out rate of about 50%. Wash-out means the service dog fails either during training or within the first year after deployment. A dog that washes out can no longer work and must be replaced. That means that 50% of the dogs people paid a lot of money for (e.g. $25 – $75K) have to be replaced. The service dog training contract usually outlines how/if that happens and who pays for that. This detail gives you an important indication of what kind of service dog training company you are dealing with.
Many service dog companies have started their own breeding programs to reduce the wash-out rate of their service dogs but the industry average remains fairly steady at around 50%. Hence, there is no indication that those breeding programs are making a huge difference in this aspect. However, that doesn’t mean that target breeding isn’t the answer to the problem. But, it means that most service dog breeding programs probably focus on the wrong breed attributes.
What Dog Trainers Consider the Best Service Dog Breed
This brings us to the second point. Most dog trainers prefer dogs that are easy to train and very cooperative. As a result, service dog breeding programs focus on such easy, compliant dogs in their breeding and hopefully also good health and longevity. Common breeds in such programs are Retrievers, Standard Poodles, sometimes Shepherds, and mixes of those breeds. The breeding programs tend to focus on lower drive bloodlines of these working breeds, as they are more cooperative and again, easier to train than their high-drive relatives. For example, there are huge differences among Labrador Retriever lines. A hunter usually wants a high-drive bloodline while a pet dog owner wants something far less intense. So, working breeds with lower drives is what most service dog trainers favor.
The Key Trait of the Best Service Dog Breed
Third, for a service dog to be successful, it must be able to function under high amounts of stress and psychological pressure over long periods of time. It is stressful for any dog to experience its owner have a medical emergency. However, a service dog must not just be able to handle that, it must also function and perform tasks while its owner is in physical distress. This requires a psychologically sound dog who doesn’t scare easily, and if startled has an almost instant recovery rate. This is not primarily about the best service dog breed, but the best genetics regardless of breed.
This is the Problem
And there lies the problem. This service dog requirement is in direct conflict with the dogs most service dog trainers prefer (point 2) and explains the high wash-out rate (point 1). Dogs with less drive are softer. They do scare more easily than harder dogs and can’t handle stress as well either. Many dogs bred for sport, police, and/or military applications are a great example of what high-drive dogs can handle. A dog that can handle a crime or war situation is a tough cookie; it has to be. Such dogs are however not as easy to train and require a higher trainer skill set to flourish. The best service dog breed is the right genetics in any dog suitable for the job.
High-drive dogs are far less likely to wash out as service dogs but the preferences and skillsets of too many service dog trainers are in direct conflict with this reality. It takes more dog training knowledge than most service dog trainers have to direct the high drive of a full working line dog into a reliable service task performance. High-drive dogs are wonderful if the trainer knows how to guide their genetics and channel their drive. Unfortunately, too many dog trainers are still stuck in basic operant conditioning mindsets only (i. e. everything can be shaped with reinforcement and punishment). As a result, they can’t effectively work with such dogs and unleash their potential.
The Problem in the Dog Training Industry
The highest level of training skill does not reside where one would assume it must. If you were to ask a layman without any experience in dog training, which types of dog trainers must be the most skilled-based their perception, they may say police dog trainers— they have seen those dogs on TV, or maybe service dog trainers— if they saw a good dog in a restaurant or store. Unfortunately, reality looks quite different.
As so often with human nature, competition breeds skill. As a result, the most skilled dog trainers work in the dog sport world, where they can compete with their dogs for national and international championship titles and trophies. This field attracts the most talent, for obvious reasons. Within the dog sport training world, dog sports that include competing reinforcers by design are the most difficult to compete in, as a result, that is where the highest-level training talent operates. Competing reinforcers are other high-value things a dog wants instead of what it is asked to do.
The Dog Trainer Skill Distribution
Sadly, too much of the police and military dog training world is still stuck in the 1960s, in terms of dog training skills. Application of far more force than necessary is a side effect of this state of affairs. Of course, there are exceptions. While this area relies on better breeding programs that create tougher dogs, the training of those dogs too often falls short of its potential. As a result, their drive and genetics is too often suppressed by force instead of guided.
The pet dog training space is an even bigger mess. Of course, there are amazing trainers as well, but far too many pet dog trainers have literally no idea what they are doing. Luckily, they balance it out by being fully convinced they are awesome. Ignorance and arrogance is a fascinating combination. Sadly, it harms dogs more than anything else.
Even more, unfortunately, the service dog training world is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to training skills. It is very troubling what passes as dog training in this sector. The fraud (i. e. untrained ‘service’ dogs) is rampant, the skill is wanting, and watching service dog trainers in action is far too often a total embarrassment to our profession. Of course, there are also exceptions. For example, guide dogs for blind people are too hard and risky to fake and so most unskilled trainers stay away. But alerts or tasks for everything else are there for the taking. Regardless of having the skill to make it dependable or not. The hardest part is not teaching the dog a task. The challenge is getting the dog to reliably perform it when their person needs their help in a public park or shopping mall.
Service Dog Training Must Be Better
The service dog wash-out rate is problematic and a direct result of inadequate breeding/dog selection and a severe shortage of knowledgeable service dog trainers. This sector must change to start using the highest quality dogs with the most promising genetics to help people who need it the most. People with disabilities have been short-changed for too long. Dog trainers who want to work in this field must strive to become the best trainers in the entire dog training industry, so they can train the best dogs for people who need them.
We are doing our part to drive that change by combining the best possible training with the best possible dogs to help people who need it the most. I hope we will see many other trainers join and try to raise the bar above the entire barrel. There is no shortage of people for whom a service dog would be a life-changer.