Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers may be the most commonly used breeds for assistance dogs, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to one of these two, or that one of them is the perfect partner for you. Many breeds can perform certain types of service work, and a number of physical and temperamental breed characteristics factor in to which type makes a suitable match for your situation.
Here are some important considerations in choosing an assistance dog breed:
Size at maturity is the single greatest physical variable among dog breeds, ranging from the highly portable toy breeds to massive Mastiffs and Great Danes. If your assistance dog will pull a wheelchair, provide steadying support, or otherwise need sturdiness to do its work, obviously a larger breed is in order.
As a general rule of thumb, an assistance dog who pulls a child or petite woman in a wheelchair should be at least 22 inches tall and 55 pounds; a dog who pulls someone over 130 pounds should weigh at least 60 pounds. Dogs who support walkers must typically be at least 23 inches tall for use with a harness or at least 27 to 30 inches tall without one.
Besides the dog’s physical capabilities, think about the living and outdoor spaces you have available, how you’ll transport your dog, and other ways in which her size is relevant to your situation.
All dogs require grooming, but all breeds aren’t created equal in this respect. For example, dogs with longer hair or thick undercoats need more frequent brushing or combing to prevent tangles and matting. Sometimes this can mean a commitment of a few hours per week. Certain breeds, including the most commonly used Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, are known for that infamous “wet dog smell,” and need to be bathed or deodorized much more often than others.
Proper grooming is important for your dog’s well-being, for facing less resistance in certain public situations, and for combating the unfortunate misconception that people with disabilities can’t provide quality care for their service animals. If you’re unable or unwilling to devote the time and attention to your dog’s grooming needs, will you take the time and pay the costs of having a professional do so? Make sure you select a breed whose care needs you can tend to.
Personality and Temperament
There are plenty of things to think about in this category. For instance, some breeds are more independent than others; how much “lap time” will you have for your assistance dog? Some are far more active than others, too. Can you provide adequate indoor and outdoor space, interactive play, extended walks, trips to a dog park, or other exercise and activity for a highly active breed? If your dog needs more attention or physical stimulation than you can provide, behavioral problems are likely to result.
Dogs historically bred to hunt, guard, fight, or protect herds are more prone to aggression than others, and this is definitely not a positive trait for an assistance dog who’ll probably have to be in public often. Some breeds are renowned for their gentility, and others their loyalty. However, keep in mind that certain traits generally considered desirable aren’t necessarily ideal in service dogs. An overly protective sense of loyalty, for example, might prompt your assistance dog to interfere with someone trying to come to your aid in public, should something ever happen.
Genetic breed traits have significant bearing on temperament, longevity, general health, and predisposition to numerous diseases. Look into the average lifespan of the breeds you’re considering, as they can range from just several years to well into the teens. As a generalization, larger breeds have shorter lives of up to about 10 to 12 years at maximum, while medium and smaller breeds tend to live longer.
Different dog breeds are prone to different diseases with strong genetic factors, too. Some breeds, including many large ones, are likely to develop arthritis in later years, which can severely diminish their mobility and ability to physically aid you. Research the genetic predispositions of any breed you’re considering.
Work with a Reputable Provider
A reputable assistance dog breeder or trainer will be a great help in partnering you with the perfect assistance dog. They’ll offer sage advice about what breed should work best for you and your situation, and they’ll be able to pair you with an ideal individual from that breed.