The two most important things to us are health testing and temperament, and you need to have both to be a successful service dog. A dog with terrific health but poor temperament will not make it as a service dog. Neither will a dog with poor health but terrific temperament.
Since we are getting a golden retriever, we looked at:
Where to find your future service dog
Giving a dog a second chance is what rescue is all about. People like the warm fuzzies from “saving a life” but so many get caught up in the dog’s back story that they don’t allow the dog to move forward. For pet dogs, going with a rescue is fine, but I do not recommend searching for your next SD in a rescue. You need to know health, temperament, and history of the specific breeder lines for your dog to excel at their career. Many dogs start with a honeymoon period of a few weeks, and you do not see their true selves until after that. I have been told that, “As a professional dog trainer, you should be able to take any dog and make him a service dog.” This is far from true. And even dogs who are specially bred do not always make it as a service dog.
Once you have decided on a certain breed (for us, it was Golden Retriever), you may be tempted to look into breed rescue (or Golden Retriever rescue groups). Remember, service dogs are not rehab projects, and we do not want to start with behavior challenges already, nor do we want health challenges. Since we do not know the history, breeder, or health testing, we are not doing with breed rescue. Plus, many times they have ridiculous rules you must abide by, including the dog cannot have a job at all – even therapy work, and for many, you must have a fenced yard.
If you are set on adopting a dog to be your service dog, make sure the dog is young and that you can return the dog within a month or two if it does not work. You will not receive your money back, but you need time to see how the dog will be with you and your household, time to take the dog to your veterinarian for hip preliminaries and structural examination.
We lived in Gainesville for 10 years, and there were no pet stores that sold dogs or cats (they just had rescue adoptions). It is rather a foreign concept for me that pet stores not only sell puppies, but that people buy them. Here is the truth about where your pet store puppy came from – they came from a puppy mill. The mom was kept in a small crate and produces litter after litter which are taken away too young and shipped to pet stores. Many times these puppies are sick and have behavior and medical issues that are deep rooted and hard to rehab.
Now, I have had someone tell me that they got their dog from a pet store, but it was from a good breeder. Those two things do not go together. A good breeder never places a puppy in a pet store to be sold. NEVER. Do not support puppy mills, do not purchase puppies from pet stores.
This is when one owner says to the other “I have a (blank) breed. You have a (blank) breed. Let’s make puppies!” There is no health testing done, and little regard for temperament. Their veterinarian may have said the dogs are healthy, but they did not get hips, elbows, eyes, and heart tested beforehand. Many backyard breeders sell their puppies on craigslist or in the newspaper.
This is what I recommend for service dogs. Reputable breeders do health testing. They have their dog’s hips and elbows x-rayed and sent in for evaluations and listed on OFA.org. Depending on their breed, they do other appropriate health testing as well. For goldens, you look for hips, elbows, heart, and eyes. And temperament is key. You want a breeder who has produced service dogs and therapy dogs in the past. Talk to the breeder about it, ask them to help choose your dog and what you will need the dog for. You want to see the parent on site, and your breeder should answer all of your questions. If they get defensive, refuse to answer, or do not want you to see the parent in house, move on.
Some breeders donate puppies as service dog candidates. However, this may be because they couldn’t place those puppies, so be sure to do your research. And remember, health testing and health clearances first.
Where did we search for breeders? We searched for reputable breeders thru AKC breed clubs, local AKC clubs, online searches, and golden retriever friends and clients. We checked websites and contacted the breeders we liked, inquiring on upcoming litters. Then we checked the parents on OFA.org and K9Data.com. We looked at the pedigree of the mom (dam) and dad (sire) and printed each of these up. We researched and made notations regarding testing outcome, death age and reason.
Once we had that information, we talked to the breeders. Have they had dogs used as service dogs and therapy dogs in the past? What “feel” did we get from each other?
The breeder we chose to go with had dogs living 13+ years. Some dogs did have eye issues, when they were 10 years old or so. We trained one of her puppies last year, and I fell in love with that dog. When speaking with Kaila, our veterinarian, trainer, and friend, she mentioned the same breeder. Her friend has one of her puppies and the dog is amazing. Ideally, we wanted an excellent/excellent hip pairing, with no eye issues and longevity. However, the excellent/excellent, excellent/good, and good/good pairings that we found had eye concerns on both side. So it was a trade off – good/fair hip pair with great elbows, eyes, heart, temperament, and no cancer in the lines. We will do all we can to keep our puppy healthy and prevent issues before they arise.
When looking for a puppy, or a breeder, do not look for “rare” or “we breed for certain color eyes” or “certain coat color.” Remember, health and temperament are key.
Male or Female
This is usually a matter of personal choice. We are getting a female because Arrow is intact and he gets along better with girls. We will not breed them together, but intact animals can co-exist without reproducing.
I am a firm believer in keeping your dog intact for as long as possible. At the very least, wait until they are a year old, but studies have shown health benefits if you wait until they are two years old or so. Do you feel comfortable when your female goes into heat?
For most (all?) breeds, the males are larger than the females. This may be a deciding factor for getting a male. Do not worry about marking and humping, as those happen if you allow it.
Look at your lifestyle and what dog would fit best. Do you want a small, medium, large, or extra-large size? A smooth coat, long coat, or somewhere in between? Do you want to bring your non-shedding dog to the groomer every 4-6 weeks? What climate do you live? How active are you? What do you do for fun? How much time can you give your dog?
One of the reasons we are getting a golden retriever – besides the fact that they are amazing dogs with awesome temperaments – is that I can recommend them to pretty much everyone. When I am out with Arrow, people see how calm and attentive he is, and they want one. But I do not recommend a Belgian Malinois to anyone (unless you are a professional trainer and can give your dog the extensive work and exercise they require). Be honest with yourself and your abilities. Most people who need a service dog need a dog they can easily train and easily handle, which is why my standard suggestion is a golden retriever.
Check out our blog How to Pick Your Future Service Dog for how to pick your pup from the litter.