(Or a breeder for any type of dog, for that matter!)
If you’re reading this article, you may already know that genetics play a critical role in increasing the chances of your service dog prospect becoming a successful service dog. There are three influences on a dog’s behavior: genetics, past experiences, and their current environment. Because of this, choosing a good breeder and/or service dog prospect gives you valuable information about genetics and past experiences, helping you better predict future behavior.
Each puppy also has a critical socialization period that starts around 3 weeks and ends as early as 12-14 weeks. This means that the majority of your puppy’s critical socialization period happens while your puppy is still with the breeder. Because this period potentially sets your puppy up to be comfortable with novelty, such as under-footings, sights, sounds, etc., finding a breeder that maximizes this time-period in your puppy’s life is in your best interest.
Poodle puppies being exposed to a variety of new textures in their playpen. Photo Credit: https://mojazzpoodles.com/
Dog temperaments exist on a spectrum and we can shift those traits somewhat with training and socialization, but we can’t completely change who the dog is. It’s entirely possible for someone to raise a dog with all the best socialization experiences and training, and for that dog to not meet basic criteria for public access work due to its underlying temperament. In the same way, it’s possible with good genetics, for a dog to be raised in less-than-ideal circumstances and have that dog still be a viable candidate for service dog work. This is all to say that both genetics and the first eight weeks of life matter a great deal when selecting a breeder for your service dog prospect.
It’s so difficult as a service dog trainer to watch a client have to career-change (wash) a service dog prospect when they’ve spent so much of their time, resources, and emotions on preparing that dog for service work, when that dog just wasn’t the right fit for the job. My goal with this article is to give you the best possible chance for your service dog prospect to successfully become a service dog.
Each breeder’s experience with producing service dogs varies greatly. Many breeders do not know what goes into creating a service dog, and are unable to make meaningful recommendations when it comes to helping you select a prospect. That doesn’t necessarily make them a bad breeder! While some breeders have produced many service dogs in their lines, other breeders have never raised and trained a service dog. Many excellent breeders will prefer to work with your trainer for input on picking out the best prospect from their litters.
Photo Credit: https://mountainlauralgoldens.com/
It’s in your best interest to get a service dog trainer on board from the very beginning to help you not only evaluate breeds and breeders, but also evaluate litters for suitability when working with breeders who have less experience in the service dog training process. That being said, breeders with a lot of service dog experience can be valuable resources in helping you choose a prospect amongst their litters, or choosing one for you.
Backyard Breeders and Puppy Mills
There are “breeders” out there that are primarily trying to make a quick buck off of poorly bred dogs. They are essentially puppy producing factories with little to no care taken with the quality of life of the parents, or the quality of the raising of young puppies. Some are easy to spot, but others will go to great lengths to make it look like they don’t have unethical breeding practices. Remember that a dog with “papers” or “registered” dog does not necessarily mean that it is a well-bred dog.
Really good breeders are actually making very little off the sale of their puppies once you factor in titling the parents, health testing the parents, medical care for the mom and puppies, and proper socialization of the puppies, which is incredibly time intensive. We will return to qualities that would disqualify a breeder from consideration later with a list of red flags to watch out for when choosing a breeder.
Before Choosing a Breeder, You Must Select an Appropriate Breed
Before researching and reaching out to breeders, we first need to choose the right breed for the work you’re asking the dog to do. While every dog should be taken as an individual, there’s a reason why Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, and (further down on the list) Poodles are used for most service work. They are generally ideal candidates for work such as psychiatric service dog work due to their more calm, flexible, and forgiving nature. They also excel at mobility and other forms of service work due to their versatility, biddability, and natural retrieve.
German Shepherd Dogs are also sometimes chosen for more active service dog work, like guiding, but any herding dog can come with genetic traits that are less ideal for certain types of service work, such as psychiatric service dogs, due to their natural tendency towards vigilance, which can adversely affect the work. I’m not saying here that there aren’t great German Shepherd Dogs in the psychiatric service dog field, just that the likelihood of finding one with the correct qualities for the work within any given litter, and being able to pick that temperament out at 8 weeks, is typically lower than in other breeds that are typically used for service work.
German Shepherd Guide Dog in Harness. Photo Credit: Sue DeMaio
The above breeds of dog typically have higher rates of success when taken as a whole, and when you’re putting significant time, money, and effort into training your service dog prospect, you want to give yourself the best chance possible to succeed. That being said, it is worth pointing out that even organizations that have been breeding dogs specifically for a certain type of service work for the last 50 years typically have about a 30-70% success rate overall. Not every dog makes it within the program! Breeding and raising a suitable service dog prospect is difficult, and the more you can do to foster the best outcome possible for yourself, the better off you will be!
Also, remember that breeds that are typically used for service dog work will have a larger variety of breeders that have successful service dogs in the lines. Those more popular breeds will also offer a variety of breeders and locations within the country that give you the broadest choice of lines within the breed.
When we’re looking at what a service dog should behave like, we want to remember that our goal is to get a prospect that has a stable temperament, that is comfortable in all environments, comfortable with novelty, and around people and other dogs. We also want a dog that is resilient and possesses mental fortitude. Each of these traits has a significant genetic component. We also are looking for a structurally sound, healthy dog, who is physically capable of doing the tasks we will be training the dog to do.
So now that we have these goals in mind, here’s some things to consider when choosing a breeder.
Gochee Lab puppies in an interactive socialization pen where they can experience new sights, sounds, textures, and puzzles to solve. Video Credit: https://www.gocheelabs.com/
Choosing a Breeder
We want a breeder that’s interested in preservation of the breed. We want breeders that are interested in breeding a better-quality dog each time they decide to breed a litter, and/or breeding dogs that get closer and closer to the breed standard. Some breeders choose to breed as close to the conformation breed standard as possible while others will breed for specific traits or function (ie. field bred Labradors for hunting). Some will breed dual-purpose dogs, meant to be conformationally correct for the show ring, as well as perform the work the dog was originally bred for. For your goals, the type of breeder you choose comes down to personal choice and preferences. But remember, a breeder should always be looking to better their lines through thoughtful and deliberate breeding.
So, when looking for the right breeder, the first non-negotiable criteria should be health. While health issues can crop up even with the most well-bred dog, having health-tested parents can help avoid common health problems within the breed and make sure the breeder isn’t perpetuating these issues in their lines.
You want to make sure the breeder is doing all appropriate health testing for the breed on both parents. You can find a list of health screening recommendations by breed here. This usually includes a minimum of OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) testing of hips and usually elbows. Within the realm of health testing, ideally the breeder is also doing genetic screening for common health issues for that breed. Genetic testing has come a long way in the past few years and can help breeders make decisions to not breed carriers of certain diseases to each other.
After health screening criteria is met, I use several other criteria that help make a decision about whether to pursue a relationship with a particular breeder. While not all good breeders will meet all of these criteria, look for a breeder who meets the majority of them.
Ideal Breeder Traits:
Raises the puppies using ENS (early neurological stimulation)
Raises puppies using Puppy Culture or a similar extensive socialization protocol
Puppies are raised inside the home to increase exposure to daily life
Has successful service dogs in the line, ideally dogs doing the same work you’re looking for your prospect to do
Starts the puppies on crate training, potty training, and separation training prior to going home to their new family
Breeder has a policy for taking the puppy back throughout the life of the dog so that in a worst-case scenario their dog won’t end up in a shelter/bad situation
References from people who have puppies from the breeder, ideally from other service dog handlers
Titles on the parents ie. Hunt testing for hunting dogs, conformation, or other applicable sports for your lifestyle/needs such as obedience or agility if you’re also going to be playing dog sports with your dog. Canine Good Citizen testing is also nice to see.
Breeder knows their dogs well, and keeps in contact with puppy buyers through platforms such as facebook groups etc.
Breeder sells dogs with spay/neuter contract for the procedure to take place between 14-24 months, once the puppy is fully mature
Some good breeders will also stack (photograph the puppy from the side in a standing position) the puppies to show how their conformation is developing
Breeder does some variation of standardized puppy testing to help make good matches between new puppy parent and puppy
If the breeder meets the majority of the above criteria, you’re probably on the right track!
Exposing young puppies to car rides prior to going to their new homes. Photo Credit https://mojazzpoodles.com/
Contacting the Breeder
Next, it’s time to contact the breeder. Breeders are busy people so expect that it might take a little while to get back to you. In the meantime, follow them on social media, as well as follow handlers of dogs that come from that breeder. When they do get back to you, if possible, meet the parents (not always possible for the male if it’s an outside breeding). Get a sense of the space the puppies will be raised in, even if it’s only by Zoom. Consider spending time going to breed shows or events that the breeder attends. Meet as many dogs from the breeder as possible.
If you mutually decide that this breeder is the right one for you, expect that there may be a long waitlist for a puppy from that breeder. Use that time to build a relationship with the breeder by following them and interacting with their social media, asking if they have a Facebook page for perspective owners and current owners, and watching them compete if they are actively showing their dogs. Just be careful not to annoy them with excessive emails.
Shaping a young puppy to “go to place” and lay down. Shaping behavior with young puppies helps increase their problem solving skills, and is an important tool for shaping future service dog tasks. Video credit: https://www.gocheelabs.com/
What a Responsible Breeder Will Do
Responsible breeders will screen all candidates thoroughly before agreeing to sell a puppy, including a thorough application and possibly vet and trainer references. The application process can be lengthy in both scope and time. It may feel like the breeder is suspicious of you, but in fact, good breeders want to know if their puppies are a good fit for your home.
Many good breeders do not work on a “first come, first serve” basis but instead take your needs/lifestyle into account, puppy-test the litter, and select a dog (or a few) that best fit your needs. If you are allowed to pick your puppy, get your service dog trainer on board, or a trainer in the area that offers litter testing to help you select the right puppy for your needs, while also gaining as much information from the breeder as possible. Some breeders will video their puppy testing. Have your service dog trainer review those tests to help make recommendations. While puppy testing is not necessarily predictive, or a guarantee of a service dog quality animal, they will give you information about the puppy and rule out puppies that are showing any behavior that would run counter to your goals.
Early crate training experiences can help smooth the transition to their new homes.
Photo credit: https://www.gocheelabs.com/
Buying a well-bred dog is an investment. A well-bred dog can also save you thousands in medical expenses and training down the line. Expect to pay between $1500 and $4000 for a prospect, depending on your area of the country and the breed you choose. Remember to also factor in transportation, vet, and training costs into your budget.
Breeder Red Flags
As promised, I also want to go over some factors that should disqualify a breeder from your consideration:
Did you find this breeder on craigslist, or a sign on a light pole? Run!
Always having puppies available (this can be a sign of overbreeding. Good breeders typically have very carefully planned litters, as raising a litter to a high standard takes a lot of time and energy, so multiple litters can be difficult to manage)
Having multiple types of puppies available (most breeders choose to breed one or two breeds of dogs)
Sending puppies home too early. Puppies should never be sent home before 7 weeks and ideally at 8-10 weeks of age.
Allowing a female to have more than 4-5 litters
Breeding females on their first heat
Breeding dogs that are younger than 2 years. Some health testing cannot be done prior to two years old, nor is the dog likely proven as a good candidate for breeding before two years old
Breeding for appearances or color outside of breed standard
Not forthcoming with documentation of health testing for the parents. A good breeder should be able to easily send you the dog’s lineage as well as health testing
Not allowing you to meet the parents or see the facilities the puppies will be raised in, even just by video conference
Not being able to tell you details about the personalities of their dogs. Likewise, using generic descriptions of puppy temperaments (i.e. “likes to play and cuddle”)
Dogs sold without a spay/neuter contract OR with a 6 month spay/neuter contract (before the dog is physically and sexually mature). Most breeders will require proof of spay/neuter after an agreed upon age, ideally between 14-24 months.
Requiring you to pick in an order based on deposit submission dates
Is actively on social media bashing other breeders
Does not allow your deposit to be held and transferred to a future litter
So where should you look to find breeders?
Ask your trainer for breeders that they have had success with or have had other trainers use for service dog candidates. Most service dog trainers will have a list of breeders they have personally worked with or meet most of the above criteria.
Online searches for your breed and the word “Puppy Culture” or “Early Neurological Stimulation” is usually a good start
Ask for the breeder of current working service dogs that you admire and believe fit your temperament goals
Check out Facebook groups such as Uncensored Opinions of Breeders
Early sound exposure to the piano mat. Photo credit: https://mojazzpoodles.com/
Finally, I want to end with some tips I’ve learned over the years that will help you in your search:
The best breeders aren’t always in your state. You may need to expand your search and budget for costs associated with travel to check out a few of your potential breeders, and/or transport of the puppy.
Don’t be in a hurry! You’re making a 10-15 year commitment and investing in essentially a piece of medical equipment that will likely change your life and increase your independence. Don’t rush it because you saw a cute puppy and you need to have it even though it doesn’t meet your criteria.
Don’t pick out a dog because you like the dog’s color, or the way it looks
Beware of breeders who say that all puppies in a litter are service dog prospects, or that with training, any puppy can be a service dog. This is not true. Most litters have some variability and not all of the dogs will be service dog quality. Some will be best suited for sport or pet homes.
Try to meet dogs at different ages that come from those lines, or that specific breeder.
I want to reiterate that good breeders will often have a waiting list and may only breed once a year or less. Start doing research way before you’re ready to welcome a prospect into your home.
Good breeders will often help choose the dog for you after temperament testing at 7-8 weeks of age. Good breeders don’t usually distribute puppies on a “first come, first serve” basis.
Good breeders will tell you the good, and the bad within their lines. Appreciate honesty. Breeders that don’t believe their dogs have positive AND less than ideal attributes can be problematic. No dog is perfect, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be an awesome fit for your family.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If answers to those questions feel off, check with your trainer, but don’t be afraid to walk away. This is a big commitment and you want to feel good about the breeder and puppy you’re taking home.
Assess whether or not you feel comfortable with this breeder. If something just doesn’t feel right, move on to the next breeder. You’re essentially entering into a relationship and a contract with this person and you want to feel confident doing so.
With all that being said, I want to be clear that even if you follow all of these recommendations outlined here, your prospect may still not be the right fit for service dog work. Service dogs are the rocket scientists and Olympic athletes of the dog world. Not everyone is cut out for those jobs, and that’s okay. Anytime you purchase a young puppy there is some amount of “rolling the dice” that you’re doing. However, by following the recommendations above, you are setting yourself up to stack as many cards in your favor as possible to reach your service dog goals. ***
If you’re looking for additional free resources on how to train your new service dog prospect, start with this video below and be sure to check out the DoggyU Community!
*photo credits are not an endorsement of particular breeders. Do your research when choosing the right breeder for you. *