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Living with a disability of any nature can be challenging, and the support of a well-trained service dog can make a huge difference to a person’s quality of life. But not all dogs make good service dogs; some breeds are better suited to the task than others.
In general, service dogs need to be smart, trainable, and good with people since they can accompany their owners into busy public spaces, restaurants, and even airplanes.
In addition to these key traits, there are other characteristics that make good service dogs. For example, they should be clean and should also look friendly so as to put strangers at ease.
FUN FACT: I raise guide dog puppies and we used to have black and tan labradors in the program. They stopped breeding for this trait because as I heard it they were often mistaken for Rottweilers which made people in public uncomfortable.
In this article, we will go through all the characteristics that you should be looking for in a good service dog, and provide a list of the 10 breeds that best meet these criteria.
SPOILER ALERT: Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are our top pick breeds for service dogs.
Contents & Quick Navigation
What Are Service Dogs?
Service dogs are individual canines that have been specifically trained to work with people with a disability or special needs.
Types of service dogs include guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, mobility assistance dogs, seizure response dogs, and mental health service dogs. These dogs must be allowed into public places, businesses, restaurants, hotels, and airplanes in order to assist their owners.
Emotional support dogs and therapy dogs are not considered service dogs and they do not have the same freedom of access as service dogs. You can find out more about emotional support dogs here.
For more information about the definition of service dogs, you can consult the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Characteristics Of Service Dogs
While any dog can be trained as a service dog, some breeds are better suited to the task than others. This is because service dogs need to possess particular characteristics. These include:
Intelligent And Trainable
Service dogs are often going to be asked to complete complex tasks, such as navigating busy streets full of traffic and picking up on the signs that their owner is having a seizure.
For this reason, they need to be more intelligent than your average dog that can’t stop barking when it sees itself in a mirror because it thinks it is another dog.
Service dogs will also need to be specially trained to complete a variety of complex tasks, so they need to be highly trainable.
There are intelligent dog breeds that are still notoriously difficult to train, as they are highly willful (a bit like a cat), so while smart, these dogs don’t tend to make good service animals.
The difference between an intelligent trainable dog and a lovable derp is that the first can learn a new command within five repetitions and will then respond correctly at least 95 percent of the time.
Lovable derps may need to be shown a command one hundred or two hundred times before it imprints on them, and even then, they may only get it right 60 or 70 percent of the time.
Friendly And Calm Disposition
Service dogs get access to public spaces where other dogs can’t go. This might include shopping centers, which are full of curious children; restaurants, where other patrons aren’t that keen on the presence of a dog; and airplanes, where disruptive behavior can be more than just an annoyance.
As a result, service dogs need to have a calm and friendly demeanor. They can’t be snapping at people who give off a whiff of fear or barking at curious children that get too close.
They can’t get excited and start following other dogs that cross their parts or bark at every cat that they see.
Service dogs should be quite docile and good at getting to know people.
Strangers shouldn’t touch service dogs while they are working, especially without their owner’s permission, these dogs need to be trained for the unexpected.
Normally, if you have a dog that is a bit of a shedder, you can keep them out of certain areas of your home to prevent it from becoming infested with dog hair.
The same thing goes for droolers. You can keep them off the couch and have a special towel on hand to wipe their face before coming in for cuddles.
Service dogs need to be around their owners pretty much 24/7, and where their owners go, they go.
For that reason, dogs that shed a lot of hair (or a lot of drool), don’t make good service dogs as they can bring a lot of mess into both their owner’s space and the spaces of others that they visit with their owner.
QUICK TIP: As a service dog puppy raiser we groom our dogs daily to minimize the amount shed. Regular bathing and daily grooming helps to reduce the amount of fur off the floor.
Strong Work Ethic
While service dogs certainly aren’t working all the time and need to stop for a belly scratch and a play as much as any other, they can be required to work quite long hours; for example, accompanying their owner to work and they need to be switched on all the time.
While they might not technically be working when relaxing at home with their owner, service dogs will still be trained to look out for certain warning signs and respond accordingly if the unexpected happens.
As such, dogs that enjoy work and find completing tasks fulfilling and stimulating make the best service dogs. A dog that looks at you with a lazy yawn when you suggest a walk probably is not going to be up for the job.
Builds Strong Bonds
Not only do service dogs spend a lot of time with their owners, but their owners are dependent on them to complete some of the basic tasks of living.
As such, dogs that quickly form strong bonds with their owners and develop loving and protective demeanors make the best service dogs.
Independent dogs that prefer to do their own thing and only show affection around mealtimes aren’t the best choice.
10 Best Service Dog Breeds
Exactly which breeds of dog make the best service dogs depends on what tasks they are going to be asked to complete.
More task-oriented dogs will do better as guide dogs as they are often required to work continuously for several hours each day.
Dogs that are more in tune with the emotions of their owner are better able to pick up on subtle changes in behavior and make better mental health animals.
But, as a general rule, the following 10 dog breeds all make excellent service dogs as they are intelligent, trainable, and personable and will enjoy the challenges and rewards of supporting an owner that they have developed a deep bond with.
Our list only includes pure-bred dogs as their characteristics are more predictable.
There are cross-bred dogs that also make great service animals, but this generally needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis as there is no predicting how character traits will manifest in crossbred dogs.
1. Labrador Retriever
Labrador Retrievers are highly intelligent and extremely friendly, a great combination for any service dog breed.
They will learn new tasks quickly and are always sure to conduct themselves well in public situations.
They also form strong bonds with their owners, so they will love being at their side all day, even if that means sitting under a desk for a few hours.
Labradors are a good choice for pretty much any type of service work, and they are one of the best choices for mobility-impaired owners.
This is because they have soft mouths, which allow them to pick up items for their human companions without damaging them.
If shedding is an issue, consider a Labradoodle, which shouldn’t shed much, but their characteristics are less predictable than those of pure labs.
2. Golden Retriever
Golden Retrievers share a lot of the same characteristics as Labrador Retrievers.
They are smart, friendly, easy to train, and enjoy working with their owner, making them another great choice for pretty much any type of service dog work.
Dogs of the size of Labs and Goldens also make good service dogs as they have the strength to put in a full day of work with their owner.
Something else about Golden Retrievers is that they look friendly, so they are unlikely to alarm other people when out and about, which can be the root cause of any problems that do occur.
This is why Pitbulls haven’t made it onto our list. While they are highly trainable and have the temperament to do service dog work, a lot of people are afraid of this breed, which brings its own set of troubles.
We love Pitbulls, but a few years back we spoke to one service dog organization asking why they didn’t use Pitbulls in their program and they told us that their liability insurance would not cover the breed.
3. German Shepherd
While some people can find the size of German Shepherds intimidating, they still make great service dogs.
They are usually associated with being guard dogs or police dogs, functions that require many of the same characteristics as service dogs: they need to be smart, easy to train, and well behaved.
German Shepherds are a good choice when a larger dog is needed, for example, such as supporting a mobility-impaired person. Their owner can lean on them in case of emergencies.
They also have a great sense of smell, which makes them perfect for monitoring blood sugar levels and supporting diabetic owners.
While popular culture might leave many of us thinking of poodles as little lap dogs that fussy owners like to dress up, they, in fact, make excellent service dogs.
Unlike many breeds that were developed to work, Poodles were bred to be companion dogs, so they are highly friendly, personable, and bond well with people.
They are also one of the smartest dogs around, making them simple and easy to train.
The other great thing about Poodles is that they come in a variety of different sizes.
If you need a dog to be on their feet all day working, a larger Standard Poodle is a great choice. But if you live in a small apartment and need a dog that can go around town with you, a smaller Miniature or Toy Poodle can fit the bill perfectly.
5. Border Collie
Border Collies have adorable smiles, which would be enough to make them an excellent service animal, but there is a lot more to these pooches.
These dogs are highly intelligent and a breeze to train, and they just love learning and having tasks to complete.
We will mention quite a few times in this list how service dogs need to get on in a crowd, but for some people, it is just them and their canine friend in a more remote setting.
Border Collies are great for this type of arrangement as they have high energy and are highly reliable.
6. Great Dane
Great Danes are big strong dogs that can complete tasks that others can’t.
This is why, like Dalmations, they are often used in roles such as fire dogs. They are intelligent, easy to train, and loving with a sweet demeanor.
This can make them excellent service dogs for individuals who need both physical and emotional support. They can rely on these loveable giants for both.
Great Danes also have an ability to remain focused on their owners and their task in the face of all kinds of distractions.
One organization called Service Dog Project uses Great Danes exclusively for their mobility assistance dogs.
7. Bernese Mountain Dogs
Whenever I think of a Bernese Mountain Dog, I think of a dog with a little cask of whiskey around its neck out in the snow saving fallen travelers.
Bernese can complete this task, but also may more. They are intelligent, trainable, and friendly, making them ideal for most service dog work.
While these dogs will struggle inside a small apartment, if you live in colder climes where snow is a part of life, Bernese Mountain Dogs make excellent service workers.
As well as being intelligent, Bloodhounds are calm, loyal, and affectionate, making them ideal for service dog companions.
This is another breed with a very strong sense of smell, which means that they can detect problematic blood sugar levels for diabetics with ease.
The main downside with this breed is that they can be a little on the lazy side, so they are better suited to people with a less active lifestyle.
Boxers are another breed that has all the characteristics to be great service dogs.
They are smart, trainable, and friendly, and they know how to behave in a crowd.
They aren’t often used in this capacity, again because of how they look. They just don’t put strangers at ease the same way as a Lab or a Golden, despite being incredibly good nature.
These adorable balls of fur are probably not the first breed that comes to mind when thinking about service dogs, but these smart little dogs are great for performing tasks when owners don’t require physical support.
They love having a task to do and can be great support companions for diabetics or mild mental health sufferers.
They can be an excellent alternative for people who need support, but don’t have space for a large dog.
Service Dogs FAQs
What Conditions Can Service Dogs Be Used For?
Service dogs can be used for any person who has a disability, including visual or hearing impairment, mental illness (including PTSD), seizures mobility impairment, or diabetes.
Normally, owners must be at least 12 years of age, with the exception of some children with autism.
Do Service Dogs Require Identification?
While Service Dogs do need to be officially registered, it is not required to carry any official identification for the service dog on a daily basis, and they do not need to wear anything that indicates that they are a service dog.
What Questions Can People Ask About Service Dogs?
In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
While any dog can be trained to perform the function of a service dog, they do need some key characteristics such as being smart, trainable, personable, and clean.
This means that some breeds are more well-suited to the job than others.
You will often see Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers working as service dogs as they have all the necessary characteristics.
They are also big enough to help their owner physically if necessary, and they look friendly, which means that they put strangers at ease.
There are a variety of other breeds that also make good service dogs, and these can be great choices for different situations.
For example, Poodles and Pomeranians are both highly intelligent and can be great service animals for people confined by compartment living.
Others that may need more physical support can benefit from the presence of a Great Dane or Bernese Mountain Dog.
The ideal working dog depends on the individual and their specific support needs.
Do you have a service dog?
If so, what breed is your service dog?
Tell us about your dog in the comment section below.
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Top Picks For Our Dogs
- BEST PUPPY TOY
We Like: Snuggle Puppy w/ Heart Beat & Heat Pack - Perfect for new puppies. We get all of our Service Dog pups a Snuggle Puppy.
- BEST CHEW TOY
We Like: KONG Extreme - Great toy for heavy chewers like our Labrador Retrievers.
- BEST DOG TREATS
We Like: Wellness Soft Puppy Bites - One of our favorite treats for training our service dog puppies.
- BEST FRESH DOG FOOD
We Like: The Farmer's Dog - A couple months ago we started feeding Raven fresh dog food and she loves it! Get 50% off your first order of The Farmer's Dog.
For a list of all the supplies we get for our new service dog puppies check out our New Puppy Checklist on the PuppyInTraining.com blog.