If the adage is true that dogs are a man’s best friend, then service dogs are the epitome of that devotion. That’s because these remarkable canines offer support and guidance in ways that go above and beyond the everyday Fido’s call of duty, from acting as their handler’s eyes or ears to warning them of impending medical crises.
While there aren’t any breed requirements for service dogs, some are naturally better prepared to take on this important role’s responsibilities. In general, the best service dog breeds exhibit loyalty, intelligence, and dependability, but every service job requires something a little different.
From Bernese Mountain Dogs to mutts, we’ve outlined the key characteristics of some of the best service dog breeds and the types of work at which they excel.
Defining Service Dogs
A service dog is specially trained to help individuals with disabilities achieve greater independence. They do this by assisting their owners in performing specific functions related to their limitations. There are several types, with some of the most common being:
- Guide dogs, which help blind or visually impaired handlers to navigate their surroundings
- Hearing dogs, which assist deaf or hard-of-hearing handlers by alerting them to essential noises like a crying baby, car horns, or doorbells
- Mobility assistance dogs, which perform tasks like retrieving objects that are out of reach, acting as a brace when their handlers become unsteady on their feet, or operating buttons for automatic doors and elevators
- Medical alert dogs, which make their handlers aware of the possibility of upcoming medical events like hyper- or hypoglycemic (blood sugar that is too high or low) episodes related to diabetes, seizures, or alerting them to the presence of allergens to prevent a life-threatening exposure to the substance
- Psychiatric service dogs, which offer reassurance to handlers suffering from anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They do this by creating physical barriers between handlers and others in public spaces, entering spaces ahead of their handlers, or operating lights so their handlers can see their surroundings
In the United States, registered service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ensuring that they can accompany their owners in almost any public place, from grocery stores to hospitals. The ADA does not recognize other assistance dogs or working dogs, like emotional support or therapy dogs, as service animals, because they lack the specific training required for the service animal qualification.
The 6 Best Service Dog Breeds
Although they come in all shapes and sizes, some popular breeds have developed reputations as great service dogs. A few of the most familiar are:
Bernese Mountain Dogs
Bernese Mountain Dogs are a large breed designed explicitly for hard labor. These gentle giants are smart, affectionate, and want nothing more than to make their humans happy. Their size and disposition make them ideal candidates for work as mobility assistance dogs, though they can easily be trained to perform tasks related to other types of service work, too.
The Border Collie is a high-energy breed that has the honor of being known as the smartest dog. They are extremely easy to train and love working, so the mental stimulation of learning to perform tasks necessary to any line of service work is right up their alley.
The German Shepherd is probably most recognized for its role as a police dog, but also excels in service work. These large dogs are highly regarded for their loyalty, confidence, and intellect — traits that align well with the responsibilities of guide and hearing dogs.
Pomeranians may be large dogs in small dog bodies, but don’t let their small size fool you: They are highly motivated, intelligent, and enjoy working with their humans. The breed’s alert nature lends itself to service work as a medical alert or hearing dog, especially in situations where a larger breed may be hard to accommodate.
Poodles are known for their incredible intelligence and athleticism. The breed is easy to train, eager to please, and thrives on human interaction. They come in a range of sizes, including standard, toy, and miniature, which makes them more versatile than other popular breeds of service dogs. The poodle’s trademark curly coat is low-shedding and consists of hair rather than fur, meaning they are excellent for people with allergies to pet dander.
Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers are among the most popular breeds in the country, and not just for service work. Both are friendly, outgoing, and eager to please their owners or handlers. Their pleasant, easy-going personalities allow them to adapt to unknown environments with ease and bring comfort to their handlers, and their size and strength equip them to manage the physical demands required of a good service dog.
While there are currently 195 breeds of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) — and even more by international entities — the capacity to become an excellent service dog stems far beyond a breed designation (we’re looking at you, mutts!) Any pure or mixed breed can be successful in service work, but not every dog is right for the part. Your Fido may be a great companion, but if he barks at the wind or shies away from new situations, he’s unlikely to be reliable as a service animal — and reliability is key.
Service Dog Training
There are two main avenues for obtaining a service dog: purchasing or adopting a trained dog from a reputable organization, or training a dog yourself. In either case, the process looks something like this.
Step 1 — Identifying a prospect
- A calm, friendly disposition and an eagerness to please
- High intelligence with a strong desire to work
- The ability to learn and retain information with ease
- Confidence and non-reactive alertness to their surroundings and the environment
Dogs that show any aggression should not be considered.
Step 2 — Training
A service dog’s training is an intense, multi-faceted process that begins with socialization, manners, and basic commands. Once these fundamentals are solid, more specific task-oriented training begins to prepare the dog for its future handler’s needs.
There are no formal training requirements in the U.S., but international standards involve 120 hours of training over six months, with a minimum of 30 of these hours in public settings. If a dog is professionally trained by someone else, additional time is needed to acclimate the dog and handler with one another.
Step 3 — Passing a public access test
A Public Access Test (PAT) is used to ensure that your dog meets the predefined social and behavioral standards required of an assistance animal. Most service animal registering organizations use the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) Minimum Training Standards for Public Access to assess a dog’s preparedness to perform as a registered service animal.
Step 4 — Certification and registration
After passing a PAT, your dog becomes eligible for registration as a service animal. Although registration is not required in the U.S. and handlers don’t have to carry or present identification for their service dogs, these documents can be a safeguard against unlawful denials of service or reduce questioning about your animal.
Service dogs can be essential in providing a disabled handler with opportunities for independence. While some breeds are more likely to excel in service work, the best service dogs are simply those that can perform tasks relevant to their handler’s needs.