“Adopt don’t shop” is a phrase that has been circulating for as long as I can remember. I used to say it, too. I thought that with so many dogs without homes, breeding only added to the problem. Many dogs went through “the system” at the shelter I worked at, and it broke my heart to see the sadness in their faces. It was worse when their family dropped them off to find them a new home. I really wanted to see these dogs homed before I saw new puppies being born.
After learning more about the industry, I changed my mind on the matter. The shelter I worked at was part of a vet clinic, and I met and spoke with many breeders who explained that their love for the breed had no impact on the homes of shelter dogs. In fact, their breeding practices actually reduced the chances of their dogs ending up in shelters.
The majority of breeders I have met had a single goal in mind: to improve and maintain a standard in the lineage of their breed of choice to ensure healthy, happy dogs. Looking back, they were right. I very rarely saw purebred dogs in the shelter. I know many cases where a breeder stepped in to help one of their families who were struggling. They wanted the best for their dogs, and went out of their way when problems arose to ensure the dogs were taken care of.
How to decide?
I was overwhelmed with how much there was to consider when it came to choosing a dog to work with. Whether you are self-training or having a trainer do the work for you, there is a significant amount of time and money involved. It can be very frustrating to spend so much time and effort only to have the dog wash for something that could have been prevented. For some people, there is no do-over.
Whether due to health or financial reasons, not everyone can go through the process multiple times. The goal is to get it right the first time, if possible, to ensure that the recipient of this dog can be taken care of sooner. This is the entire point of getting a service dog. Getting it wrong can be detrimental to the health of the handler, as well as the dog.
There are always many things to consider when getting a pet, but there’s more to consider when the dog has a job to do. It’s important to make a list of tasks you want your dog to perform prior to considering the breeds that might be best suited for the job.
Things to consider include:
Will the dog need public access?
Dogs in public need to be solid. They need to be able to be in any situation unflinchingly, and need to be calm. If there are children or other animals around, the service animal needs to stay focused on the handler.
Will the dog be performing mobility work? If so, how much?
Mobility work can be hard on their joints. Proper mobility equipment can be expensive, and x-rays need to be performed to ensure that the animal’s health is maintained to prevent them from getting hurt. If there is a history of hip dysplasia or other joint or soft tissue disorders in the animal, mobility work should not be considered.
Will they be living with other animals and children?
A service dog may be distracted by other pets and children, and generally have more expected of them than pets. Will this dog be able to stay focused with these distractions?
Does the dog have physical labor to perform, or does it need to lay quietly much of the time?
A “sleepy puppy” is great for people who have desk jobs, or for PTSD work. A high-drive dog may struggle with this kind of work and would excel more from performing mobility and retrieval work.
There is a certain stigma against shelter dogs in that they are unpredictable or abused. This isn’t always the case, however. Many shelter dogs can and do make amazing service dogs, for the right situations.
Benefits of shelter dogs
– The “feel good” knowing you adopted a life in need
– They’ll have been vet checked and likely altered already, or have the alteration covered
– Many rescue groups know the dogs well enough to help place them in appropriate homes
– Their adoption cost is often significantly less than buying from a breeder
– If the dog is older, you can get a better idea of the dog’s personality
– Many shelters will take a dog back if they are not a good match to the home
Challenges of shelter dogs
– They may act differently in your home than they do at the shelter
– Most shelter breeds are unknown, and even with genetic testing, breeds can only be guessed at. Genetic testing is not fault-proof.
– The health and genetic record is unknown, and some genetic issues do not show up until later in the dog’s life.
– There may be unknown triggers that may not show up until much later
– While shelter dogs can and will bond to their new owners, that bond may not be as strong as one created with a younger puppy
– Getting an older dog may mean missing out on some of the foundation skills that can be trained as a puppy
– Un-training skills and habits is much harder than training them to begin with
– Dogs altered too early may be at greater risk for specific health issues
As with the consideration for shelter dogs, it’s important to think about the pros and cons of buying from a breeder, as well.
Benefits of breeders
– Meeting the parents of the puppies can give you an idea of what the pup will grow up like
– Seeing the environment they are raised in and meeting the people raising them
– Molding the puppy right from the start
– The breed is guaranteed
– Good breeders will have carefully documented health and genetics history, which reduces the chance of health issues
– Respectable breeders will take a puppy back if it doesn’t work out
– Reputable breeders will have a health guarantee
Challenges with breeders
– Price of pure breed puppies are often significantly higher than shelter dogs
– The price of altering and all other vet bills can be costly
– Puppies are difficult and exhausting to raise
– Neglecting training can cause problems down the road that are harder to correct
My Own Challenges
When it came to me choosing a dog to work with, there were many challenges. I made my list of needs, and then breeds that I thought would be well suited. Due to the need for mobility work, I decided that the health history and genetic lineage was needed to make sure my dog had the best possible health, and I started my search for a breeder to work with.
I couldn’t find a shepherd breeder that had an upcoming litter that I wanted to work with, however. Some breeders had the wrong working drive (protection) while others wouldn’t allow us to visit to meet the parents, which was important to me. I could have waited longer for a litter, but decided to branch out and explore other breeds.
All of the Labrador retrievers I had ever met were high strung and too high energy, and I did not believe they were the right dog for me. When we met the parents for Tzila, however, my mind changed quickly. They seemed to be exactly what I was looking for in regards to temperament and energy. They were well balanced, smart and focused. Her breeder, Buck Mountain Labradors, kept careful health and lineage records. She also worked with me to compromise Tzila’s spay date in order to ensure proper growth and long term joint health.
The apple didn’t fall from the tree at all – Tzila has the same energy, drive and focus that her parents did. While she is a bit shorter than I had originally been looking for, she is perfect for my needs in every other way.
Which one is best?
Choosing the right dog for service work can be difficult. A trainer can to perform a behavioral assessment to help you decide. Be prepared for other people to voice their opinion on your choice! There are pros and cons to each decision, and challenges will arise no matter how prepared you are for it. Knowing what you are looking in terms of energy and temperament can help make the decision a bit easier, before the real work begins. At the end of the day, you should decide what’s right for you and your lifestyle. Every dog might be cute, but might not be suited best for your needs. Ultimately, though, the final decision really depends on your needs and personal preferences.
Krystal is Caroline’s shadow, often getting in the way in order to get perfect, or at least decent photo or video of Caroline and her dogs. She balances somewhere between too much coffee and not nearly enough. To be honest, she doesn’t actually balance well at all. Humor is her favorite medicine, but a shot of rum is sometimes just what the doctor told her to avoid but she did it anyways. You’ll find her bio in the “About Us” section.