Mobility SDs Committed Canine 2015

Working With A Mobility Service Dog

  When selecting the right breed as your service dog, there are factors that are more important than the size of the dog.  A Mastiff or Great Dane may seem the right choice for a larger- build person who hopes to use the dog for mobility issues, but size, alone, is not the most important quality.  Desire to please, willingness to learn, dedication to a task and to the partnership are truly critical attributes of a Service Dog.  The dog must be stable minded.  It must not be overly reactive to changes in the environment.  It cannot trigger on “perceived” threats or have a strong desire to hunt or chase small animals.  It should not have a strong, natural guarding instinct.  It must be intelligent and biddable.  It must ache to assist a human, sometimes by performing tasks autonomously.  And, yet, it must also acquiesce to that person’s authority and recognize that it is performing directly to serve its human. There are hundreds of breeds of pure-bred dogs, and thousands of options when one considers the myriad of mixed breed dogs that can perform Service Dog work.  But, only a few breeds are routinely chosen by the larger Service Dog organizations as suitable to train as assistance animals.  There is a reason for that.  Some breeds are simply far superior as Service Dogs for disabled people than are most others. I strongly recommend against any breed that was designed to serve in a guarding function.  This includes the Mastiff breeds and the livestock guarding breeds such as the Great Pyrenees, Akbash Dog and Anatolian Shepherd.  The Mastiff breeds (from which the Great Dane was developed), are an ancient line of dogs that were designed to guard turf and people.  Guarding dogs tend to have a homing instinct, in that they quickly discern what is “home” and what is not.  They are designed to stick around home-based and continually assess the environment for minute differences that might suggest an incoming threat.  They are often massive breeds that were not designed for lengthy treks, but instead for providing a very menacing appearance to anyone or thing that might consider doing harm to the home or flock.  To enhance this homing instinct, the natural hunt / prey-drive is diminished in these breeds.  They do not have a desire to go on long journeys to stalk, kill or retrieve quarry.  They become quite protective of that which they consider the owner of the home or flock. In contrast, the breeds which maintain their prey-drive (hunting, herding and most other working breeds besides the guardian breeds) are designed to perform a more direct task for the human.  Their work is typically more active rather than sedentary “guarding” behavior.  The natural talents of these breeds can be morphed into tasks that a human will find useful.  Activities like retrieving, pulling, manipulating the environment or things within it (like turning on/off lights, opening doors etc..) come natural to these breeds.  Such behaviors are far more challenging to teach to a guarding breed, since they were not designed to work so directly with a human. There are a number of mobility harnesses which can be augmented with extended handles to accommodate a taller human.  The mobility harnesses that have the largest amount of features and perhaps the best design for the dog and human are quite expensive (between $400-$500), but for an individual who requires their dog to perform serious bracing work, it is critical to acquire the best quality harness for the dog.  If you simply require the dog to steady you at times, you may be able to purchase a less expensive model. This BoldLeather Design is very expensive but has all the bells and whistles and claims to be custom made for the specific handler's needs. There are lighter duty harnesses that cost around $150, but are not suited for true bracing work. Here is an example of a lighter duty harness with a handle that orients like a walking cane in the hand. The Bridgeport harness has a substantially padded breastplate and three choices for handle lengths, and is very reasonably priced for the quality.  The handle is perpendicular to the dog's spine (opposite of the lighter duty example, above).  The photo to the right is of a 6’ tall man with a Bridgeport harness with 6” handle on a 68 pound female German Shepherd Dog. If the individual plans to utilize the Service Dog in public locations, a Mastiff sized dog can be incredibly challenging.   Negotiating the world with a 200 lb. + sized dog can be nearly impossible.  Most restaurant tables do not provide enough floor space to accommodate such an animal, and it is simply not acceptable to leave such a massive body lying on the floor where patrons or service personnel might not be able to walk about safely while doing their job.  Moving through the tighter isles of many shops would be impossible, or would result in merchandise falling to the floor as the dog’s bulky body pushed past the items of an end counter.  Even navigating the door of some shops would be a huge challenge which such a large animal. But, to me, their massive size is not what makes the Mastiff-type breeds less desirable as Service Dogs.  Their natural guarding instinct tends to develop with time and because the handler becomes less and less concerned about maintaining the dog’s proper social status (as the relationship become increasingly comfortable for both handler and dog).  As a dog is given more autonomy, it will also begin to present with more guarding instinct if the owner/handler does not continually maintain the dog’s proper state of mind.  With breeds that naturally submit to the authority of a human handler, getting the dog back into the proper social condition is not as challenging as it is with a breed that is designed to perform guarding duties. Guarding behavior is wholly unacceptable of a Service Dog.  Guarding behavior presents itself mildly, at first; a little grimace or growl, a slight curling of the lip as a stranger approaches.  If the owner doesn’t perceive such mild behavior (because he is distracted or otherwise unable to see the dog’s face) and then doesn’t address it at its earliest stage, the dog will begin to present with more and more unacceptable behavior.  Guarding breeds tend to perform a quick lunge and deep bark at a “threat”, using their massive size to intimidate the approaching person or animal.  Many times, once the dog presents with such behavior, the owner become concerned about whether the dog will become increasingly aggressive.  Once the owner projects worry/anxiety rather than taking immediate charge of the dog’s behavior, the dog becomes more and more controlling.  Often, a disabled person who uses an extra large breed has physical disabilities which prevent him/her from correcting the dog appropriately.  This lack of immediate feedback from the owner is all that is required for some dogs to simply slip comfortably into their natural guarding routine.   Everything snow-balls from that point and the handler is asked to remove the dog from a public location because it has become a menace.  Sadly, that one bad incident can make it more challenging for another disabled person to negotiate a public location with their Service Dog. Selecting the right mobility service dog for a larger person should include an understanding and use of excellent equipment that can provide a safe method for the dog to provide the required support.  However, a dog’s physical well being must be taken into consideration and if it is unsafe for the dog to perform the task, an alternative solution to mitigate the person’s disability should be used.  A cane is easier to maintain and carry about than a 90 pound dog.  If a cane does the job, there’s no reason for the dog.  However, many Service Dogs perform multiple duties for their handlers, including retrieving tasks or psychiatric support.  In such cases, the dog is doing more than a metal cane can offer and it makes sense to employ the dog.  Since many of the support functions a Service Dog offers include complicated duties, it makes most sense to select a breed that has been designed to perform more sophisticated work for humans, that is easy to train and easy to maintain over time. Some of the medium-large (but not giant) breeds that might be right for a larger person with a mobility disability include the “doodles” (Standard Poodle bred to a Golden or Labrador Retriever), Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherd Dogs, larger Golden or Labrador Retrievers, Standard Poodles, Rottweilers, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Briards.  Those breeds are typically under 100 pounds and individuals within those breeds may be suitable mobility service dogs. Most importantly, when selecting a breed as a Service Dog, it is critical to match the human handler’s disposition with the dog’s temperament, work style and work ethic.  It is, ultimately, the human who will be responsible for maintaining the dog’s training and social skills.  A person who has a good capacity to impose his will upon a dog has more breed options than does a person who finds it challenging to be the dog’s “boss”.  When the partnership is well forged, the relationship creates magic and a new found independence for the disabled handler.  Nothing could be better.