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What Breed Matches Your Leadership Skills?

   Selecting the right dog as your future Service Dog partner is the most important decision  you will make in the journey as a Service Dog handler.  Often, people select the dog  that they have acquired for some other, nonspecific reason.  Others are drawn to a  unique breed, regardless of whether it is well suited to mitigate a person’s  disabilities.  Choosing the right breed and then individual dog will influence  whether the journey will be successful or troublesome. Consider all of the men and women who join the US Marine Corps.  After boot camp, a subset of individuals does not make the cut.  They are not able  to perform at the standards required of a Marine.  When selecting a Service Dog  candidate, there are some dogs that are simply not able to perform basic work at a  high enough standard to continue training.  Like in the military, some prospective  Service Dog attrition is due to an individual’s physical limitations.  Some fall out is  due to behavioral or “temperament” flaws.  This is true in the military, even though  the Marines Corp is an organization based on teaching individuals how to behave  at high standards, both physically and mentally.  Then, consider that among the recruits that make it through boot camp, some have natural talents in specialized fields.   Although all Marines are  taught about very high standard leadership, some excel at leading – it seems natural to them.  While every Marine must demonstrate the capacity  to shoot a weapon at a high standard of accuracy, some individuals excel and earn sharp shooter status.  With dogs, this is the same situation.   Some breeds of dog excel at retrieving; others are exceptional at learning complex tasks or working autonomously.  Similar to the military, all  Service Dogs must behave at a comparatively high standard versus pet dogs in many basic ways, and some excel even further in specific work.  When leadership goes missing for whatever reason, every Marine is taught how to handle such a situation.  However, there are clearly individuals  who have a natural ability to take charge in the absence of leadership, and others who struggle more during such an event.  It is part of their  natural temperament.  Dogs are the same way.  Some dogs, once they are trained to accomplish specific tasks, will continue to perform at a high  standard, even if the human authority figure “goes missing”.  This can be a person who begins to have a seizure, a melt-down due to Post  Traumatic Stress Disorder or sleeps through a doorbell ringing, due to a hearing impairment.  Other dogs require more constant maintenance from  a human leader.  In the absence of clear leadership, those dogs either begin to assume the leadership role in the relationship or they present fear  or anxiety type behaviors as a result of feeling leaderless.    Selecting the right breed, and then individual dog, for Service work should include an understanding of the handler’s aptitude to present an aura of  authority.  The reason that breeds such as Golden Retrievers are often used in Service Dog work is because they have a natural affinity to humans  and a desire to work for a partner, but they are not unnerved when the human is not a highly authoritative individual.  Breeds such as German  Shepherd Dogs may feel compelled to take control over the relationship when partnered with someone who does not have natural authoritative  tendencies.  The dog may decide to take charge of assessing and addressing perceived threats, such as an approaching stranger.  It is not  acceptable for a Service Dog to bark a warning or display overt “protective” behaviors such as growling or lunging.  So, only people who are able to  reinforce their status when handling a dog should be partnered with the more powerful breeds.  They must be willing to reinforce such expectations  for behavior throughout the dog’s career as a Service Dog.  On the other hand, breeds such as the Shetland Sheepdog may present with a high level of anxiety, nervousness or fear when they sense that  their human is not in control.  Behaviors rooted in fear are just as detrimental to Service Dog work as over-controlling, dominant behaviors.  Weak  leadership can cause problems with many types of dog breeds, for a variety of reasons.  The breeds which are most impervious to lackluster  leadership are most often trained for Service Dog work because they can be partnered with a larger subset of the disabled population and because  they have aptitudes which support the work requirements of many Service Dogs.  We are fortunate to have access to a few hundred unique breeds of dog that have been  selected to perform a very wide range of tasks.  We can take advantage of their natural  tendencies and ask them to perform behaviors that utilize their strengths, even if the  work is significantly different from that for which they were originally designed.    While it  is obviously important to determine what tasks you expect a Service Dog to perform to  assist you with your disability, it is even more important to honestly assess your own  natural tendencies to assume “top dog” status.  Selecting a breed that is compliments  your energy level and natural authoritative presence is the first step to success in  training your own Service Dog partner.        
Service Dogs