Choosing a breed of dog is never an easy decision but it’s even more important when you’re choosing a puppy with the aim of them becoming your assistance dog in the future. Making the wrong choice can mean a whole lot of challenges and heartache.
It would be great if it was as simple as choosing any puppy from a list of recommended breeds and knowing without a doubt that the puppy would mature into the perfect assistance dog.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Choosing the right breed is just one small part of a bigger picture, within breeds there are many different traits and personalities, not every breeding line will be suited to assistance dog work and nor will every puppy from a litter.
Some puppies will possess more suitable traits and characteristics, and some will be unsuitable right from the early weeks.
Alongside the breed, genetics and individual personalities, we have to remember the importance of early socialisation and positive exposure, developing a puppy into a well-rounded, stable adult who can cope with the demands of assistance dog work.
There are many more factors than choosing the right breed, but it does help to consider which breeds are typically most suited to assistance dog work because this is an important foundation in finding a dog who can support you.
Why Choose a Breed?
Before jumping straight into a breed because you love them or you’ve had the breed before, think about whether you’re still able to meet the needs of that breed, can you give them the level of socialisation and exposure they need, meet their exercise needs, and dedicate time to their training?
Is it the right breed for assistance dog work? Just because you’ve owned the breed before or know someone with one, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right for what you’re looking for in another dog. Do the skills you need come naturally to the breed … think retrieving, pressure therapy, stable & calm temperament, keen to learn and work with people?
Remember dogs are individuals, if your last experience of a breed was perfect, it doesn’t mean your next one will turn out the same, you still need to understand typical traits and possible challenges of the breed.
Studies have shown that the most common reasons for failure in assistance dogs are:
Stress responses – fear-related behaviours, nervousness, anxiety issues
Distractibility or excitability – an inability or unwillingness to concentrate, and being slow to recover once distracted
Body sensitivity issues – including issues with wearing a harness or other equipment
The key traits for an assistance dog, which will make them good at their role, are all based around being able to cope with the demands of learning tasks and being level-headed in a range of situations.
Some people will enjoy a dog with more energy, or with quirky traits and be willing to work through tricky phases, while others will need a calm dog who remains more consistent in their behaviour.
The main thing is to have a dog who can confidently process information and keep calm when faced with a range of environments and situations. A lot of this skill will come from positive exposure, socialisation and training, but the fundamental ability to achieve this will be in their genes.
Many assistance dog charities primarily work with the same breeds, this isn’t breed prejudice or a lack of ambition to involve other breeds, it’s the result of tried and tested breeding programmes, proven to produce the most successful individuals for assistance dog work. It’s also worth remembering that while many charities have years of breeding experience and solid genetics behind the dogs they train, there are still many individuals who aren’t suited to assistance dog work. Proof that even within the best breeding lines and closely monitored development programmes, not every dog is right for the role.
For the most part, Labradors, Golden Retrievers and crosses of these breeds are the preferred choice. For work which doesn’t require a larger dog, many also include working Cocker Spaniels, Poodles and crosses of these.
It’s clear to see gundog breeds tend to dominate the assistance dog world, and there’s good reason for this.
In studies looking at the success of different breeds within assistance dog organisations, they found Labradors were the least fearful breed and scored higher for nerve stability and cooperation than German Shepherds. While Golden Retrievers were thought to benefit from a longer training period compared to Labradors. Labradors crossed with golden retrievers had the highest probability of success, it’s thought that the gentleness of Golden Retrievers combined with the willingness of Labradors make the mix so successful.
Gundog breeds typically make good assistance dogs because:
They respond positively to training and are driven to work with people
There are well-documented health issues so breeders can be chosen carefully to select the healthiest breeding lines. Any health concerns are easier to spot as they’re widely known about, making early intervention easier
Gundog breeds have soft mouths and are natural fetchers/retrievers, which is a key skill for many assistance dog roles
The larger gundog breeds are a good size to work alongside a wheelchair. The smaller ones (e.g. Cocker Spaniel mixes) are well-sized for other assistance roles and tasks
These breeds are very familiar and more positively perceived by the public, which is important when your dog is working in public places
Good breeding lines of gundogs tend to be producing resilient dogs who are less prone to fear-based behaviours and predisposed nervousness (it’s not a given though so choose a breeder and puppy carefully)
Gundogs, and in particular the Retriever breeds, tend to possess many of the traits suitable for assistance dog work, but it doesn’t mean other breeds can’t be successful too. You can find these key traits in other breeds and individuals too, but you may have to look a little harder or more carefully to find the right puppy from suitable breeding lines.
The Key Skills
It’s really important to choose a dog who is going to be keen to learn and work with you, this isn’t something that comes naturally to all breeds of dog. Some are bred to work away from people and their desire to work together isn’t a strong characteristic, which may mean you’re always in a battle to motivate your dog and encourage them to stay engaged and cooperating with you. This motivation can be built through training but when it comes more naturally, the whole process tends to be far more rewarding!
Having a natural affinity with people is important, assistance dogs will often be required to work in public settings and be exposed to range of people.
If you have human carers assisting you, or you need your dog to accompany you into places like a work environment, hospital, shops, or any other location where other people will be interacting with you, your dog needs to be able to calmly cope with this.
Having a dog who is predisposed to be wary of unfamiliar people or ‘aloof to strangers’ is unlikely to be the best match. While an assistance dog shouldn’t be expected to greet and interact with every person they encounter, they do need to remain neutral and not try to warn off anyone who comes close to their handler.
It's also vital to select a breed and individual who isn’t predisposed to nervous traits. Being an assistance dog requires a lot more resilience than the average pet dog and these dogs are expected to cope and remain calm in a huge range of situations. Trying to mould a naturally nervous or anxious dog into one who can function calmly in a busy situation is never going to work, and it would be deemed unacceptable for a working assistance dog to be reacting negatively to other people, dogs or stimuli in an environment.
This is where choosing a puppy from the right parents and breeding lines is absolutely vital.
Make sure you meet plenty of your potential puppy’s relatives and get to know the type of dogs the breeder is producing, if any seem nervous or the breeder describes any red flag traits (e.g. fear-based behaviours, reactivity, resource guarding) then think carefully about whether it’s the right puppy for you.
When you’re looking for an assistance dog, making a quick decision is rarely a good idea, you need to be thinking to the future and doing thorough research to ensure you’re choosing the most suitable puppy. Choosing to adopt an adolescent or adult dog can work well in some cases, in these dogs their traits and personalities will be more developed, so as long as you spend the time getting to know the dog before adopting them, it could be a match made in heaven … but again, don’t jump straight in, take the time to make sure the dog is absolutely suitable for your needs and goals.
We’re looking for the unicorn of dogs so choosing a less suitable breed makes it even harder to find that dream dog and increases the risk of failure. Failure rate of suitable breeds is relatively high in established assistance dog charities who have been perfecting their breeding programmes for many years so it’s clear that the task of finding your own perfect assistance dog is not straightforward.
Ultimately it comes down to selecting a breed or individual who is most likely to succeed as an assistance dog. Understanding any breed traits which may limit the dog’s ability to make the grade will save problems later down the line.
This includes factors such as the size of the dog, choosing a dog who is too small to assist with necessary tasks (e.g. retrieving items, delivering items to your hand, applying DPT) will mean you need to train a larger dog later on.
Equally, choosing a breed too large for your needs can create problems, a very large breed can make public access challenging and realistically can be unsafe or unfair to take into certain public places.
While your dog is there to help you, you need to think about the implications to the general public and others around you. An assistance dog needs to be able to blend into the environment and shouldn’t cause concern or danger to anyone else around. Your dog should also feel completely comfortable and relaxed with any situation they are exposed to, if your dog is fearful, overwhelmed, stressed or over-excited then it’s a welfare concern for your dog and a potential risk to anyone around you.
It isn’t possible to train every dog to fit this role, there are some challenges which you can overcome and help your dog develop into a good assistance dog, but some dogs will never be right for it, no matter how much training you do.
Choosing to train your own assistance dog comes with the caveat that they may not make the grade. It’s very different to applying to an established charity and knowing they will give you a dog who is ready-made for the role.
When training your own dog, you need a solid foundation to enable you to develop them into the dog you need, and this comes from good breeding, genetics, and early socialisation and training.
If any one of those factors is missing or incompatible with what your dog needs to learn and cope with, then they are unlikely to be the right dog for the role.
What about other breeds?
At the risk of being accused of insulting certain breeds, we’ll look at why some breeds aren’t readily designed to be assistance dogs. If you already own one of these breeds and they are excelling in their role or making good steps towards the role, then you can be the first to say breed preconceptions aren’t always correct!
It’s worth noting, within any of these breeds, you will be able to find some individuals who will excel, either naturally or because of very good training, but you need to choose your puppy carefully.
Collie and Herding Breeds
Breeds like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and other herders can be ideal as assistance dogs because they are generally driven, intelligent and have a natural desire to work with people. They can learn skills quickly and thrive on having a job.
The downsides are that they aren’t always the most resilient dogs and they can be more prone to nervous traits. They may find busy environments more overwhelming and can be more sensitive to novelty.
With good genetics and good early exposure, they can excel, but being aware of any nervous traits or the beginnings of challenging behaviours (e.g. chasing/stalking traffic, fear around noises, people or new situations) is vital to either build confidence in these areas or be prepared your dog may not make the grade as an assistance dog.
These breeds can be split into lines who have been bred for ‘working’ purposes and those bred for ‘pet homes’, or a mix of the two lines in some cases.
Which line is right for you will depend on what you’re looking for. The working lines will be considerably more active, driven and motivated, but they will also need outlets for their natural behaviours and can be prone to challenging behaviours if their needs aren’t met.
The dogs bred for ‘pet homes’ have typically had some of this drive and some of the breed instincts bred out of them, potentially making them slightly less active and less driven. This can work well for assistance roles because they may be steadier individuals, but they can also be harder to keep motivated and engaged.
Knowing what you need from your dog and understanding the traits each breeder is selecting for, will help you choose the right puppy with the best balance of traits for the job.
German Shepherds (GSDs) and Guarding Breeds
Guide Dogs still use German Shepherds in their training programmes but it’s becoming harder to find stable breeding lines who can cope with the demands of assistance dog work.
Studies into assistance dogs have shown that GSDs have strong instincts to control movements of those around them and they are much more likely to be withdrawn from assistance dog work due to fear, anxiety or aggression compared to Labradors.
They are more likely to show fear-related behavioural problems than Labradors, but score well in willingness.
Guarding breeds (and herding breeds) tend to be more wary of novelty, they are bred to be somewhat suspicious and skilled at noticing anything unusual in the environment, which explains why these breeds can often be more prone to reactivity issues, struggle with fearfulness or have a hard time adapting to changes of situation.
Unfortunately, these are all far from ideal in an assistance dog and are high risk for failing out. On the other hand, they tend to be very loyal and intuitive dogs, and naturally keen to work alongside their handler.
This is where choosing the right breeder is key, finding one who is breeding confident and willing individuals will make it more likely to find a puppy who possess the right traits.
Plenty of positive early exposure and confidence building training is also vital, these are often sensitive breeds who need gentle training and exposure to keep their motivation and confidence growing.
It can be tempting to look towards the Belgian Shepherd breeds too, and like with the GSDs, the right breeding lines can be perfect assistance dogs, but the wrong lines are a recipe for disaster. Malinois are often described as GSDs on steroids, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the difficult traits in GSDs can be amplified in Malinois. Do your research and make sure you’re choosing the right breeding lines and be prepared for a lot of hard work!
Bull breeds typically have a strong affinity with people which can make them very suited to the role. Especially popular breeds, like Staffies, with many different breeding lines, it’s easier to find dogs who are bred with the right traits for assistance dog work.
While these breeds are often very people-focused, they have historically been bred to be less dog-friendly (wide generalisation) so being aware of this is important. Some breeding lines will be more dog-selective than others, and this often becomes more apparent as they mature through adolescence.
They can be more prone to reactivity issues around other dogs so careful socialisation and spotting any early warning signs is really important.
With good genetics and good early training, bull breeds can be motivated and hard-working, but it’s not always something that comes naturally to them and it can take a little more work to maintain the motivation and drive required for assistance dog training.
They are often branded ‘stubborn’ but this is more likely to be an issue of poor motivation or lack of understanding, so gently teaching and guiding them to make good choices, and keeping learning fun and enjoyable, is the best way to keep these dogs keen to work and learn.
On the topic of bull breeds, we have to accept there is breed prejudice around these breeds. Rightly or wrongly, it does exist and it’s unlikely to change any time soon, so this is something to consider with regards to assistance dogs. The breed connotations can create access issues in some cases or lead to negative encounters if people are wary of your dog, in essence, there is really no room for error if you have a bull breed working in public places. Some bull breeds grow into very large dogs, which may not be the safest or most practical option when you need public access support.
Whippets, lurchers and hound types
Breeds like whippets, lurchers and greyhounds can seem appealing as assistance dogs due to their calm natures, they are often affectionate dogs who are happy to curl up and sleep for most of the day. This can be great if you’re primarily looking for a laidback companion who doesn’t demand much exercise or activity.
However, if you’re looking for a dog to teach more skills and tasks to, and to accompany you to lots of locations, these breeds are unlikely to be suitable.
Hound breeds are much more independent minded, they were bred to work away from people so have less drive to be working alongside and in a partnership. There will be exceptions of course, but for the most part, it can prove an uphill battle to motivate hound breeds to enjoy working alongside people!
Some breeds, including whippets, are more prone to nervous traits which make them more susceptible to fear-based issues and feeling overwhelmed by different environments. They aren’t the most resilient dogs and even things like weather changes can leave them unwilling to cooperate.
These are all points to consider when choosing a dog, if you need a dog who can be there to support you in all situations, all year round, then these dogs probably aren’t the best choice. If you want them to learn a variety of tasks then it’s better to choose a breed who are naturally more motivated and driven to learn and work with people.
Moving onto toy breeds, these have many of the same pros and cons as the hound breeds, they can make good assistance dogs because they enjoy being around people and have mostly been bred to be companion dogs. This means they aren’t naturally driven to be working or learning more complex skills. Many will be capable of this, but many will also be very hard to motivate and they may find it stressful to be under pressure to learn new skills.
Their size is also an important consideration. If you’re looking for a dog to assist with any physical tasks (including, retrieving items, deep pressure therapy, opening/closing doors etc) then small breeds will be less practical.
Many will be capable of learning these skills, but think about whether you are able to be bending down to reach your dog or pick up items they’ve retrieved.
Likewise, think about how effective deep pressure therapy or other interruption behaviours will be coming from a very small dog and whether it will be enough for what you need.
Unsurprisingly, toy breeds tend to be more sensitive and struggle with more nervousness. Given their small size, it’s understandable that a scary experience with another dog or person, or a large vehicle suddenly passing them can seem much more threatening than it might to a bigger dog.
They will be more exposed to bad experiences simply because of their small size, so while they might put on a confident display of barking and giving off the ‘small man syndrome’ look, they are usually displaying a fear response. Careful socialisation and lots of positive exposure is absolutely essential for these dogs.
By Brachy breeds we mean any flat-nosed breeds (for example Pugs, Frenchies, Bulldogs, Bostons). These also tend to fall into the category of companion dogs and they’ve become increasingly popular which means they’re more likely to be chosen as assistance dogs due to their sociable, affectionate natures.
These breeds also have similar limitations to some we’ve mentioned above, their small size may mean they aren’t suitable for certain needs, and like the bull breeds, motivation can be a challenge at times. But aside from the training issues, with these breeds we have to think about their health limitations.
These aren’t dogs who can work tirelessly for hours on end, nor are they suited to be working in warmer conditions.
This can put a considerable limitation on where your dog can accompany you and how much they’re capable to assisting you. They are also more prone to health concerns, including breathing problems, so doing thorough research to find the healthiest breeding lines is really important. You would be wise to only consider breeders who are doing full BOAS testing on all parents and fully health testing all of their dogs.
For many people this won’t be a concern, but it’s also worth noting that many airlines won’t accept Brachy breeds on flights, so if you ever plan to travel by plane with your assistance dog, don’t choose a brachy breed because they almost certainly won’t be allowed on the plane!
Huskies and Spitz Breeds
People are often drawn to these breeds because of their striking looks and quirky personalities, they are often full of character! Like with any breed, you will meet exceptions who make great assistance dogs, but they won’t be easy to find. These breeds are designed to be independent minded, they may work alongside people but they aren’t naturally driven to work closely with people.
Motivating them to collaborate and work in partnership is not easy! Calling them ‘stubborn’ glosses over the fact that really we tend to fail to find ways to motivate these breeds effectively, which is achievable in a pet home or a working environment which is making use of their natural skills and drives.
Trying to achieve this in an assistance dog role is very challenging, it’s difficult to give these dogs appropriate outlets for their breed traits and motivate them in a suitable way when performing an assistance role.
With the right early training, lots of hard-work and an individual bred from the right dogs, you may be able to channel these traits and motivations into assistance dog roles. However, unless you really feel up to the challenge, there are more suitable breeds out there!
We’ve previously explained why gundogs are the most optimum breeds for assistance work, but it’s not always the case. The Retriever and Spaniel breeds tend to be most likely to possess the traits we need, but there are many other gundog breeds to think about.
Breeds such as Pointers, Weimaraners, Setters and Vizslas are all naturally bred to work with people and possess many of the traits an assistance dog requires, including a drive to learn and work, retrieve and partner with people.
However, these breeds don’t always have the same stable natures as the retriever breeds which make them so successful as assistance dogs.
They can be more sensitive and easily distracted, meaning working in busy or demanding environments can be more overwhelming for them. They can be slow to mature at times so the process of reaching a stable, dependable assistance dog is likely to take longer and require a very consistent approach.
Choosing the right breeding lines is really key with many gundog breeds, some will still be very much ‘working’ gundogs, these can be ideal in terms of their drive to work and their tireless learning ability, but they also need a lot of guidance and activity to provide outlets for their natural behaviours.
Those bred more for pet homes can work well because they will be lower energy and some of their hunting and working instincts will have been reduced via breeding, this can work in favour of a steady and stable assistance dog, or in some cases it will create individuals who are harder to motivate and train.
We all know how popular ‘doodle’ breeds are these days, the trend of crossing everything with a poodle shows no signs of slowing down. There’s good reason why breeds such as Labradoodles, Goldendoodles and Cockapoos were created and continue to be so popular, they can be the best of both worlds and bring out the best traits of each breed.
It has been said that Labradoodles were originally bred as hypoallergenic service dogs, the whole idea was that they’d make an ideal assistance dog (However, not many, if any in a litter will be truly hypoallegenic).
Since Labradoodles became so widely bred and unwanted traits increased, the Australian Cobberdog breed was created with the intention of this being the new assistance dog breed of choice and with stricter breed lines than the Labradoodle.
We won’t get into the details, but it shows there’s something about mixing poodles into gundogs breeds which produces dogs who are suited to assistance work.
However, this isn’t without fault. The popularity of these breeds means dogs aren’t always selected for the right reasons and it’s not unusual now to see behavioural problems and genetic issues in the poodle mixes. Issues such as resource guarding, nervousness, low motivation, and over-sociability, can be prevalent in breeds such as cockapoos and labradoodles.
As with any breed, do your research! Find a breeder who is focused on temperament and breeding dogs suited to assistance work, make sure the puppies are bred from stable and confident lines, with a good level of drive and motivation to learn and work.
It’s not uncommon for organisations to choose rescue dogs to take onto their training programmes, this is typically seen more in police work, but medical alert dogs and some other assistance dog charities look to take on rescue dogs too. It goes without saying, this is a wonderful thing to do and there are surely many dogs looking for new homes who would thrive off having a job and structured training.
The huge benefit to this approach is that you can select a dog who has already matured and who’s character and temperament will be clearer to see. This can be a great way to selecting a dog who is suited to the work and who can meet your needs.
The downside is that until you live with a dog for several weeks or months, their true personality and temperament may not be obvious.
Many dogs will take a while to adjust and show their true selves, there is a risk of choosing a dog who seems perfect on paper or who is described as the perfect dog but turns out to have some underlying traits or behaviours which aren’t suitable.
Never rely solely on what a rescue organisation tells you or on information provided by the previous owner, because even in the most well-intentioned situations, the reality may differ wildly from the dog they have described. Think carefully and take your time to make sure a dog is right for you, if possible, ask to foster a dog for a while until you can be certain whether they are going to fit your needs and expectations.
Be aware of adopting a dog from abroad, while it seems like a lovely idea and their rehoming policies are often more relaxed than UK rescues, making them more accessible to homes who would otherwise be rejected UK rescues, these dogs are often complicated and unsuitable for assistance work. There will be exceptions but more often than not, it’s a bad idea!
Many of these dogs will have experienced considerable trauma, even if they’ve been rescued as a tiny puppy, a lot of trauma impact can be done even before a puppy is born or within the first few weeks, so never choose a puppy and assume you’ll be able to mould it into what you want, early experiences will stay with a dog for life. It’s impossible to know these dog’s backgrounds so it’s a very risky decision to try and turn them into an assistance dog who can cope with demands of the job.
Written by Naomi White
Read our blogs on finding a good breeder, finding out if your current dog is cut out for the job and more