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The Right Ruff! -- What Makes an Elite Service Dog

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Flickr: fwooper
Flickr: fwooper

As our troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan in increasing numbers, we're discovering the almost limitless potential of dogs to help these veterans overcome the many wounds of war. From spinal injury to blindness, deafness, amputation, and, perhaps most prevalent of all, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), man's best friend is proving to be much more than just a friend.

In fact, one study has found that a properly trained service dog can reduce the symptoms of PTSD by 82 percent. That's one of the most effective treatments out there, but even more than clinical improvement, service dogs also bring families together and helping veterans regain a sense of normalcy as they return to society.

So, what makes a good service dog? As the founder of Vets Helping Heroes, an organization devoted exclusively to raising the money needed to provide properly trained service dogs for veterans, it's a question I'm often asked.

These dogs, after all, are the canine equivalent of Seal Team Six. With the ability to detect seizures, prevent panic attacks, preserve personal space, navigate a bustling street, and act as the ears, eyes and nose of the person they're tasked to care for, they can do things that even advanced medical technology can't do (let alone the average family pet).

I spoke with some of the most distinguished service dog trainers in the field to find out just what makes a great service dog, asking how breed, size, intelligence, mood, and manner affect the dog's ability to absorb the years of rigorous training needed to produce an elite service dog.

Best in Show? (Hint: It's Not a Chihuahua)

"The retriever breeds are a mainstay of service dog work, and rightfully so," says Mike Sergeant, an experienced service dog trainer who runs K9 Navigators. "There are many reasons for this, ranging from temperament, [emotional] flexibility, willingness to please the master and, quite truthfully, public acceptance of retrievers as a friendly, happy-go-lucky breed."

Patsy French of Florida's Southeastern Guide Dogs, which specializes in training guide dogs, confirmed this preference for the retriever family (of which both golden retrievers and labradors are members).

"While we do use goldadors, there's really no bias towards them," Patsy told me, referring to the beautiful and well-tempered mixed breed of golden retriever and lab. "Typically, both breeds exhibit a strong work ethic -- a very important trait in a service dog. The 'goldies' have a little more personality and, for someone who needs that trait, it couples well with the work ethic. The labs tend to be quieter although they, too, are driven to work."

The Right Stuff

Stephanie Baigent, who heads up training for Freedom Service Dogs in Colorado, also says that retrievers like labradors, golden retrievers, and, maybe a little surprisingly, poodles make for good service dogs. But, Stephanie, whose organization relies on rescue dogs, makes an important caveat:

"I don't think that the breed matters for training as much as the dog's individual personality. We're looking for a confident, people-focused dog. One that is sensitive enough to recognize a change in the client's needs but at the same time is confident enough to handle a situation where the client may not be able to give the dog direction for a short period of time."

Actually, all of the trainers I spoke with agree on just this point: It's not breed, but personality that make for a good service dog.

"A strong work ethic, intelligence, trainability, and the ability to bond with an individual are the universal traits that make for successful service dogs," Patsy French says.

Despite this, just like in elite military units, physical fitness is a barrier. While a maltipoo might exhibit all of the above qualities, its small stature prevents it from being able to hedge off personal space for a PTSD sufferer or physically guide a blind veteran. Instead, "stoutness" is called for, Mike Sergeant says. And physical fitness is a must.

"A Handsome-Looking Dog"

Surprisingly, in talking to trainers I also found that looks do matter. An elite service dog can't get by on its skills, intelligence, and temperament alone. "When I work with these veterans, because they're so beaten up [from years of war], I want a dog that complements them, rather than stands out. A dog that can blend in. A 'handsome-looking dog,'" Mike says.

But for Mike and many of the other trainers I know, good looks isn't about winning Westminster. It's about a dog that looks as friendly as it is, so a veteran struggling to return to society with the help of a dog isn't constantly confronted with questions about that dog's sociability. "Does it bite?" is not a question a veteran on the road to recovery wants to hear every day.

Now the Fun Starts
So, temperament, intelligence, determination, willingness to please, physical fitness, and handsomeness are some of the qualities trainers look for to begin the very serious process of training a service dog. But training one of these lovely animals is more art than science, and most trainers will spend weeks with an individual dog just to make sure it has what it takes to care for a veteran returning home.

Having seen the profound impact these dogs make on the lives of men and women who have sacrificed so much for their country, I can tell you that it's all worth it -- and then some. And, by the way, the dogs love it too.