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Why Breed Matters in Service Dogs

After Delta Air Lines issued a new policy on June 20th limiting emotional support dogs to one per person and banning pit bulls as service and support dogs, we reviewed top service dog organizations and their selected breed types. The most popular breeds commonly selected have been Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Labrador-Golden mixes and Standard Poodles. However, Pit Bull breed advocacy groups have been pushing for "Pit Bull Service Dogs."

Accreditation by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is the highest standard of accreditation for service dog organizations. ADI and candidates of ADI explain why breed choice matters in service dog work and why pit bulls (defined as the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier and their mixes), guarding and protection breeds are poor choices for service dogs, especially psychiatric service dogs.

Common Themes About Pit Bull Service Dogs

  1. Decide what is more important to you - having a service dog to help you, or having a particular breed because you want to be a breed advocate.

  2. Guarding, protection and fighting breeds are poor choices because many handlers with disabilities are not able to physically restrain them.

  3. Pit bulls do not show temperament until adulthood, about the age of two. If one year in training has already been invested and that dog "defaults" to its hereditary breed traits - dog aggression - it becomes unusable.

  4. Pit bulls and their mixes create a social barrier instead of a neutral bridge between a disabled person and the community. Getting a service dog is supposed to be about making your life easier not more difficult.

What truly lies at the heart of Delta's new policy, however, is reflected in their statement: "untrained, pit bull-type dogs posing as both service and support animals are a potential safety risk." Tia Torres of Pit Bulls and Parolees addresses this clearly on her adoption page hoping to discourage those intending to abuse loopholes in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Air Carrier Access Act for breed advocacy purposes:

We will not adopt our dog to you, if your plans are to make it a "service dog". With too many people fraudulently obtaining "service dog vests" or fake "service dog trainers", we do not want our dog put into a situation that he/she may not be qualified for. - Adoption Process, Villalobos Rescue Center

Why Breed Choice Matters

Assistance Dogs International states that a service dog should not be protective and Handi-Dogs Inc. explains what animal shelters carefully omit: "Pit types can be genetically dog aggressive, and this may not show in the dog's temperament until it becomes an adult." Handi-Dogs also reminds that genetic breed characteristics cannot be "trained out" of a pit bull.

An assistance dog's job is to make a disabled individual more able, not to protect them. When disabled people take their assistance dogs into public places, many are not able to physically restrain their dogs. Many dogs, especially working breeds, will sense their owner's disability and vulnerability and take initiative to protect at inappropriate times. This can be compounded by an individual who doesn't recognize that instinct and unconsciously encourages the behaviour.

Pit Bull types (American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Pit mixes) are not recommended for service dog training for several reasons. 1) Terrier breeds can be difficult to train for service work if they have the typical independent terrier temperament. 2) Pit types can be genetically dog aggressive, and this may not show in the dog's temperament until it is at least 2 years old. If it develops after you have invested a year in training, you will not be able to use the dog in public. 3) You are training a service dog to help make your life easier, not more difficult by facing municipal breed specific legislation, breed bans in rental housing, additional insurance costs, and public access challenges. Choosing a breed with the genetic temperament for service work will greatly affect your success. You must decide what is more important to you - having a service dog to help you, or having a particular breed because you like the way they look / had one as a child / want to be a breed advocate.

Clear Path for Veterans - Candidacy for ADI Not all breeds are recommended for service dog training. Bully breeds or mixes can be a social barrier in providing a neutral bridge between the Veteran and the community. Bully breeds include but may not be limited to: American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, American Bulldog and Bull Mastiff.

Breeds classified as Guard Dogs, Flock Guardians or Fighting Dogs have aggression related breed traits that are particularly worrisome. Assistance dog partners who do not have previous experience handling a dog with a strong Protection drive, a fierce Territorial instinct or a hereditary dog aggression problem should not attempt a partnership with one of these breeds.

Do not choose breeds like Huskies, Rottweilers, Bull Breeds, or other breeds that are notoriously hard to train. The trouble with protective breeds is that often that instinct doesn't kick in until the dog has matured. Therefore, you could put around 2 years of training into a dog just to have an otherwise amazing service dog in training become extremely protective and subsequently have to be washed out. You'd end up losing two years of time and money and gain a lot of heartbreak. It simply isn't worth the risk.

Breed Advocacy and Pit Bull Service Dogs

This description is of a group's attempt to train rescue pit bulls for psychiatric service dog work. In their own words, they describe why pit bulls are unsuitable as psychiatric service dogs due to "reflecting the symptoms of their handler's PTSD." They also note that "the longer the team spends together, the more the dog's training would 'unravel' and revert to the genetic disposition of the dog."

Pit Bulls 4 Patriots was launched in 2011 as a specialty group only training rescued pit bulls to help military vets with PTSD. However, in less than a year, their pilot program fully broke down due to problems with the pit bull breed. The pit bulls "sensitivity" puts them at risk of becoming "unbalanced by constantly reflecting the symptoms of their handler's PTSD," they determined. They discovered they needed dogs who were able to provide calm in any situation rather than matching the handler's feelings. It was critical that PTSD service dogs could adapt and recover quickly from stress, and to be resilient enough to do that again and again. For example, while working with greyhounds, the trainers discovered they did "not have to train over any strong genetically bred instincts and drives (such as protection/guarding, being territorial, herding, dog aggression, or hunting)" and that the genetic instincts and drive the dog defaults to (fighting breed vs. greyhound) is a critical matter of safety. When living with someone who has fluctuating weak energy and leadership skills, such as anyone with a psychiatric disorder, a dog will revert to its genetically bred instincts and/or to default behaviors learned in puppyhood. Skilled training can override weaknesses in temperament and high-drive instinctual behaviors, but PTSD handlers would not be able to maintain training over top.


On June 20th Delta Air Lines issued a new policy banning pit bull-type dogs as service and support animals. Delta publicly stated at the time, "we worked with our Advisory Board on Disabilities to develop this more detailed policy." However, the main reason why accredited service dog organizations do not recommend pit bulls as service dogs is primarily because there is no guarantee of success for the years spent training them for this work. As stated by these groups, one must determine what is most important: having a service dog to help you or having a particular breed because you want to be an advocate for the breed? The value placed on breed suitability by these legitimate service dog training organizations cannot be emphasized enough. Shelters and adoption groups rarely explain to a potential adopter that the temperament in pit bulls may not show until the dog reaches adulthood - about the age of two. It is no surprise therefore that according to multiple shelter surveys, the most common age of an unwanted pit bull in the shelter system is 1.5 to 2-years old.

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Do you think it is okay to use pit bulls as service dogs? Why or why not? Leave your comments below and let us know!

About the Author:

Colleen Lynn is the founder and president of She made her first step into social activism in 2007. In 2011 submitted the winning amicus brief in the landmark ruling Tracey v. Solesky (Maryland 2012), which declared pit bulls "inherently dangerous" and attached strict liability when a pit bull attacks a person. Statistical data from has been cited in multiple peer-reviewed medical journals and is frequently cited by media sources. Ms. Lynn has presented written and oral testimony at court and to other governing bodies about this issue.


Canine psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, author of numerous books and over 500 scientific publications on dog psychology, encourages others to participate in our petting events. Also read about the research on the impact our therapy dogs are making at the University of British Columbia.


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