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.

Assistance Dogs International - Protection/Working Breeds

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.

Handi-Dogs, Inc - Accredited by ADI

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.

International Association of Assistance Dog Partners - IAADP

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.

Service Dog Society

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."