Why at ADW do we select predominantly purebred dogs – in fact, almost exclusively purebred dogs — to train as our service dogs? That’s a question I get asked a lot.
The answer lies in Purpose Breeding. Simply explained, purpose-bred dogs perform a specific job, from hunting game to herding livestock to working in service to a person with disabilities, having the inborn qualities needed to succeed.
Dog breeds truly became “breeds,” because of the specific skill sets they offered to improve humans’ lives. Chihuahuas were used to keep tarantulas out of the houses in Mexico. Basset or “low” hounds flushed water fowl in French swamps where their long ears literally retained the scent. Herding dogs that are “nippy” nip the heels of calves, to communicate a get-back-over-there message. Guard dogs are canine sentries. Marking and maintaining their property perimeter is their equivalent of Google Maps.
Purpose breeding demonstrates both the longevity and depth of our partnerships with dogs.
At ADW some of the the breed lines that we work with stretch back 70 years. They illustrate the incredible skills to which dogs can be trained — for example, to jump in tandem with their humans out of aircraft flying at 30,000 feet. Consider these the purposes you see in action movies.
At ADW, our needs of course are different from the Navy SEALS, but some of our service-dog partner breeders also know extremely well the traits of their dogs because of the longevity and quality of their purpose breeding.
Speaking as a dog trainer, purpose breeding is a key tool in taking the guesswork out of training assistance dogs, who will frequently encounter unfamiliar situations.
Our range of clients’ needs speaks to how complex our training needs are for every single dog that enters our program. That’s where purpose breeding plays its most key role.
As we have expanded our programs to include medical alert dogs, for instance, who can sense approaching seizures or diabetic complications, I get very specific as I evaluate a litter of puppies. A medical alert dog prospect, for example, must be a purpose-bred dog with a great sense of wanting to be with you, without any encouragement. I am also seeking out the pup with a great sniffer — and not only the pup with the great sniffer but the great sniffer who is going to jump up on me.
That quality of the dog’s wanting to push into me with his body tells me that the dog will by nature be willing to issue his human a medical alert cue, body to body, over and over again. Just as the task required of search-and-rescue dogs is multi-faceted — sniffing out the rescue party, then going back to the search party to lead the search party to the rescue — so is the medical alert dog’s job a complex sequence of actions that must be taken to alert a problem.
Hence that same dog who throws himself on me as a puppy, will likely be good at prodding me over and over again with his nose to issue a medical alert.
Conversely, a puppy who jumps on me is not likely the best candidate for mobility dog assistance training.
In a mobility dog I seek out excellent physical conformation in the animal, befitting the many physical activities the dog will need to do in service. I also test the puppies for patience. It might realistically take a mobility client 30 seconds to pull a treat out to reward the dog.
Also critical to what we do at ADW is pair socially isolated clients with dogs who can help them be out in public. That’s a two-way street. Consider how much easier it is for people in public access settings to perceive breeds like Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers and Labradoodles as friendly and non-threatening, compared, say, to Rottweilers or Dobermans.
All this hopefully helps give an answer to the emotional question about why we train purebred dogs almost exclusively, rather than shelter dogs – in short, because it is often impossible to know the trauma histories of shelter dogs, or which breeding characteristic of the “mixed breed” might prevail when the dog is faced with an unfamiliar situation.
My job at ADW is to take as much of the gamble as possible out of the training scenario – and that’s where purpose breeding is my best friend.