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on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

SDs and Coppinger


I have service dogs on the brain.  Not literally, of course, but as I have children with physical needs who may benefit in the future from specially selected and trained service dogs… I often find myself thinking about them.  It’s a bit like when you are thinking of buying a car and see the kind you’re thinking of absolutely everywhere… or you’re pregnant and all you seem to run into are newborns.  I see service dogs everywhere.


Credit Wikipedia

I have recently been reading Dogs – A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution (written by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger), more specifically the chapter entitled “Assistance Dogs” .  The book is an all encompassing look at working dogs, giving some very interesting and global views of dogs in the world as they have evolved over time.  In true Coppinger fashion, the chapter on service dogs comes from a very practical point of view: considering the welfare of the dogs involved in terms of their health, training methods and ongoing usage has a central focus.  Considering that any attempts to cast a pall on an industry that is considered highly heroic in nature are automatically met with defensiveness, I am truly glad that the Coppinger duo included it in their book.  Ray Coppinger outlined many of the questions I have been struggling with for some time about the use of assistance dogs.  Specifically:

Is assistance dog work mutually beneficial?

Can service dogs appropriately help children?

Should assistance dog programs be breeding or using rescued dogs?

Are there physical or ethical limitations to what a service dog should be used for?


Credit Canadian Service Dog Foundation


Considering how much time, work and money go into raising and training service dogs, how their use and applications are expanding, and how long the wait lists are for most SD (service dog) organizations…. the pressure is on for any dogs in these programs.  Coppinger states: “All the agencies I have consulted with wish they had more dogs.  Their common complaint is the lack of dogs suitable for training.”.  Further, he comments: “If supply could meet demand, it could well be that in the twenty-first century the service dogs will constitute the major types of working dogs…..  Mainly, service dogs are mass-produced in assembly-line fashion, by agencies.  Over half the dogs that enter the system fail.  The failure rate is due in part to abnormally high levels of “genetic” disease, to the inability of many dogs to respond properly to classical or instrumental conditioning, and to high stress levels created by rearing and training programs.”

Nothing I can distill here can replace the breadth of the chapter, which is well worth the read for anyone exploring this topic.  I can, however, share a few of the main points:

– The major mobility SD organizations breed and raise their own dogs.  Breeding dogs do just that and their pups are sterilized before being matched for working.  Genetic issues are showing up more and more over time so some organizations don’t start their training program until they can safely rule out that the dog is affected.  With structural problems (ie. hip dysplasia), this can mean delaying training for 18 months.

– Scenting, hearing and therapy dogs are often gleaned through rescue.

– SAR (search and rescue), police dogs and bomb detection dogs are usually bought from breeders.

– Regardless of origin, at least 50% fail to become full fledged working dogs.  This figure encompasses both health and behavioral issues.  Coppinger theorizes that one of the main reasons for failure due to behavior problems is due to the use of aversive-conditioning techniques.  In Karen Pryor’s book, Reaching the Animal Mind, Pryor claims that through the use of food training, certain organizations have been able to raise their success rate from 35% to 45-65% and with the addition of clicker training (reward based marker training), as high as 85%.  This would certainly seem to bear out Coppinger’s theory.

– When dogs are raised for SD work, they are often raised in a piecemeal fashion (kennel as pups to foster home to kennel with trainer) with little to no regard for appropriate socialization.  “There does not seem to be much institutional realization that in every other field of working dogs, the good ones are carefully developed from tiny puppies.  … I have asked the personnel at several agencies if they had read the classic Scott and Fuller work on critical period for social development.  One geneticist had “heard of it.” That would be like me saying, “Oh, yes, I have heard of Darwin.” End of conversation.”  – Coppinger

– There is no intrinsic motivation for a dog to excel at service work.  Since there is no evidence supporting the idea that dogs doing the work are aware of what they are accomplishing, what is the reward for doing SD work?  It must be external.   As Coppinger rightly points out, sled dogs “run to near-exhaustion because it is socially rewarding to run and be with other running dogs.” So what is the reward for SD work?

Based on what I’ve shared, you might conclude that Coppinger is not a fan of using dogs for assistance work.  That would be an conclusion I don’t want to leave you with, as it would be leading you in the wrong direction.   In fact, he argues that this is one of the most exciting fields for enhancing dog-human relationship – but that we need to make a concerted effort to redesign the system as it currently stands.  I have to say that I fully agree with him.  There are some amazing organizations such as Canine Assistants, focused on the global benefit of their dogs from before they are born and equally dedicated to the use of positive and reward based methods of training.  In order to prevent enslavement of dogs in this industry, we all must care about how SDs are trained and cared for. I truly hope that we can follow Coppinger’s lead and ask for widespread reform that strives towards true mutuality – I know that’s the only way that I can feel comfortable with my children living with assistance dogs.

Credit Canine Assistants

Credit Canine Assistants

Author: offleash

Small farmer, student of canine life, advocate, dog rehab and behavior specialist.

2 thoughts on “SDs and Coppinger

  1. Actually, dogs that don’t want to be service dogs aren’t, unless being pushed into it by bad corporations and if I have to force a dog to do something, that certainly isn’t a dog I want helping make life decisions. I can’t get a dog to alert someone to low glucose levels if it doesn’t want to… see what I’m saying? Why it wants to? Maybe because it’s rewarding just to have praise for it, or because they know something bad happens to their human being whom they love, or they realize alerting brings yummy things like food.

    Enslavement is a bit melodramatic, don’t you think?

    There are very few big, reputable organization (like canine assistants, paws with a cause, canine companions for independence, etc.), that has aversive techniques (except maybe collar corrections) or other crappy things going on — it just wouldn’t be possible for them to get so much money support and so many clients if their dogs were under performing. And socializing a service dog is HUGE. They *have* to be socialized otherwise they’re going to suck at being a service dog.

    There are some awful, big organizations that do have awful dogs but these orgs are… I don’t know… completely different and in a different league than places like canine assistants — Warren Retrievers sends out like 300 dogs a year for 20k, I don’t know how he’s still in business, his dogs plain and simple are poorly trained.

    These “service dogs” you see coming from bad programs, ones that use aversive techniques and don’t socialize? Those dogs quite usually are awful, those dogs are NOT what I would ever call a service dog and couldn’t pass a Public Access Test if their lives depended on it.

    I think his point is useless. He could say the same thing about breeders, because it’s true. You have good breeders, and bad breeders. I could go to a “breeder” for a frug, or a doodle, or whatever else is out there and I could be given their “papers” but it doesn’t change what I’m actually getting… I’m getting a mutt, a very expensive mutt.

    Same thing with service dog organizations. If I go to a place that does a bad job training dogs, that gets dogs that are sick, poorly socialized, with temperament/behavioral problems and doesn’t know tasks/work they can give me as many “certificates” as they want or whatever else… it’s not a service dog.

    And washout rates are high because most of the recipients of these dogs (from reputable organizations) can’t have anything less than perfection. Dogs can be washed out for drooling a lot, or allergies. Many guide dogs or other service dogs that wash out actually get transferred as working dogs in other departments, like narcotics or SAR. I don’t know where the ideas of what dogs come from where came from but really. Ask the guide dog orgs, a lot of their dogs do get transferred for police for or SAR. And a LOT of SAR dogs are rescues, so that’s rather silly to have been said.

    The reason many of the larger, more productive organizations don’t use rescues is because of unknown health or genetics. It would suck to get a puppy from a rescue, thinking it’s going to be the size of a german shepherd, and then it only gets up to 40lbs and turns into a dog aggressive ‘beast’. Genetics play a huge part in personality/temperament. Orgs that go off only or primarily rescues have FAR more washouts than orgs that have their own breeding program for this very reason. And canine assistants, DOES use some rescues as well as other programs like paws with a cause; adults that can be health tested and come with solid temperaments.

    And training a puppy takes 18 to 24 months anyway to become a service dog do ensure they *are* structurally sound. This is with *any* dog. Rescue, ‘normal’ breeder, etc., because growth plates don’t stop growing until then and it would be irresponsible to bear weight on an animal that hasn’t had their hips tested. Genetic problems riddle basically every breed, even the best of breeders are struggling to fight genetic problems, look at golden retrievers for instance — their cancer rates are astronomical even from the best of breeders. It’s not like these orgs are puppy-milling and have no regard to genealogy. It’s that dogs have health problems in general, due to years and years and years of breeding for looks or whatever else.

    Again, there are bad orgs that do have bad dogs coming out, those aren’t service dogs or they’re very poor representations of service dogs and shouldn’t even be included in this article, it should be an entirely different article, because they are worlds apart from what true service dogs should be like. Just like there are “purebred” breeders that are producing mutts.

    It’s not the service dog orgs that need to be redesigned, it’s the entire canine system that needs to get rebooted. Owners, that don’t even know what service dogs are, are abusive to their dogs, on a far greater level than some of the worst service dog orgs I’ve seen. Breeding dogs for fashion (all these hybrid dogs) trends on abusive. What you don’t see behind the curtains the puppies that are being drowned for not matching the “breed” standard. Labradoodles and goldendoodles are wildly inconsistent, including temperament wise. You are not guaranteed to get a curly coat by mixing the breeds, on the contrary, it’s a small percentage. Ever wonder what happens to the puppies that don’t meet the standard? I’ve seen lots of doodles that look just like labs, and I’m glad those ones lived. But what about the ones from bad breeders?

    Purebred dogs already have a standard that they consistently meet, I know every time I breed two poodles I’m going to get a curly coat, so those dogs aren’t going to be put down just because they don’t offer the coat I want.

    The world in general is bad for dogs. If anything, the service dogs I know, reputable places, or reputable owner trainers, are some of the best off dogs I have and probably will ever meet. Those dogs do take their job seriously and perform well, if they didn’t want to they wouldn’t have made the cut — I can’t speak for the cognitive part of why they do it but they do.

    I don’t mean to poo poo on the article, but it is horribly narrow and inaccurate.

  2. I simply talked about the chapter in Coppinger’s book and how I felt about it. You are welcome to take up your issues with him.

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