On occasion I receive an inquiry from someone who is interested in one of the guarding breeds as her future Service Dog. Guardian breeds, like the Great Pyrenees, Mastiff, Anatolian Shepherd or Kuvasz are quite different from most other breeds that are designed to hunt, in some way. Terriers, hounds, sporting dogs and herding dogs have a similar motivating force which causes them to move out and away to pursue quarry to catch, kill, retrieve or contain and control. On the contrary, the guarding breeds have very little desire to leave the home turf, castle or farm or flock. They stay connected with their home base and dedicate most of their resources to detecting threats, and barking the threat away. If the threat enters their home base boundaries, then the dog can be ferocious and attack the intruder.
There are individuals who read that description and think that a guarding breed is exactly what they have been wanting to help mitigate their symptoms. However, personal protection is outside of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) definition of a Service Dog. Guarding breeds are not well designed for Service Dog work.
To understand why I strongly recommend against selecting a guarding breed as a Service Dog, an understanding of the breeds’ basic motivation must be weighed against the qualities that make great Service Dogs. Even seeing- eye dogs, that help a blind person negotiate through life, are never truly in charge. They are working for a benevolent leader who is calling the shots. To be successfully paired with a Service Dog, the individual must assume the helm, maintain the proper relationship with the dog, practice skills and reinforce social compliance so that the dog can work autonomously when necessary without taking over the relationship.
An example in the human world is the difference between a manager and someone who works for him. The CEO in a pharmaceutical company doesn’t have to be a scientist, marketing expert or quality assurance specialist. He may not have the education to develop a new treatment for cancer, but he must know how to lead the people who do the specific jobs towards that goal. If he goes on vacation, the people who report to him continue to perform their jobs because they respect the rank structure in the company and they accept their position. In exchange, they receive wages. If they make mistakes, their manager must be fair, but deliver consequences. Most human-dog relationship can be sustained in a similar manner.
Retrievers, herding dogs and many other working breeds are able to assimilate into normal human society with relative ease. They hunt, herd or pull wagons for a human authority figure. The can be taught to exist within specific boundaries and they are motivated to work for or with a human. But the guarding breeds are highly independent, self-thinkers that are not extremely motivated to be obedient to authority. To understand this, one needs only recognize that many of the livestock guarding breeds were developed to remain with the flock (goat, sheep, poultry) alone, sometimes for months. The shepherd moved the livestock to lush pastures (perhaps up a mountain) for an entire summer and only brought the flock back home during winter months. There were no self-feeders for the guarding dogs. They needed to fend for themselves, yet stay close to the flock scanning for predators. They tend to be very vocal (barking frequently when on duty) and they can be active at night because that is when most threats to their charges might invade. [the header photo is our Great Pyrnees, Clara, with our flock of sheep – back when we had sheep!]
The guarding breeds are not driven to please the way that a herding or retrieving dog is. They are satisfied with their own capacity to make sound decisions regarding the property or animals that they are destined to protect. For that reason, they are often considered stubborn.
They are highly perceptive, which may seem like a good thing if you want your dog to perceive your shifts from normal (seizure, panic attack, PTSD flashback) and help you through that condition. Unfortunately, they are not as likely to use their wonderful detection prowess to evaluate the status of their owner as much as other perceived threats in the environment. They react when they feel that something is not normal. A guarding breed can trigger when the dog senses a person’s fear. Here’s an example:
The Service Dog handler has asked her dog to assume a down position next to her chair in a waiting room.
A person walks into the room, sees the dog’s massive size and is surprised and a little afraid. That causes him to projects an off-kilter “energy” that dogs can detect.
The guarding dog instinctively perceives that the approaching person is not acting ‘normal.’ So, he lets out an initial, soft “woof.” It is a very common behavior of guarding breeds.
The stranger hears the woof and his fears are heightened. Again, that fear is projected as “energy” that the dog can perceive.
The dog evaluates the stranger as a threat and he stands up and let’s out another “woof.” Guarding breeds are independent, self-thinkers and are confident in their natural ability to evaluate very subtle shifts in the environment.
The Service Dog handler is caught off guard by the dog’s initial woof, and the dog perceives her energy shift from calm-relaxed, to alert or worried. The handler’s energy shift reinforces the dog’s initial perception that the approaching person is, indeed, a threat. If his owner is anxious, the dog may believe it is due to the approaching person.
The handler becomes concerned when her dogs breaks the down-stay command, and stands up. She knows that the person is not a threat. He is, in fact, her doctor or a friend. So, she cannot understand why her dog is acting aggressively. She may worry that there is something wrong with her dog. Her initial anxiety snowballs when the dog barks again, and pulls on the leash. After all, such a massive dog is very difficult to control if it doesn’t remains obedient and compliant. Feeling that she cannot control the situation, the handler’s apprehension intensifies. Feeling that his handler is worried about the approaching individual makes the dog believe that he must take control of the threat.
Having worked with many Mastiff-type breeds and also having owned Great Pyrenees that were employed as flock guardians on my ranch, I have a keen respect for their natural talents. They are wonderful dogs that are equipped with a special set of skills that make them exceptional workers. But, in my opinion, they are not well suited for Service Dog work. Most Service Dog handlers need the dog to be perceptive of their shifts from normal, or their physical or psychiatric needs. The dog needs to have a very strong capacity to demonstrate obedience to authority – even when the handler is not able to act as a strong leader for the dog. There are many other breeds that are better equipped for that work. And, it must be said that most of the guarding breeds fall into the “giant” size category. That sized dog can be very cumbersome in many locations, including school classrooms, public transportation and restaurants. If you ever plan to fly with your dog, an airline cannot safety permit a giant sized dog in the cabin of the aircraft, and your dog will be stowed below.
While I would consider any breed as a possible Service Dog, the challenges that some breeds may continually place on their disabled handlers is often the deal-breaker. All breeds have their endearing and useful traits. But, they are not all equal with regards to performing the work of a Service Dog.