Best service dog breeds: Which canines excel at caring for humans?

A female care assistant and a labrador playing with an autistic boy
(Image credit: Getty)

Our canine companions make for great pets but the best service dog breeds have a very special purpose. They are trained to assist people who have physical or mental disabilities. They will also help anyone living with a life-threatening condition, or lend a paw to anyone with special needs.

In many respects, they are doggy superheroes. Highly trainable and eager to please, they can enable humans to lead an independent life. Guide dogs, for example, are invaluable assistants for anyone who is blind or partially-sighted, effectively becoming their eyes and ensuring their safety. Service animals can also be trained to alert people who are deaf.

Yet that's not all. The American Disabilities Act, says these powerful pooches can be taught to pull wheelchairs, protect people having a seizure, calm someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack, and remind people to take their medication. 

Indeed, they are so useful and important that it's illegal to discriminate against them in so many countries. Service dogs cannot be refused entry into shops, restaurants, hotels, public buildings, banks and taxis even if other furbabies aren't allowed in. They must, however, be well-trained and certified, but the majority of them are. If you’re wondering how to train a service dog, this step-by-step guide can help you get started.  

What are the Fab Four service dogs?

Any breed can be a service dog but some are more suitable than others, primarily because they have the temperament to carry out important tasks. Of all the breeds, four are said to be most ideal – to the point they have been dubbed the Fab Four: proving it's not just a group of musical lads from Liverpool, England, who get to bear that name!

Labrador Retrievers are arguably top of the service dog breeds. They are generally easy to train because they are eager to please, friendly and love being around humans. Their exceptional intelligence also ensures they understand what is being asked of them. In fact, according to Prof Stanley Coren, author of the seminal 1994 book The Intelligence of Dogs, Labrador Retrievers are among the 10 smartest breeds, capable of solving problems and understanding up to 250 words.

It's why they have proven to be so adaptable, certainly proving their worth as amazing, loyal guide dogs. They are relaxed, gentle and capable of making judgement calls. They're also just the right height and easy to groom.

Golden retrievers are also among the Fab Four. More sensitive and less vocal than Labradors, they are actually in Prof Coren's top five for intelligence. Again, they are gentle, loyal and trainable, proving to be another people-pleaser who enjoys being given tasks.

As well as being good guide dogs, Golden retrievers can help people with a hearing impairment and they can be trained to carry out specific tasks. They are more than able to gently carry items in their mouths without causing damage and they also prove steady on their leads.

Next up are Standard Poodles (number two in Prof Coren's list!). One of the easiest dogs to train, they can pick up new commands with fewer than five repetitions and they will obey the first command at least 95 percent of the time.

These dogs also adore training sessions and love learning new things. They tend to be paired with people with a hearing impairment but they are also good at fetching things, acting as guide dogs and helping people with life-threatening allergies and diabetes. Some poodles are used to assist with mental disabilities and seizures as well.

Last but certainly not least, Collies round up the Fab Four. Bred as herding dogs, they have great stamina, a good brain and a sensitive nose. They can quickly pick up on sounds and they are sensitive to people's moods. 

This makes them particularly useful as psychiatric dogs, coming to the aid of people who struggle sleeping or have thoughts about harming themselves. They are also great with people who need physical assistance and their extreme sense of protectiveness make them wonderful to have around.

A golden retriever assistance dog getting a hug from his human at a PTSD support group

(Image credit: Getty)

Best service dog breeds for PTSD and anxiety

As you can imagine, the Fab Four are versatile. Each of them are known to be among the best service dog breeds for PTSD and anxiety but so too are German Shepherds, Pomerarians, Border Collies, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

You can discover more about the best dogs for anxiety in our guide but, in general, service dog breeds that are trained for psychiatric assistance are good at spotting changes in human behavior. They will wake someone who appears distressed when they are sleeping. They will also fetch vital medicine and ensure that someone having an anxiety attack in a public place is safely led away.

Indeed, a lot of service dogs’ good work has been well documented, with evidence that they transform lives and reduce rates of suicide, especially among veterans. Wonderful organizations such as Service Dogs UK are making great strides in using pooches to overcome feelings of isolation and depression, allowing people to gain a greater sense of purpose.

Best service dog breeds for autism

By extension, service dogs can also help with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. According to the UK-based charity, Dogs for Autism, they can increase people's independence, help people attend medical appointments, make busy spaces feel less overwhelming and reduce anxiety and sensory overload.

The charity connects people with autism with Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Cavaliers but that's not to say other dogs are not suitable. German Shepherds, Standard Poodles and even large yet gentle dogs such as Saint Bernards, Newfoundlands and Great Pyrenees are often recommended.

The important thing is that the chosen breed is gentle, loving, loyal and patient. The more focused a dog is, the less distracted and more attentive they will be. Socialization is a big problem for a lot of autistic children and service dog breeds can help them to develop social skills.

Best seizure alert dog breeds

Most of the dogs we have looked at are also amazing at helping people living with a seizure disorder. Certainly, the Fab Four are more than capable of picking up on chemical changes in human bodies, allowing them to take swift action. 

What is perhaps surprising is that no one knows for sure exactly how dogs do this but it's rather remarkable. They can detect epileptic seizures up to 45 minutes before they occur, for example, and it would appear that they may be doing so by detecting a distinctive odor in sweat. 

Researchers at Medical Mutts in Indianapolis were unable to identify the chemicals or even the point at which they are released but the work has led to standards being considered so that dogs can be better trained.

A golden retriever comforting an old lady in a hospital bed

(Image credit: Getty)

Good emotional support dog breeds

But what about non-service dogs that are nevertheless invaluable? Well, the law does not consider emotional support dogs or therapy dogs to be service dogs so there are fewer rights surrounding them. 

Yet, as we say in our guide to the 11 best dogs for emotional support, they are capable of lowering blood pressure, helping with depression and generally being a dependable rock. Of course, the Fab Four figure in the list but that was always to be expected, wasn't it? 

David Crookes

David Crookes has been a journalist for more than 20 years and he has written for a host of magazines, newspapers, websites and books including World of Animals, BBC Earth, Dogs and Canines, Gadget and The Independent. Born in England, he lives in a household with two cats but he’s also keenly interested in the differences between the huge number of dog breeds — in fact, you can read many of his breed guides here on PetsRadar. With a lifelong passion for technology, too, he’s always on the lookout for useful devices that will allow people to spend more time with their pets.