NEADS Breeding Program - Frequently Asked Questions

NEADS dogs are primarily Labrador Retrievers specially bred for health, temperament, and longevity. With a NEADS-driven Breeding Program, we are less reliant on external sources for puppies that have a temperament and health profile that meet our world Class Service Dog standards.  Controlling for temperament, health, and overall suitability for Service Dog work enables us to increase our pool of purpose-bred Service Dogs. This is key to ensuring that we can get more dogs through training and place more dogs with people in need.

Q: Why a NEADS Breeding Program?

A: NEADS has invested in its breeding program with the goal to continually improve the quality of dog that we produce and match with clients in behavior, genetics, and health. Producing the puppies ourselves and not relying on other organizations to provide them allows us to meet our puppy production goals, which in turn allows us to meet our goal of serving more clients.

We strive to maintain genetic diversity through collaborating with other top-quality industry partners across North America through careful and intentional mate selection.

Q: What is the ABC Breeding Cooperative?

A: NEADS is part of the ABC Breeding Cooperative (ADI North America Breeding Cooperative), which consists of about 40 Service Dog and Guide Dog organizations who work together to support the breeding and raising of purpose-bred dogs across North America.

ABC does not own any dogs - each member organization cares for and raises their own dogs that are enrolled in ABC. ABC has a committee that oversees the breeder selection process for potential breeding candidates. Once dogs are accepted into the ABC breeding colony, ABC manages mate selection for each breeding and puppy distribution of each litter.

Q: Why did you start your own breeding program vs using shelter dogs?

NEADS values and respects the work that rescue organizations and shelters do on behalf of pets who need homes and has its roots in working with rescues. But, our primary mission is to be able to serve people with disabilities, and by focusing on purpose-bred dogs, we are able to do that at a much higher rate.

In our earliest days, when many of our dogs came from shelters, our graduation rate (dogs who made it through training) was well below industry standards. In fact, the shelter dog success rate is about 20%.

About 20 years ago, when we introduced purpose-bred puppies from Guiding Eyes for the Blind and other respected Service Dog organizations into the mix, it became evident that by focusing on dogs with specific temperaments and excellent health, we could increase our graduation rate to be more aligned with industry standards (52%-58%). A NEADS-driven breeding program allows us to be more independent and self-sufficient and gives us more control over access to these purpose-bred Service Dogs.

When working with shelter dogs, only 1 out of every 5 dogs are matched with a client. With purpose bred dogs, 1 out of every 2 dogs is matched with a client. We believe that by continuing to invest in and grow our breeding program, we’ll be able to increase that graduation rate even more, and thus be able to serve even more people with disabilities.

Q: Why did you start your own breeding program vs. working with private Labrador Retriever breeders?

A: NEADS supports the work that ethical private breeders do through their breeding programs in their homes. But, our primary mission is to be able to serve people with disabilities, and by focusing on purpose-bred dogs, we are able to do that at a much higher rate.

 
Purpose breeding: There are many private Labrador Retriever breeders across the country. These breeders may have a variety of goals for their breeding program: show ring conformation goals, hunting goals, companion animal goals, or others. These goals are valid, but they are not the goal of breeding toward the sole purpose of creating optimal service dog candidates for NEADS.
 
Ability to scale: The size of breeding programs for private breeders is typically much smaller than the NEADS breeding program. A private breeder may only keep one puppy from a litter and decide to breed that dog as an adult if it's a good candidate. At NEADS, we may be selecting our breeder dogs from a group 20 candidates, or 80 candidates if we are working through ABC. The breadth of choice that we have access to allows us to select the best candidates.
 
The scale at which the NEADS breeding program is able to produce puppies far outpaces what private breeders are able to provide. A private breeder may only donate or a sell us 1-2 puppies per litter. To acquire 50 puppies, we would need to seek out 25-50 litters. Whereas through our breeding program, we could breed 50 puppies in roughly 7 litters.
Q: What are the differences between a purpose-bred dog and a shelter dog?

A purpose-bred dog is a dog that is intentionally bred for the specific job of Service Dog work at NEADS. Purpose-breeding takes in account:

  • genetics;
  • family history of littermates, parents and other relatives often 5+ generations back;
  • temperament & behavior through multiple time points in each dog’s training; and
  • extensive early socialization in the critical developmental period of puppies.

A shelter dog is a dog where much of this information is largely unknown - unknown family history, unknown genetics, unknown behavior history, unknown early socialization. Taking on a shelter dog is a big risk - there could be medical issues in the family history of which we are unaware which pop up in the dog 5 years down the line, several years after they’ve been placed with a client. Or, the shelter dog could have had a negative experience with loud noises when it was a young puppy, and now no amount of training can get that shelter dog to the level of comfort it needs to be at to be a working Service Dog.

And while it may seem counter-intuitive, these unknowns often mean that the cost to train and get a shelter dog through the program can be higher than the cost of training a purpose-bred dog.

Q: Is a purpose-bred dog the same thing as a pure-bred dog?

A: No. As discussed above, a purpose-bred dog is bred for a specific function - in our case the job of Service Dog work at NEADS. In purpose breeding, the specific breed of dog is not as important as the purpose. Historically, NEADS does primarily work with Labrador Retrievers as they have been purpose-bred for generations and generations in the Service and Guide Dog industries. We do however also work with and raise Glabs, or Golden Retriever/Labrador Retriever crosses. 

In contrast, a pure-bred dog is a dog that is bred only through the use of dogs within the same breed. The breed itself might have a job or function - such as retrieving, livestock guarding, livestock herding, or companion, but in pure-bred dog breeding it is very important that dogs used to produce the next generation are of the same breed.

Returning to the Glab example, a Glab can be purposefully bred, but would not be considered pure-bred.

Q: What are critical periods of development, and why are they important to Service Dog work?

Critical periods of development are periods of time during an animal’s life when the brain is essentially poised to learn and process information in a way that has a big impact on behavior in adult life. Critical periods are times when a little bit of exposure or work has big payoffs later in life. A human example of a critical period of learning is that studies show that a human child that starts learning a language by the age of 10 is able to achieve proficiency of a native speaker, whereas an adult that starts to learn a new language oftentimes struggles to achieve language proficiency even after years of classes and practicing.

The critical period of socialization in Labrador Retrievers is around 4 weeks of age - 16 weeks of age. As an example, a puppy that is exposed to children just once or twice during this time period is much more likely to be behaviorally sound around children as an adult, or be able to be easily trained to be comfortable around children. A puppy that is not exposed to children during the critical window is more likely to be fearful of children as an adult, and because it was not exposed during that window, it’s possible that no amount of training or re-exposure will fix the fear of children, and the dog will not be able to be placed as a Service Dog.

With an unknown history in the critical period of a shelter dog, there are potentially issues that can crop up in the dog’s Service Dog training for which no amount of training from our World Class Service Dog trainers can fix, because the dog does have the foundation of a solid critical period.

Q: What does NEADS focus on in the critical period?

In the critical period, NEADS places a big emphasis on new experiences and exposures. If you walk into our nursery, it may remind you of a preschool classroom. It’s a place where the puppies learn about things that can happen in the real world on a small scale:

  • Different surfaces: grates, rubber mats, artificial turf, wobble boards, cookie sheets
  • Different noises: wind chimes, TV shows, variety of music from classical to country to hip hop to movie sound effects, vacuum cleaner, blender, accordion, piano & xylophone, power tools
  • Different people: staff, volunteers, children, people with beards, old people, young people
  • Different novel objects: pinwheels blowing in the wind, plastic owls with giant eyes, garden gnomes, baby toys that move and play music
  • Different experiences: water touching their body, going on a car ride, flags and objects hanging from the ceiling, having a variety of objects touch their bodies, playing in a ball pit, playing outside in the rain vs. a warm sunny day
  • Different body sensations: wearing a little gentle leader as they nurse, wearing a cape as they eat their breakfast, walking through a tunnel or a tight space, wearing a baby sock on their foot or a scrunchie around their leg for short periods of time
Q: Your broods have multiple litters. Is NEADS overbreeding?

A: NEADS breeds with the goal of producing a certain number of puppies for our program each year.

Each female will have 3 to 5 litters, with plenty of time in between litters. This number of litters is on par with industry standards and is not biologically harmful to the dog. Note that each female could be bred more than three to five times if a breeding does not take.

DID YOU KNOW? Animals are biologically built to reproduce. None of us, human or non-human animals, would be here today without reproduction. Dogs do not go through menopause like humans and therefore retain the ability to reproduce throughout their entire lives. An unspayed female dog could have 20+ heat cycles in her lifetime. NEADS is breeding for a short portion of the dog’s reproductive life, spaying the dog, and allowing the dog to live out the rest of its life as a cherished pet.

Q: Where do the Breeder dogs live and who cares for them?

A: During the breeding career for a female, the dog is placed in a home with a volunteer Breeder Caretaker who maintains the health and safety of the dog while it lives in the comfort of a home and receives love and cuddles every day. The female comes to NEADS for breedings and for whelping/raising their litters and returns to the Breeder Caretaker in between litters. Once the dog is retired from breeding, the dog is adopted as a pet, most often by the Breeder Caretaker.

Q: Where do our purpose-bred dogs and breeding stock come from?

In general, all the purpose-bred dogs we work with are generated from within the Service and Guide Dog industry. Our three main sources of breeding stock are:

Guiding Eyes for the Blind: We have a close relationship with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. We either acquire puppies from Guiding Eyes at 8 weeks of age if it is determined that they are not a good fit for guide dog work, or we whelp and raise litters of puppies for Guiding Eyes when they run out of space in their own facility. We then retain a portion of that litter in exchange for raising them. In either situation, these puppies enter our program and we have the option to raise them intact and assess them when they are older to determine if they will enter our breeding colony as breeding stock. Once puppies or dogs from Guiding Eyes enter our program, we own them as dogs.

ABC Breeding Cooperative (ADI North America Breeding Cooperative): The ABC Coop is another big source of puppies for our program. Each school that is a member of ABC has a different portion of its program dogs involved in ABC - at some schools all of the dogs might be enrolled in ABC, at other schools it might be the minority or the majority of dogs enrolled in ABC. Currently at NEADS, about half of our breeding stock is enrolled in ABC.

Autonomous Breeding Dogs: We refer to the breeding stock that is not enrolled in ABC as autonomous breeding dogs. We own and make decisions about autonomous breeding dogs; however, we often collaborate with other schools (most of whom are also involved in ABC) to make mating pairs since we have a small breeding colony and would have limited breeding options only looking at our own dogs. When we collaborate with other schools, we might ask a school to use their stud dog for one of our broods, and then pay them with a puppy from the litter. Through autonomous breeding, we are able to produce dogs that are solely NEADS-bred and owned dogs.

Libby litter (5)