What Are Service Dogs?
Service dogs are dogs that aid people with disabilities. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs help their owners perform tasks directly related to their disabilities. This is what distinguishes service dogs from emotional support dogs or other types of working dogs.
Service dogs can be any breed or size, as long as they can assist their owners correctly. If you have a dog and want it to be your service dog, it's possible. But it's often best to adopt a dog that's already trained as a service dog.
The use of service dogs has rapidly grown in recent years, and that has created some confusion. Here are a few of the common questions and issues.
Is a dog in a vest a service dog? Maybe. Some service dogs wear special vests, collars, or tags. But the ADA doesn't require any special identification on a service dog. And some dogs wearing ID vests and tags are not service dogs.
Emotional support dogs vs. service dogs. Emotional support animals (ESAs) comfort a person simply with their presence. Dogs can be ESAs. But the ADA doesn't consider an ESA a service animal because it isn't trained to do a specific job or service for a person with a disability. However, some people with psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders have service dogs that are trained to sense a panic attack and take action to help. If the dog's role is only to comfort an anxious person, then it's an emotional support animal, not a service dog.
Other types of non-service dogs. Therapy dogs and their owners visit such places as hospitals, nursing homes, airports, and college dorms to give people a chance to interact with the animals. The petting and affection can help reduce stress. Therapy dogs also can help people who've have been through traumatic events such as natural disasters. Another type of non-service dog is the courthouse dog. They're are allowed, in some states, to be with a child or other vulnerable person during trials. Certain places – such as schools, courthouses, and medical buildings – might have a dog that stays there regularly to comfort anyone who needs it. These are called "facility dogs."
Fake service dogs. Federal law allows service dogs into places where a pet might not otherwise be permitted. That has led some people to misrepresent their pets as service dogs when the animals don't have the training and don't perform specific tasks for their owners. These dogs can end up in situations they aren't trained to handle. That can be dangerous for them, people around them, and for trained service dogs. "Fake" service dogs can also undercut the public's understanding of what service dogs do and hurt acceptance for them. State and local governments are working on laws to address this problem.
Service Dog Types
Service dogs are trained to work with people with disabilities. Those conditions can affect your physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental well-being. Dogs can be trained to pull wheelchairs, get medicine, remind you to take medicine, help keep you stable while walking, and alert you to important sounds or dangerous things in your way.
Types of service dogs include:
- Hearing or signal dogs that alert people with hearing problems to sounds in the room or area
- Dogs that help people who have physical disabilities or use wheelchairs to open doors or carry items
- Guide dogs that help people with vision issues get around
Which disabilities qualify for a service dog? Some of the more common conditions are:
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease)
- Heart problems
- Cerebral palsy
- Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscular dystrophy
- Parkinson's disease
- Spinal cord injury
- Blindness or low vision
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Psychiatric service dogs. These animals do a specific task or service for a person with a mental health condition. Service dogs for anxiety disorders, for instance, can sense changes in their owners and alert them to symptoms, such as an anxiety attack. If you have a dissociative disorder, a dog could help keep you from wandering into danger.
Service dogs for autism. A service dog can help a keep person with autism safe. The dog might be trained to stop you from running or alert others if you're in a dangerous situation. Dogs can also interrupt harmful behaviors. A dog can ease transitions for those who have trouble reading social cues. For people who are especially young or non-verbal, their dogs can carry important information, such as emergency contacts.
Service dogs for veterans. If you're a veteran with PTSD, a dog can maintain your personal space in addition to alerting to symptoms of panic attacks or flashbacks. A dog can make you more comfortable at home by searching a room and turning on lights.
Service dogs for seizures. A dog can aid you during a seizure by moving you to a safe place, fetching medicine, using pressure to shorten the episode, or helping you regain consciousness. Dogs can also go for help or even make calls using special alert phones. Can dogs be trained to detect seizures before they happen? The research is unclear, though some believe dogs may be able to intuit changes in their owners naturally.
Diabetic service dogs. These dogs are trained to detect dangerously high or low blood sugar. You can then test your blood and take the right medicine. A dog also can be trained to set off an alarm or alert someone else if you're having a medical emergency. Some can call for help using special phones. Dogs can also carry important information that will help first responders.
Common Service Dog Breeds
People started training service dogs in the early 1900s. German shepherds used to be the most popular, but there are many different breeds of service dogs now. Among the most common:
- Golden retrievers
- Australian shepherds
- Standard poodles
- Border collies
- Great Danes
- Bernese mountain dogs
- Portuguese water dogs
Some dogs excel as service animals because they're intelligent and easy to train, such as border collies and poodles. Pomeranians work well if you don't have a lot of space. Great Danes, because of their size, are sturdy companions if you have balance and mobility issues. Golden retrievers are bred to fetch objects. Labradors and Portuguese water dogs are especially friendly breeds. German shepherds and boxers are very protective.
How Much Do Service Dogs Cost?
The cost of training a service dog can be as much as $25,000, which can include sessions to educate the owner and follow-up work.
Some groups that provide service dogs are nonprofits, and others are money-making businesses. There are organizations that provide service dogs for free or offer financial help.
Insurance doesn't usually cover the cost of a service dog. Veterans may be able to get a service dog covered through their VA benefits.
You also can consider training your own dog as a service animal.
How to Get a Service Dog
There aren't any laws against training one yourself. But it's recommended to have your service dog trained by professional instructors.
Training. No matter how you get a service dog, they usually go through a tough training program with an experienced trainer. In the last month of training, the service dog spends time together with you and the instructor. The instructor teaches the dog to help you specifically and tells you how to command, handle, and care for the dog.
Organizations. Some training organizations are nonprofits that give you a free service dog or a grant to pay for one. Some might charge a fee. It’s important to work with an experienced organization. Ask for recommendations and carefully check them out before choosing a dog.
Where to Get a Service Dog
You can find nonprofit groups, businesses, and individuals who train service dogs almost anywhere in the U.S.
It's important, though, to work with an experienced and reputable source to get your service dog. Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose website lets you search for providers by region.
How to Train Your Own Service Dog
Service dogs need obedience skills as well as other very specific skills. When you think about how to get a service dog, consider finding one with relevant traits.
A service dog should:
- Be calm
- Be able to learn and hold onto information
- Be alert, but not reactive
- Be ready and willing to please
- Be capable of handling lots of different situations and areas
- Be trained to work with you directly for your disability
To train a service dog, you should start with basic obedience skills. These include:
- House training, including pooping on command in some places
- Focusing on you
- Ignoring distractions
- Being able to stay on task in new places with new people, smells, and animals
Are There Any Service Dog Laws?
If you have a service dog, some laws apply. Generally, a service dog is allowed to go with you anywhere you go, even if regular dogs are not allowed.
Local laws. Service dogs must meet local laws to be licensed, registered, and vaccinated and must obey public health laws. This means they can’t swim in a public pool, but they have to be allowed on the pool deck. You can’t be forced to register your dog as a service dog. Service dogs can’t be refused because of their breed.
Controlled. Service dogs must be under the control of their handler at all times. This means they can’t be left alone in hotel rooms or in public spaces. They must be leashed and obedient unless they're working off-leash. For example, the dog could be off-leash to fetch or check an area out.
Privacy. An employee in a public area can only ask you if the dog is a service dog required for a disability and what work the dog is trained to do. Staff members can’t ask you to show your service dog doing the tasks. Also, an employee can’t ask you for documentation or ask about your disability.
Vests. Your service dog doesn’t have to wear a vest in public. Some people with service dogs like to use vests so that other people in public don’t touch the dog without permission.
Where can service dogs go? Places service dogs include:
- Housing at public and private universities
- Public housing run by state, city, or county governments
- Emergency shelters
- Salad bars and self-serve food lines
- In the plane's cabin with you when you fly, with certain exceptions
Things to Watch Out For
Know the law. Many programs offer service-dog certification programs. But these certifications don't prove that the dog is a service animal. In fact, the ADA doesn't require any sort of certificate or proof that your service dog is trained.
Research whatever program you chose. If you decide to put your dog into a training program, do extensive research to make sure it’s reputable. Training programs can cost thousands of dollars, so make sure you get your money’s worth. Things like referrals and reviews can go a long way to ensure the best experience for you and your dog.
Make sure you can answer two questions. The ADA says that you're only required to answer two questions if it is not apparent that your dog is a service dog: “Is the dog a service animal needed because of a disability?" and “What work or task has the dog been trained to do?" You must be able to accurately answer both questions for the dog to be seen as a service dog.
Service dog registration. Mandatory registration of service animals is illegal, according to the ADA. Any municipality that says so violates the ADA. But regional registration and vaccination rules for pets also apply to service animals.
Remember that the ADA leaves the training up to the dog owner entirely. As long as your service animal can fulfill your needs, it is a service animal. While this may require additional training to accomplish, it doesn’t have to.
Keeping Your Service Dog Healthy
It’s important to keep your dog healthy so that they can best help you. Give your dog access to plenty of fresh water and a balanced diet, and keep their vaccinations updated. Your dog also needs yearly visits to the vet to make sure you catch any changes in their health.