Our dogs are often integral to our daily lives and provide health benefits far beyond what we could have ever imagined. They have learned to follow our commands, work with us in various capacities, and be faithful companions in daily life.
Service dogs encompass all of these abilities, and over the last decade, they have become more commonplace than ever.
What Is a Service Dog?
A service dog helps a person with a disability lead a more independent life. According to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), a “service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”
Key words in this definition include “dog,” “work or task,” and “disability.”
Dogs are the only species recognized as service animals. Although miniature horses are also permitted to assist a person with a disability, the government regulates them under new and separate provisions. The ADA defines service dogs as being primarily working dogs that are not considered pets.
“Work or task” means the dog takes a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. The task the dog performs is directly related to the person’s disability.
“Disability” is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual.
Types of Service Dogs
There are several types of service or assistance dogs:
- guide dog
- hearing dog
- service dog
- psychiatric service dog
Guide dogs help blind and visually impaired individuals navigate the environment.
Hearing dogs help alert deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to important sounds.
Service dogs assist individuals with a disability other than those related to vision or hearing. This includes dogs trained to work with people who use wheelchairs, have balance issues, have autism, need seizure alert or response, or require alert responses to other medical issues like low blood sugar.
Psychiatric service dogs support individuals with invisible impairments, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Schizophrenia, Anxiety, or Depression. Trained to work with their handlers in both private and public settings, they perform tasks and mitigate stress.
Common Service Dog Breeds
The most common breeds for guide dogs and mobility assistance dogs are Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers.
Service dogs range from very small to very large in size. The dog has to comfortably execute the tasks needed to help mitigate a disability. For example, a Papillon is not an appropriate choice to pull a wheelchair but could make an excellent hearing assistance dog.
Service dogs are one dog for one person and perform specific tasks to help that person cope with a disability.
Service dogs are handler-focused, desensitized to distractions, and highly trained to do specific tasks. They are not distracted by the public and instead focus solely on their owner when working. Service dog training can last up to two years and they typically wear a vest that identifies them as a service dog and asks the public not to pet them.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs, like service dogs for disabilities, give assistance to one person. They require similar sensitivities and qualities as service dogs. Assessed for the same service dog requirements, they undergo the same service dog training.
Emotional Support Animals
An emotional support animal (ESA) is not a service dog. Like service dogs, emotional support animals provide support for one person, as recommended by a mental health professional. They are not required to be assessed for the same service dog requirements or undergo the same service dog training.
Therapy dogs are not service dogs — they are one dog for everyone. Therapy dogs and their owners provide opportunities for petting and affection in a variety of settings on a volunteer basis. They bring cheer and comfort to hospital patients, assisted living center and nursing home residents, homeless families, and even stressed travelers in airports. They are excellent anxiety service dogs and relieve stress in workplaces and schools where traumatic events have occurred.
Therapy dogs are not required to undergo strict service dog training but, by nature, they are friendly and outgoing, yet calm and obedient. In training, they are socialized to a variety of people, places, and things, and also learn basic manners and obedience in continuing education workshops. Therapy dogs also typically wear vests, badges, patches, or leashes to identify them when they are working.
Training a Service Dog
Service dog training is a long, arduous process. Dogs must perform their tasks on command or demonstrate they can alert their owner to dangers such as low blood sugar or an oncoming seizure.
Many organizations specifically breed service dogs for specific jobs, then also train them and place them with clients. These organizations have very high standards, and not all dogs pass the final requirements to be placed with an owner. The dropout rate for organization-trained service dogs runs as high as 50 to 70 percent.
Every service dog is trained in tasking skills specific to the handler’s disability as well as public access skills. ADA regulations state that service dogs also are house-trained and under control at all times in public.
A service dog in training should wear a red or blue vest and/or badge. As with fully trained service dogs, this vest identifies it as a working dog that should not be petted or distracted from its duties in a public setting. It also enables public officials such as those in airports to identify service dogs in training.
How to Get a Service Dog
Many people wonder how to get a service dog. Anyone can train or buy a trained service dog. But in order to receive accommodations under the ADA for accommodations regarding service dogs and public access, you must have a diagnosis of a qualifying disability from a health professional. The physician must present a formal letter, written on letterhead, that attests to that disability.
How Much Does a Service Dog Cost?
Service dogs are a significant expense, regardless of where the dogs come from. Organization-trained service dogs can cost up to $25,000. That includes two years of training, plus the organization’s expenses for food and veterinary care. Many organizations offer financial aid for people who need, but cannot afford, a service dog. Owner-trained service dogs are frequently just as expensive when you calculate the cost of professional training assistance and daily living expenses. It is strongly recommended that the owner and dog work with a professional trainer for the life of the dog to ensure working reliability.
How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog
Owner-trained service dogs have become more popular in the last few years. Long waiting lists, the extra time and expense, and the uncertainty of receiving an organization–trained dog have encouraged more people with disabilities to train their own service dogs. If you want to make your dog a service dog, you should consult Assistance Dogs International (ADI) for help with finding a trainer and make sure you are aware of all laws involving service dogs. Your dog must:
- Be calm but friendly.
- Be alert but not reactive.
- Be happy to be touched by anyone, including strangers.
- Have a willingness to please.
- Have a tendency to follow you around.
- Be socialized to many different situations and environments.
- Ability to learn quickly and retain information.
First Steps to Training Your Own Service Dog
Even if you plan to train your own dog as a service dog, you should seek the help of a professional dog trainer. But there are foundation skills that you can start at home that will give your dog a great start on a service dog career.
- Potty on command
- Focus on the handler and ignore distractions
- All AKC Canine Good Citizen objectives
- Public Access skills
Public Access Skills
Service dogs and their handlers have a responsibility each time they go into a public place. The teams present a relaxed, positive image of service dogs. Assistance Dogs International has established standards for service dog behavior in the Public Access Test including, but not limited to:
- Controlled loading into and unloading out of a vehicle.
- Controlled approach to a building.
- Controlled entry and exit through a doorway.
- Heeling through a building.
- Six-foot recall on lead.
- Sit on command in various situations.
- Down on command in various situations.
- Control in a restaurant.
- Control when the leash is dropped.
The main purpose of a service dog is to perform a task specific to the handler’s disability. Often, service dogs perform a range of behaviors that qualify as tasks, in addition to providing unconditional love and companionship to the handler.
Common tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf to noises like ringing phones, pulling a wheelchair, and retrieving dropped items. But not all disabilities are obvious and service dog tasks can also include alerting a person with a seizure disorder or diabetes to an oncoming attack, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, and leading a person with PTSD out of a situation. Anxiety service dogs will even hug an individual during a panic attack, and depression service dogs dial 911, call suicide hotlines, and answer the door.
5 Steps to Becoming a Service Dog
In a nutshell, these are the steps you need to take to make your dog a service dog.
- Identify or acquire a canine that displays the disposition and characteristics necessary for the expected tasks and duties for becoming a service dog in training.
- Hire a professional dog trainer using The Association of Professional Dog Trainers as a reference.
- Train the service dog in foundation skills, AKC Canine Good Citizen objectives, and Public Access skills.
- Pass the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test.
- Buy a service dog vest and ID card, badge, or patch.
Service Dog and ESA Certification
You do not have to register a service dog. Registration or certification of a service dog or ESA is not required by law in the United States. In America, a physician or mental health professional prescribes a certified service dog who is arduously trained to perform necessary tasks and duties for an individual with physical, psychiatric or emotional disabilities.
The [redacted by ADR] and the websites and businesses who offer to register service dogs have no standards or tests. As a result, anyone can register service dogs and call their canines certified service dogs. Unfortunately, even if certification is a scam, many Americans need documentation to answer the questions about “what is a service dog” and the role it performs.
Employers, landlords, hoteliers, and airline personnel will routinely ask for documents when individuals with disabilities are accessing accommodations. Individuals with service dogs should carry their letters from their physicians with them and the service dogs should always wear a service dog vest and ID when in public.
The Epidemic of Fake Service Dogs
Because service dogs have public access to restaurants, stores, and the cabin area of airplanes, some people obtain fake service dog credentials just because they want their dog with them at all times. For a certain amount of money and minimal application standards, a dog owner can receive a vest and certificate for an untrained pet. This practice is unethical and detrimental to the well-being of working service dogs. The exploitation of service dog laws is a federal crime.
Service Dog Information
Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of service dog organizations dedicated to maintaining high standards in the service dog community, educating the public, and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities who utilize service dogs.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much does it cost to train a service dog?
Depending on where you live, what kind of breed you purchase, and what tasks or duties you expect the dog to perform for a person with disabilities, training a service dog is quite costly. Professional dog trainers charge between $150–250 per hour. Even if you make your own dog a service dog, expect to invest at least $7,000. On the high end, you can spend $25,000 or more.
How long does it take to train a service dog?
Most service dogs require 18–24 months of training by a professional. Even if you already own a dog that follows basic commands, it will take about two years, give or take, to become fully trained to assist a person with disabilities.
What qualifies a dog as a service dog?
Good qualities for a service dog include an eagerness to please, a tendency to follow you around, a relaxed but friendly demeanor, and alert but not reactive behavior. Good service dogs welcome touch from anyone, including children and strangers. They are adaptable to many different situations and stay calm in new environments. Finally, they have to learn quickly and retain new information.
Can I train my own service dog?
Yes. If your dog exhibits the desired qualities of a service dog, you can train your own service dog. You should still seek the advice and knowledge of a professional dog trainer and expect to put in the required time that it takes for full training of your dog.