What Are Service Dogs?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz June 01, 2020

Over 500,000 individuals are partnered with service dogs in the United States (Trainer, 2016). These dogs allow people with disabilities to have access to public services that most people take for granted. In addition to service dogs, there are emotional support animals or therapy dogs. This can cause confusion for many people and business as these dogs are not guaranteed the same permissions. This article will discuss what makes service dogs so special as well as what rights people with service dogs are granted.

What Are Service Dogs?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a service dog is defined as:

“A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Service dogs allow handlers to live, work, and travel with independence, freedom, and dignity, significantly improving their quality of life (Hall et al., 2017). With help from service dogs, individuals with disabilities can maintain access to employment, public accommodations, public transport, and other services that many people take for granted. In other words, service dogs assist disabled people live in a world designed for the majority. The tasks service dogs are trained to perform are directly related to assisting their handler’s unique needs.

The Difference Between A Service Dog And A Therapy Dog

A major distinction between service dogs and therapy or emotional support animals is that service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for their handler (Brennan, n.d.). Therapy or emotional support animals, on the other hand, provide comfort and support through their presence. Service dogs are also granted certain protections and exemptions from some laws. For instance, service dogs are considered working animals and not pets. They are allowed to enter stores, restaurants, theaters, schools, and other public spaces that would ordinarily be prohibited. Housing that does not allow pets are legally required to provide accommodations for service dogs. Additionally, transportation services including taxis, trains, subways, and planes must accommodate travelers with service animals. Finally, places of employment must reasonably accommodate their employees that require a service animal. Another thing to note is that service dogs are exempt from any local breed ban ordinances (“F.A.Q. About Service Animals”, 2015).

Service dogs are not legally required to wear vests, harnesses, or other identifying features to distinguish themselves as certified service animals, although many do. This can lead to some confusion by the public and business owners as to what dogs they must allow into their stores. If businesses are unsure about whether a dog is a service dog or not, there are two questions they are permitted to ask the handler. These are:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

If the handler answers yes to the first question and can describe a task that their dog is trained to perform, then the dog is legally allowed to accompany the handler into the business. If the task that the dog is performing is apparent, it is best practice to not question the handler and be as accommodating as possible. In summary, working dogs are considered working animals, not pets, and must be accommodated.

What Are The Requirements To Be A Service Dog?

State and local licensing regulations may apply to service dogs, however in most cases service dog handlers do not need to provide legal documentation for their animal to be granted access to buildings. Dogs must always remain under the control of their handlers. This can be through the use of leashes, harnesses, or verbal control. They must remain focused on their handler when working in public spaces. Behaviors such as excessive barking, jumping on people, or being destructive are not acceptable behaviors for a service animal. Moreover, service dogs must be house trained. Many are trained to urinate or defecate on a cue to prevent them from soiling public spaces. Finally, service dogs must be up to date on all state and locally mandated vaccinations.

What Are The Different Types Of Service Dogs?

There is a wide array of tasks that service dogs may be trained to do to assist their handler. This list is not exhaustive but provides some examples of common services that dogs may perform.

  • Guide dogs

Guide dogs are trained to help the blind or visually impaired navigate their environment. They may guide their person around obstacles and generally keep them out of harm’s way. They may be trained to recognize walk signals to help their handlers safely cross streets.

  • Hearing dogs

Hearing dogs are trained to alert their deaf or hearing impaired handlers of important sounds such as a knock on the door or the telephone ringing.

  • Medical alert dogs

Service dogs may be trained to detect the onset of certain medical conditions. Examples include alerting their handler to an oncoming seizure, low blood sugar, or presence of particular allergens. This advanced notice can give individuals a head start on moving to a safe location or calling for medical help.

  • Psychiatric service dogs

Dogs can also assist handlers with a variety of psychiatric conditions including obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, or anxiety disorders. Specific tasks could include turning a light on to make the environment less threatening, interrupting repetitive or damaging behaviors, reminding a person to take their medication, lessening the impacts of an anxiety attack, or keeping disoriented people out of danger.

  • Sensory signal dogs or social signal dogs

These service dogs are specifically trained to assist individuals with autism spectrum disorders. A task could include notifying their handler of repetitive action behaviors so they may alter the behavior.

How Are Service Dogs Trained?

The first step in training a service dog is obtaining a dog that fits the criteria for becoming a service dog. There are a wide variety of organizations that help select and train dogs for the service dog industry. These organizations may maintain their own breeding lines, work with reputable breeders, or they may work with shelters to obtain eligible candidates. The training in most cases is performed by professionals and may cost upwards of $25,000. These costs are associated with training the dog as well as the handler to ensure they understand how to work with their dog. Some of these training organizations are nonprofits with the aim of providing service dogs at no cost or at a reduced cost to those with financial need. Moreover, dogs in service training do not qualify for the same rights as fully trained service dogs. It is up to the stores, restaurants, and other public places to decide whether or not they allow dogs in training to enter.

How Do I Get A Service Dog?

The best way to obtain a service dog is to work with a reputable trainer or organization. By working with a trusted organization you can increase the likelihood that your dog will possess traits such as good genetics, health, physical attributes, and behavioral traits that will increase their longevity of service. Many of these organizations will require written documentation from your doctor explaining your diagnosed disability. Moreover, take the time to research the organizations you are interested in getting a service dog from. The road to obtaining a service dog can be long, so you want to be sure that you are making the best choice possible.

Can I Train My Own Dog To Be A Service Dog?

In short, yes! You are entirely permitted to train your own service dog. However, your dog needs to meet the behavioral standards for life as a service dog. These include being alert and focused on their handler, ignoring distractions in the environment, having a willingness to please, being good at learning and retaining information, and being reliable in performing repetitive task. Secondly, having a background in dog training is almost essential. Without this experience it may be challenging to put in the large amount of work required to train a service dog. If you have a dog with good potential and the training abilities, then this can be a great cost-effective solution. The best place to start when training your service dog is with the basics. A service dog requires a strong foundation in potty training, basic commands, and the ability to focus in distracting environments. Once a strong foundation is built, you can begin training your dog for the specific tasks that you require.

Can Any Dog Breed Be A Service Dog?

Yes! There are no restrictions on what breeds may become service dogs. The most common service dog breeds include German shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Saint Bernards, Collies, and Cocker Spaniels (Parenti et al., 2015). Tasks that service dogs perform vary widely, and thus so can the breeds! Breeds should be selected based upon the task that they will need to perform. Larger breeds may be better adapted for helping with mobility or performing tasks such as turning on lights or opening doors. Smaller breeds can be great at skills that require the use of their nose or ears such as alerting handlers to sounds or as medical alert dogs.


Service dogs are indispensable to the lives of many. They help people with a disability navigate and interact with the world or provide a specific service in times of need. By furthering our understanding of service dogs, we can be more accommodating to those relying on their service.

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Works Cited

Brennan, J. (n.d.). Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals. Retrieved June 1, 2020.

Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA. (2015, July 20). Retrieved June 1, 2020.

Hall, S. S., MacMichael, J., Turner, A., & Mills, D. S. (2017). A survey of the impact of owning a service dog on quality of life for individuals with physical and hearing disability: a pilot study. Health and quality of life outcomes, 15(1), 59.

Parenti, L., Wilson, M., Foreman, A. M., Wirth, O., & Meade, B. J. (2015). Selecting Quality Service Dogs: Part 1: Morphological and Health Considerations. The APDT chronicle of the dog, 2015(summer), 71.

Trainer, M. (2016, October 2). Service dogs save lives. Retrieved June 1, 2020.