Dogs share our daily lives and provide health benefits beyond what we could have ever imagined. Dogs 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 before.
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.”
"Dog" is important, since dogs are the only species recognized as service animals. Although miniature horses are also permitted to assist a person with a disability, they are regulated under new and separate provisions. Service dogs are defined by the ADA as being primarily working dogs and are not considered pets.
"Work or task" means the dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. The task performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.
"Disability" is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual.
Types of Service Dogs
There are three types of service or assistance dogs. The categories are guide dog, hearing dog, and 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, need to be alerted to other medical issues like low blood sugar, or have psychiatric disabilities.
Common Service Dog Breeds
Service dogs range from very small to very large in size. The dog must be able 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 or emotional support dog. Increasingly, many service dogs are rescued from shelters.
Service Dog versus Therapy Dog
Many people confuse service dogs with therapy dogs, but they play two completely different roles that require nearly opposite characteristics.
Service dogs are one dog for one person and perform specific tasks to help that person cope with a disability. Therapy dogs are one dog for everyone—they bring cheer and comfort to hospital patients, assisted living center and nursing home residents, homeless families, and students.
Service dogs must be handler-focused, desensitized to distractions, and highly trained to do specific tasks. They should not be distracted by the public, as they should focus solely on their owner when working. For service dogs, training can last up to two years before they are placed with a client. Service dogs typically wear a vest that identifies them as a service dog and asks the public not to pet them.
Therapy dogs should be friendly and outgoing, yet calm and obedient, and socialized to a variety of people, places, and things. Therapy dogs need to be trained in basic manners and obedience, and are required to take continuing education workshops. Therapy dogs and their owners provide opportunities for petting and affection in a variety of settings on a volunteer basis.
Training a Service Dog
Service dog training is a long, arduous process. Dogs must be able to perform their tasks on command and have to perform the skills needed for the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test, a series of objectives designed to evaluate the dog’s behavior in distracting environments.
Many service dogs are bred specifically for the job by organizations that then also train them and place them with clients. The 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 can be as high as 50 to 70 percent.
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. Owners who want to train their own dogs to assist them should seek professional dog-training help with a trainer experienced in working with service dogs. They should consult with Assistance Dogs International (ADI) for help with finding a trainer and to make sure they are aware of all laws involving service dogs.
Every service dog must be trained in tasking skills specific to the handler’s disability and in public access skills. ADA regulations state that service dogs also must be house-trained and under control at all times in public.
How Much Does a Service Dog Cost?
Service dogs can be a large 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 can be 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.
Is Your Dog Qualified to Be a Service Dog?
Not every dog can be a service dog. Regardless of breed, all service dogs need a special set of qualities in order to be reliable in their work. These characteristics include:
- Calm but friendly
- Alert but not reactive
- Able to be touched by anyone, including strangers
- Willingness to please
- Tendency to follow you around
- 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 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 should be relaxed and present a 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.
Commonly known tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf to noises like ringing phones, pulling a wheelchair, and retrieving dropped items. However, 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, calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack, or any other duties specific to a disability.
The Epidemic of Fake Service Dogs
Because service dogs have public access into restaurants, stores, and the cabin area of airplanes, some people obtain fake service dog credentials just because they want their dog to be with them. 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
If you are interested in learning more about service dogs, 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.