Our dogs are integral to our daily lives. They follow our commands, work with us in various capacities, and act as faithful companions. Dog ownership has increased dramatically over the last 100 years, and today, dogs as companions and working partners are valued by more than 80 million U.S. owners.
Studies have shown that dogs provide health benefits, and can increase fitness, lower stress, and improve happiness. Service dogs have these abilities, combined with training to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities. During the last decade, the use of service dogs has rapidly expanded.
As service dogs have become more commonplace, however, so too have problems that can result from a lack of understanding about service dog training, working functions, and access to public facilities. In response, AKC Government Relations is working with members of Congress, regulatory agencies, leading service dog trainers and providers, and transportation/hospitality industry groups to find ways to address these issues.
The benefits service dogs can provide also continue to expand. In the 1920s, a service dog was typically a guide dog, assisting an individual with a visual or hearing disability. German Shepherd Dogs were commonly used as guide dogs. Today, service dogs are trained from among many different breeds and perform a variety of tasks to assist disabled individuals.
What Is a Service Dog?
A service dog helps a person with a disability lead a more independent life. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”
“Disability” is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including people with history of such an impairment, and people perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
A service dog is trained to take a specific action that helps mitigate an individual’s disability. The task the dog performs is directly related to their person’s disability.
For example, guide dogs help blind and visually impaired individuals navigate their environments. Hearing dogs help alert deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to important sounds. Mobility dogs assist individuals who use wheelchairs or walking devices or who have balance issues. Medical alert dogs might also signal the onset of a medical issue such as a seizure or low blood sugar, alert the user to the presence of allergens, and myriad other functions.
Psychiatric service dogs assist individuals with disabilities such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post–traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. Examples of work performed by psychiatric service dogs could include entering a dark room and turning on a light to mitigate stress-inducing condition, interrupting repetitive behaviors, and reminding a person to take medication.
The ADA considers service dogs to be primarily working animals that are not considered pets.
Common Service Dog Breeds
Service dogs can range from very small to very large. The dog must be of a size to comfortably and effectively 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 dog.
Breeds like Great Danes, Saint Bernards, and Bernese Mountain Dogs possess the height and strength to provide mobility assistance, while Poodles, which come in Toy, Miniature, and Standard varieties, are particularly versatile. A Toy Poodle puppy can begin early scent training games in preparation for the work of alerting on blood sugar variations, while a larger Standard Poodle puppy may learn to activate light switches and carry objects.
Canine Companions for Independence, Inc. (CCI), ), now publicly rebranded as Canine Companions, maintains a breeding program for Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. CCI states, “Breeder dogs and their puppies are the foundation of our organization.”
The predictability of dogs in a breeding program yields improved results. According to CCI, “Our breeding program staff checks each dog’s temperament, trainability, health, physical attributes, littermate trends and the production history of the dam and sire. Only then are the ‘best of the best’ chosen.”
NEADS World Class Service Dogs maintains a breeding program and also obtains puppies that are sold or donated by purebred breeders. Using primarily Labrador Retrievers, NEADS “works closely with reputable breeders to determine whether their puppies are appropriate for our program based on the temperament, health and behavioral history of both the dam and the sire.” NEADS also selects alert, high-energy dogs from animal shelters and rescue groups as candidates for training as hearing dogs.
Regardless of breed or mix, the best service dogs are handler-focused, desensitized to distractions, and highly trained to reliably perform specific tasks. They are not easily diverted from their tasks at home or in public and remain attentive and responsive their owners while working.
Is a Dog in a Vest a Service Dog?
Although some service dogs may wear vests, special harnesses, collars or tags, the ADA does not require service dogs to wear vests or display identification. Conversely, many dogs that do wear ID vests or tags specifically are not actual service dogs.
For example, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. But, because these dogs are not trained to perform a specific job or task for a person with a disability, they do not qualify as service dogs under the ADA.
The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, “If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”
ESAs are not allowed access to public facilities under the ADA. However, some state and local governments have enacted laws that allow owners to take ESAs into public places. ESA owners are urged to check with their state, county, and city governments for current information on permitted and disallowed public access for ESAs.
Owners of ESAs may be eligible for access to housing that is not otherwise available to pet dog owners. Access to housing and other public spaces for ESAs can vary by location and destination, and these rules are subject to change. ESAs are not eligible for special accommodation in air travel.
Therapy dogs provide opportunities for petting, affection, and interaction in a variety of settings on a volunteer basis. Therapy dogs and their owners bring cheer and comfort to hospital patients, assisted living center residents, stressed travelers in airports, college students during exams, and in other situation where friendly, well-trained dogs are welcome. Therapy dogs are also used to relieve stress and bring comfort to victims of traumatic events or disasters. Many groups that train therapy dogs or that take dogs on pet therapy visits have matching ID tags, collars, or vests.
Like ESAs, therapy dogs are not defined as service dogs under the ADA, do not receive access to public facilities, are not eligible for special housing accommodations, and do not receive special cabin access on commercial flights.
Courthouse dogs are another category of dogs that sometimes wear vests or display other ID, but are not service dogs. Several states have enacted measures that allow a child or vulnerable person to be accompanied by a courthouse, facility, or therapy dog during trial proceedings. The rules and requirements for use of these dogs vary by state, and additional states are considering enacting similar laws.
Courtroom dogs are not protected under the ADA and are not eligible for special housing accommodations or cabin access on commercial flights. “Facility Dogs” are a growing category of therapy dogs that may work in a specific institutional setting such as a school, courthouse, or healthcare facility.
Where to Find a Service Dog
Professional service dog training organizations and individuals who train service dogs are located throughout the U.S. They work to train dogs to perform a skill or skills specific to a handler’s disability. As part of their training, service dogs are taught public access skills, such as house training, settling quietly at the handler’s side in public, and remaining under control in a variety of settings.
Professional service dog trainers have high standards for their dogs, and the drop-out rates for service dog candidates can run as high as 50 to 70 percent. Fortunately, there are often long lists of available homes for dogs that don’t make the cut.
Both non–profit and for-profit organizations train service dogs. The cost of training a service dog can exceed $25,000. This may include training for the person with a disability who receives the dog and periodic follow-up training for the dog to ensure working reliability. Some organizations provide service dogs to disabled individuals at no cost or may offer financial aid for people who need, but cannot afford, a service dog. Other organizations may charge fees for a trained dog.
Persons with disabilities and those acting on their behalf are encouraged work with an experienced, reputable service dog organization or trainer. Carefully check out the organization, ask for recommendations, and make an informed decision before investing funds or time to acquire a trained service dog.
How to Train Your Own Service Dog
The ADA does not require service dogs to be professionally trained. Individuals with disabilities have the right to train a service dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog trainer or training program.
A service dog candidate should:
- Be calm, especially in unfamiliar settings
- Be alert, but not reactive
- Have a willingness to please
- Be able to learn and retain information
- Be capable of being socialized to many different situations and environments
- Be reliable in performing repetitive tasks
Individuals who wish to train their own service dogs should first work with their candidate dog on foundation skills. Start with house training, which should include eliminating on command in different locations. Socialize the dog with the objective of having it remain on task in the presence of unfamiliar people, places, sights, sounds, scents, and other animals. Teach the dog to focus on the handler and ignore distractions.
The AKC Canine Good Citizen program can provide guidelines and benchmarks for foundation skills. Another good source for learning foundational puppy raising skills for working dogs is the Confident Puppy e-learning course.
In addition to socialization and basic obedience training, a service dog must be trained to perform work or specific tasks to assist with a disability.
Under ADA rules, in situations where it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal, only two questions may be asked: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
The reply to question (2) must affirm that the service dog has been trained to take specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.
The Epidemic of Fake Service Dogs
Federal laws provide special accommodations to the disabled and limit the questions that may be asked about disabilities. Unfortunately, too often these laws are abused by people who fraudulently misrepresent their dogs as service animals.
This harms the truly disabled, confuses the public, and affects the reputation of legitimate service dog users. Even worse, a poorly-trained fake service animal can be a danger to the public and to real service dogs. In response to this growing problem, the American Kennel Club in 2015 issued a policy position statement on Misuse of Service Dogs.
Many state and local governments share this concern and have introduced laws that make it an offense to misrepresent a service animal. As of May 2022, the AKC Government Relations team has been tracking more than 150+ laws related to this matter since 2016.
In 2016, the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans created “CGC Plus”, a minimum standard for training and behavior for the service dogs their members provide to veterans. CGC Plus requires dogs to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen, Community Canine, and Urban CGC tests, plus demonstrate proficiency in performing three randomly selected specific services for a disabled person. The 2016 federal PAWS bill incorporated the AKC CGC into service dog requirements for Veterans’ Administration-funded dog.
State and local governments continue to introduce and pass laws that make it an offense to misrepresent a service animal. In 2018, 48 measures were introduced to address fake service animals.
The AKC also works with the American Service Dog Access Coalition, a charitable not-for-profit organization comprised of major service dog groups, service dog access providers, advocates for the disabled, service dog trainers, and policymakers seeking to improve access for legitimate service dog teams while incentivizing high-quality behavioral standards for all service dogs, and educating the public about the crime of service dog fraud.
ASDAC is building an “opt-in” service dog credentialing system, Service Dog Pass (SDP), that will streamline the air travel process for service dog teams while also reducing the challenges faced by gatekeepers when working to accommodate them. SDP will provide airlines with relevant information to easily identify valid, well-trained service dogs while also providing service dog teams with increased comfort and confidence to travel by plane.
Service dogs are more than pets and more than companions. The important work they do enhances independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive, and developmental disabilities, and improves the everyday lives of thousands of people across the country.