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All dogs are good dogs, but some dogs are extra special—like service dogs.
Service dogs give new meaning to the title “man’s best friend” by playing a crucial role in their owners’ lives. From assisting owners in daily activities to helping them safely navigate the world, service dogs are devoted guides and loving companions.
Here’s a look at what a service dog is and the required steps to make your dog a service dog.
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What Is a Service Dog?
There are three federal laws that regulate and define what a service dog is: The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.
Americans Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as “trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”.
Under the ADA, individuals with a disability include someone with a physical or mental health impairment that limits their life.
“The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability,” says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer with Rover. “For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels.”
Under the ADA regulations, service dogs are allowed anywhere the general public is allowed. That includes state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public.
The service dog must be under the control of its handler at all times, meaning it must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless the owner’s disability prevents them from using these types of restraints. In that case, the owner should have control of the service dog with voice or signal control.
As of 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under ADA regulations.
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act (FHA), which governs housing rules and regulations, defines an assistance animal as one “that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability”.
The FHA requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations if someone with a disability requests to keep an assistance animal. Reasonable accommodation requests include allowing the service animal to live at a property that has a no-pets policy, or waiving pet deposits or monthly pet fees.
Air Carrier Access Act
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) specifically prohibits discrimination of passengers on the basis of their disability, and details the airlines’ obligations.
The Act requires airlines to recognize dogs as service animals and take them on flights to, within and from the U.S.
The ACAA defines a service animal as a dog of any breed or type, that has been trained to perform tasks for an individual with disabilities, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
What Type of Service Dogs Are There?
There are many different types of service dogs that are trained to help individuals with disabilities. Disabilities can range from physical and mental illness to allergies and psychiatric disorders.
Some of the most common disabilities that qualify for a service dog include:
- Sensory disabilities, including being blind and deaf
- Cerebral palsy
- Parkinson’s disease
- Muscular dystrophy
- Spinal cord injury
- Multiple sclerosis
- Depression and depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders and phobias
- Bipolar disorders
- Schizophrenia and psychotic disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Addiction, substance abuse and alcoholism
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other trauma and stress-related disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
It’s important to remember that service dogs are working dogs and not pets.
Guide dogs are sensory assistance dogs for the blind or visually impaired.
“A guide dog helps its handler negotiate the physical world, leading them around obstacles, stopping at curbs and steps, and waiting for traffic signals,” Ellis says.
Guide dogs are trained to independently assess situations for safety, which means if it receives a cue that is unsafe for its handler, the dog will disobey it. For example, the dog will refuse to step into the street if there is oncoming traffic.
A service dog for autism has been trained to assist a person who has autism, helping them to be independent and carry out daily activities.
“These dogs are trained in tasks similar to those of service dogs for other sensory processing disorders,” Ellis says. “However, autism service dogs also learn skills specific to autism, like behavior disruption to distract and disrupt repetitive behaviors or ‘meltdowns,’ [and] tethering to prevent and protect a child from wandering.”
Hearing dogs are trained to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
These dogs alert their partners to sounds like a smoke alarm, doorbell, alarm clock, ringing telephone, or a child crying. They do so by nudging with their nose or using their paw to alert their person.
Hearing dogs can also be taught American Sign Language for individuals who are non-verbal, according to Paws with a Cause, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs.
Medical alert dogs
Medical alert service dogs are trained to sense the onset of a specific medical crisis before it happens.
“These dogs can detect subtle changes in a person’s odor, respiration and behavior that indicate the early stages of an event like an epileptic seizure, diabetes-related changes in blood sugar levels and crises related to psychiatric conditions,” Ellis says.
Mobility assistance dogs
Mobility assistance service dogs are trained to help individuals with mobility issues, including opening automatic doors, retrieving objects and serving as a brace for individuals with trouble balancing.
They can also help open and close doors, turn on and off lights and find help, if and when it’s needed.
By law, someone requesting a mobility service dog must have a developmental, physical, or psychiatric disability, according to K94life, a nonprofit organization that trains mobility assistance dogs.
Psychiatric service dogs are trained to provide support, comfort and protection to individuals with mental health disabilities, as well as help them with daily tasks.
These tasks can include things like grounding and reorienting a handler during an anxiety attack, conducting a room search for someone with PTSD and providing gentle touch or pressure to calm and comfort their handler.
PTSD service dogs are a subcategory of the psychiatric service dog that are trained specifically to help individuals who are living with PTSD.
“These dogs improve their handlers’ quality of life by alleviating their anxiety and distress,” Ellis says. “A PTSD dog will wake its handler from night terrors and nightmares, distract them from triggering stimuli, bring their medication to them on a regular schedule, and lead their handler to a safe place if they experience a panic or anxiety attack.”
Common Service Dog Breeds
There are a wide range of breeds that are best suited to being a service dog.
Most breeds chosen as service dogs have the following qualities and features:
- The drive to work
- A calm disposition
- Innate intelligence
- A friendly and loving disposition
“The most popular service dog breeds are labs, goldens, German shepherds, and poodles,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, D.V.M., an associate veterinarian at The Animal Hospital of West Monroe, Louisiana. “Their trainability, intelligence, temperament and size make them well-suited for service work.”
Other popular breeds for service dogs include:
This list is not exhaustive and the ADA does not restrict the type of dog breed that can serve as a service animal.
Lynn Julian Crisci suffers from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and was left disabled after a stage accident in 2006. In 2013, she survived the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. She lives with brain, neck and back injuries, as well as hearing loss and complex PTSD.
Her first medical alert service dog, Lil Stinker, is a white-coated, 5-pound Maltese. She chose a Maltese due to its size, calm demeanor, non-shedding coat and low maintenance costs.
“Because he alerts me, I’m aware my heart rate has rapidly elevated due to dysautonomia, and I must kneel or risk fainting,” Crisci says. “Because he calms me, I don’t have to take anxiety medications all day. Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t judge a dog by its cover.”
How To Make My Dog a Service Dog
If you feel your dog matches all the qualities needed in a service dog, you will need to start with an assessment by a service dog trainer.
“A good trainer will help you assess and evaluate your dog for public access work,” Ellis says. “Service dog work is not for every dog, and that’s fine. It involves a lot of training beyond basic commands, as well as public access commands such as ignoring people, food, pets and being able to keep a calm focus on you in case of a medical alert.”
Ellis adds that often “less than 5% of dogs are cut out for service dog work, and many ‘wash-out’ during training.”
How To Make My Dog a Service Dog: Step-by-Step Process
Step 1: How To Qualify for a Service Dog
All service dogs are trained to do very specific tasks for their handlers, which means you’ll need to determine two things:
- If your dog has the characteristics needed to become a service dog
- If you are disabled by definition in the ADA
Your dog will have to undergo extensive temperament testing, says Jackie Carleen, a certified dog trainer who has worked with service dogs.
“The test introduces new sights, smells, textures, under footings and sounds, so that the evaluator may determine how comfortable a dog is in exploring new stimuli and whether they need extensive help from a handler to explore or if they are comfortable on their own,” Carleen says.
If the dog is comfortable on its own and checks in with the handler, they have a good baseline and temperament to become a service dog, Carleen says.
The dog must also have a clean health record and no current health issues, or they may be disqualified from becoming a service dog, Carleen adds.
Other important characteristics include:
- The dog must be trained to perform a specific task directly related to the person’s disability.
- The dog must be well-behaved and well-mannered.
Step 2: Service Dog Training
It’s important to note that the ADA doesn’t require service dogs to be trained by an official organization. Handlers are permitted to train their own dogs.
“I am the biggest proponent for training your own service dog,” Carleen says. “One of the wonderful things about training a service dog yourself is the bond that is created while training.”
Carleen adds that a relationship-based approach to training benefits every dog, since they are astute at reading their trainer’s body language, tone and pitch of voice, and mannerisms.
While working with a service dog organization is helpful because the employees and trainers are well-versed in the requirements, there can be challenges.
When a dog is trained through a special organization, it’s trained to a particular person and you will have to work with the dog to respond to a different person, which adds time to the training process.
“I would suggest someone train their own service dog and pay for a consultation or a couple training sessions from a trainer to help teach some fundamentals and help with any hiccups with progress along the way,” Carleen says.
The most critical thing to teach your service dog is the specific task or skill they will need to perform to help you with your disability.
Step 3: Public Access Certification Test (PACT)
The ADA does not require documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service dog in order for the dog and its handler to be allowed entry in public places. It also does not require any certification that the dog has passed any special tests.
However, some service dog organizations require handlers to complete public access training before the dog can be adopted. It’s best to check with the organization to see what the requirements are with regards to training.
If your dog undergoes the PACT, there are several training points it will evaluate, which can differ depending on the organization and where you are located.
These are the most common traits that public access tests will use to evaluate your dog:
- The dog’s ability to safely cross a parking lot and halt for traffic
- The owner’s ability to enter a public place without losing control of the dog
- The dog’s ability to hold a sit-stay, or down-stay position, in a distracting situation, such as when a child approaches the dog or if food is dropped on the floor
Step 4: Service Dog Registration and Certification
While state and local governments can offer voluntary service dog registration programs, they cannot require registration or certification of service dogs, according to the ADA.
“There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal,” reads the ADA website.
In fact, it’s against the law for anyone to ask for documentation that the dog is registered, licensed or certified as a service animal.
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Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Dog
Emotional support dogs do not qualify as service dogs, as noted by the ADA. Under the act, there’s a difference between a dog providing comfort and a dog performing a task related to a person’s disability.
“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,” Ellis says. “However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort to prevent panic attacks, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”
Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs are not protected under the ADA, and therefore don’t have the same access to public places as a service dog.
Service dogs are some of the hardest working dogs out there. They play a critical role in helping those with disabilities live a life of independence and normalcy.
If you’re interested in making your own dog a service dog, it’s best to do your research on the requirements for training, and enlist the help of a professional who can ensure you’re training your dog to be the best service dog for you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is a dog in a vest a service dog?
Service dogs are not required by the ADA to wear a vest or any other type of identification.
But keep in mind, if it’s not obvious that a dog is a service animal, there are only two questions someone can legally ask the handler:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Where can service dogs not go?
Service dogs can go anywhere the public can go, including businesses, nonprofits and state and local governments. This is true even if the establishment has a “no pets” policy in place.
Service dogs can legally be excluded in certain circumstances, including:
- If admitting service animals would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program.
- If the service animal is out of control and the handler does not take action to control it.
- If the service animal is not housebroken.
How long does it take to become a service dog?
Training a service dog can take a number of years.
“We typically see around 2 years as an adequate amount of time to work through any concerns, and properly socialize a dog to a vast array of environments, sounds, and smells,” says certified dog trainer Carleen.
What age do you start training a service dog?
It’s generally recommended dogs be at least six months of age and past the puppy phase to start service training school.