All About Service Dogs: What They Do, Where To Get Them, & How To Train One

October 26, 2020

All About Service Dogs: What They Do, Where To Get Them, & How To Train One

Most people know how important pets are to our daily lives and wellbeing. Dogs know how to follow certain commands, work with their owners in many ways, and provide faithful company. 

Throughout history, dog ownership has increased and become more complex. They have worked all sorts of jobs, especially as service animals.

If you're considering getting a service dog, you must be fully informed of their jobs, privileges, and differences from other emotional support and therapy dogs to have a fulfilling, positive experience with a service dog. Here's everything you need to know.

What is a Service Dog?

A service dog works with an owner or handler with a disability to help them live a more independent life. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that this type of dog is individually trained to complete tasks or work for a person with a disability.

As defined by the ADA, a “disability” is a mental or physical impairment that significantly limits any of life's main activities. This applies to anyone with a history of impairment and anyone perceived by others as having an impairment. 

Discriminating on the grounds of disability is prohibited by the ADA in:

  • -Employment
  • -Public accommodations
  • -Commercial facilities
  • -Transportation
  • -Telecommunications
  • -Local and state government

Service dogs are trained to take action whenever needed to assist a person living with their disability. All trained tasks are learned to serve that specific disability directly. 

How to Get a Service Dog

As you're learning about the benefit of service dogs to their owners, you may be wondering where you can get one of these specialized working animals. 

There are professional service dog organizations that train service animals all over the country. These organizations and individuals train dogs for specific disabilities so that they're ready to work with a handler in need.

The price of this training varies, but for-profit and not-for-profit organizations work with these animals. The cost of training a service dog can be over $25,000 in some cases. 

This cost may include specific disability-related training for the owner plus follow-up training with the owner to ensure a good working relationship. 

Some organizations provide service animals to disabled individuals that can't afford the training cost. These individuals receive financial aid options or no fee at all. 

Before getting a fully-trained service animal, do enough research on organizations' credibility, seek recommendations, and make fully-informed decisions before allocating any major funds.

How to Train a Service Dog

The American Disability Association does not issue a formal requirement that owners have their service dogs professionally trained. 

Those with disabilities are permitted to train their service dog themselves and do not need to use the services of a professional or training program.

Service Dog Candidates must be:

  • -Calm, Particularly in unfamiliar settings
  • -Alert, without being overly-reactive
  • -Willing to please
  • -Able to learn and retain commands and information
  • -Capable of being socialized in changing situations and environments
  • -Reliable to complete repetitive tasks

Owners who wish to train their service dog on their own should first work with the candidate dog on their foundational skills:

-First, focus on house training
-Then, begin socializing the candidate dog with the goal being for them to remain focused on a task while in the presence of new people, locations, sounds, smells, and other animals nearby. The dog should be trained to focus on their handler, ignoring all nearby distractions. 

Once you've mastered the dog's basic socialization and obedience training, service dogs must be trained to complete work or their specific tasks that assist their owner with a disability. 

As stated by ADA rules, there may be situations where it is not obvious to others that your dog is a service animal. Only two questions may be asked to qualify your service animal's qualifications. These questions are:

  1. Is the dog performing as a service animal as required by a disability?
  2. What work or tasks has the service animal been trained to complete?

Service Dog Breeds

Service dogs come in a variety of breeds, ranging from very small to quite large. Overall, the dog must be able to comfortably and easily perform the tasks required to alleviate the owner's disability. 

Some common service dog breeds include:

  • Great Danes
  • Saint Bernards
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Poodles: Standard, Miniature, and Toy
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • German Shepard Dogs

As you can see from the variety of poodles available as working dogs, their size informs their ability to succeed in certain tasks. Toy poodles are great for their scent training abilities for blood sugar variations in their owners. Larger, standard poodles can easily be trained to turn the lights on or off and carry objects.

Larger breeds such as German Shepards and Retrievers are more suited to guide dogs for visually or physically impaired people. 

No matter the breed or mix of your service dog, the best dogs are trained to be handler-focused, focused, unfazed by distractions, and trained to execute their tasks reliably.

Types of Service Dogs

The following dogs are considered working animals rather than pets by the ADA. Here are some specialized service dogs:

Guide Dogs

These service dogs help visually impaired, and blind people navigate their day-to-day environments. They also alert deaf or hard-of-hearing folks of important sounds. Some guide dogs act as assistants to those who use wheelchairs or other walking devices or help those who suffer from balance issues. 

Medical Alert Dogs

These service dogs are trained to identify and signal major medical issues like seizures or blood sugar drops. They also are trained to alert an owner of the presence of dangerous allergens and more. 

Psychiatric Dogs

These dogs assist individuals with mental disabilities like obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental conditions. 

Other tasks completed by psychiatric service animals include going into a dark room that may unsettle a handler and turning on a light, stopping repetitive ticks or behaviors, and reminding their handler to take their medicine. 

The Difference Between Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs

There's a lot of confusion regarding the variety of service dogs and therapy dogs available to owners with disabilities or emotional ailments. Unfortunately, a lot of people assume that service, emotional support, and therapy dogs are the same. However, there are many differences between these types of animals, and you'll want to learn these before you start the process of getting a service animal. 

Not only are the terms confusing to people, but owners that don't use visible identification on their service dogs in public cause confusion with strangers. The ADA does not require vests or visible identification of service animals. However, some owners may choose to put vests, harnesses, collars, or tags on their animals so others know not to pet them. 

Here's what you need to know about the differences between these types of animals, so you can also educate those around you when you get your service dog.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals are animals that provide their owner with a sense of comfort just from being nearby. These dogs are not trained to complete specific jobs or tasks for a person that has a disability. Because of this, they do not qualify as a service dog, as defined by the ADA. 

Some service dogs help with psychiatric ailments, so the ADA makes a specific distinction to differentiate them versus ESAs. In the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Disability Rights Section states the following: if the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is close to occurring, they take up specific action to lessen anxiety attack or avoid it entirely.

ESAs are eligible for housing that is regularly unavailable to dog owners. Travelers also may be allowed to bring their ESAs into cabins on airlines where certain conditions allow. These allowances are subject to change and may vary by location. 

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs provide individuals the opportunity for petting, interaction, and affection in many settings through volunteering.  

Therapy dogs bring a lot of joy and comfort to patients in the hospital, those who live in assisted living centers, anxious travelers, students during tests, and more. They also bring comfort and relieve stress for victims of traumatic disasters or life events. 

Typically, those training therapy dogs or taking therapy dogs for volunteer visits will have matching ID collars, vests, or tags. 

These dogs aren't classified as service dogs by the ADA. This means they don't gain access to public spaces and facilities can't be accommodated for special housing, nor do they gain access to cabins on commercial airplanes. 


Service animals work long and hard to provide vital aid and protection throughout the lives of their handlers. If you think a service animal might be right for you or a loved one who lives with a disability, join our mailing list to learn more about these animals!


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