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service dog with vest

A Guide to Service Dogs – Types, Breeds, Training

Service dogs and their purposes are misunderstood by many. We look at all aspects of service dogs for the disabled.

In addition to all of the benefits of a pet dog, service dogs provide their handler with assistance specific to their individual needs. Service dogs require extensive training, and they help individuals with a disability live an independent life. 

Let’s explore service dogs — what they are exactly, where to find them, and how to care for them.

Benefits of a Service Dog

A service dog is trained to perform tasks and services that aid a handler with a disability. Common breeds include German Shepard Dogs, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers, and they have been guides to over 80 million Americans.

They help individuals with a disability live a more independent life and are trained to take a specific action that will assist the person according to their disability.

The ADA considers service dogs as primarily working animals because of the work they do and therefore, although loved by their owners, are not considered pets. 

If you have a service dog, you have access to all public areas with them and people are not allowed to ask you any specific details about your disability.

The only things they can ask you is whether your dog is a service animal and what tasks can they perform to assist you. You are not obligated to answer any other questions or demonstrate what your dog can do.

The benefits that come with owning a service dog have expanded significantly in recent years. In the 1920s, a service dog was known as a Seeing Eye Dog and this meant a German Shepherd.

However, in recent years, service dogs are trained from a variety of different breeds and can perform an array of helpful tasks to assist millions of individuals all over the world.

However, as they have increased in demand, so have problems that come with a lack of understanding about training, working functions, and access to public facilities.

AKC Government Relations are now working with Congress, regulatory agencies, transportation industries, and leading service dog trainers and providers to address these issues and make sure those who need a service dog, know how to properly care for it.

Rules and Regulations Related to Service Dogs 

According to ADA, though you are allowed access to all public areas and no one is allowed to ask you specific details about your disability, there are still several inquiries, charges, and other specific rules related to service animals that need to be followed. These are outlined below.

  • Limited inquiries are permitted when it isn’t obvious what service an animal provides. You may be asked one of two questions, either is the dog a service animal required because of a disability and/or what task or services has the dog been trained to carry out. It is still not allowed to ask for specific details about the person’s disability, ask to see medical documentation, ask to see a special identification card or training documentation for the service dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform tasks.
  • Allergies or a fear of dogs aren’t reasons for being able to deny access or refuse service to those with service animals. When a person who is allergic to dogs and someone with a service animal needs to spend time in the same room or facility, they both should be accommodated by trying to assign them, to different locations.
  • A person with a disability should not be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless the dog is out of control and the handler cannot control it or the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask for a service animal to be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability an opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal being present.
  • Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if area health codes prohibit animals onsite.
  • People with disabilities that regularly use service animals are not allowed to be isolated from other patrons, treated less favorably than them, or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons who do not have animals. Additionally, if a business requires a deposit to be paid by patrons with pets, they must waive the charge for service animals.
  • If any business charges guests for damages, a customer with a disability may then also be charged for damage caused by themselves or their service animal.
  • Staff members of a team are forbidden to provide care for or supervise a service animal.

What are the Different Types of Service Dog?

Service animals, although well known for helping the blind or visually impaired see, are not limited to this. They can provide a whole range of services. Here ‘s a rundown of a number of these different types of service dogs and how they aid people with different disabilities.

service dog assisting handler

Guide Dogs

Guide Dogs help the blind and the visually impaired. They help them with day-to-day activities and navigate the environment around them.

They are paired with their owners and go through many hours of training and bonding. The training and socializing for young guide dogs begin when they are pups and this continues throughout their life.

It’s important to remember these types of service dogs are not robotic or GPS-like. They instead take directional cues from their handler and are taught to disobey if there is an unsafe situation in their path.

Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs help alert the deaf and people who struggle to hear important sounds. They learn to respond to verbal and hand signals and are taught to work with either toys or affection as rewards.

They are also trained to make physical contact and lead teammates to sound. They work with children and adults as part of a two-unit team where the partner can handle the dog independently.

Mobility Dogs

These are dogs that assist individuals who use a wheelchair, a walking device or have general balance issues. They can be trained to perform a variety of tasks from pressing the button on automatic doors, retrieving out-of-reach objects like a phone that has started ringing, providing support for people who suffer from balance or strength issues, or retrieving dropped items for those who can’t bend down properly.

Medical Alert Dogs

These dogs might signal the onset of a medical issue such as low blood sugar or even a seizure. They are also able to alert the user to the presence of allergens, and myriad other functions.

They are often used to aid diabetics as they are trained to know an owner’s diabetic highs and lows. Another type of medical alert dog is a psychiatric service dog where the dog helps their owner with various mental health disorders.

Psychiatric service dogs help those with mental health disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Examples of how this type of service dog works include entering a dark room and turning on a light to mitigate a stress-inducing condition, interrupting repetitive behavior, or even reminding the person to take medication. 

Autism Service Dogs

Autism service dogs are trained to assist and support individuals with autism. While they serve people of all ages, they are more common assisting children, helping them develop social skills, increase their interest in activity, and allow them to expand their communication skills.

Service Dog Breeds

As mentioned, service dogs also come in a range of different breeds. However, whichever breed a service dog is, they are always focused on the handler, desensitized to any distractions, and trained to perform tasks according to the individual. They are always attentive and responsive and make the perfect companion.

Service dogs can come in a range of sizes, from very small to very large but the dog must be of a size that they can execute tasks for the individual with comfort and ease.

To give an example, a Papillon is not an appropriate choice to pull a wheelchair but can make an excellent hearing dogs. On the other hand, breeds such as Great Danes, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Saint Bernards have the height and strength to assist those with mobility issues.

Poodles are also popular service dogs, mainly for their versatility, as they come in toy, miniature, and standard varieties. A toy poodle can begin early scent training games to prepare for when they have to alert blood sugar variations, while a larger standard variation may learn to carry objects or activate light switches.

However, despite the breeds mentioned above, the three breeds most people are familiar with when it comes to service dogs are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherd Dogs. 

Breeding Programs

The Canine Companions for Independence maintain a breeding program of Golden and Labrador Retrievers and state, ‘Breeder dogs and their puppies are the foundation of our organization’.

NEADS World Class Service Dogs also hosts a breeding program and world with puppies that are sold or donated by breeders. They use primarily Labrador Retrievers and work hand in hand with breeders to determine whether the pup is appropriate to be introduced into the program.

The factors they will judge them on are health, temperament, and the behavioral history of the dam and the sire. NEADS also searches animal shelters and rescue groups as candidates for training as hearing dogs. 

Where to Find a Service Dog?

You can’t simply go and buy a service dog as you would any other normal do,g but there are professional service dog training organizations and individuals who train service dogs located throughout the US. They train dogs to perform a skill that is specific to their handler’s disability.

Working With a Professional Trainer

When the organizations and individuals mentioned above train their service dogs, they are taught public access skills such as house training, settling quietly by the side of the handler when in a public space, and remaining under control in different situations and settings, as well as the skills specific to their handler’s disability.

Professional service dog trainers set extremely high standards which means it’s common for dogs to have to drop out. The dropout figure lies at 50-70% of service dog trainees, yet these dropouts usually go to a loving home to be kept as family pets.

Across the country, you’ll find both for-profit and non-profit organizations and the cost of training these dogs can exceed $25, 000. However, this does not only cover training the dog. It also covers training the person with the disability who receives the dog as well as periodic follow-up training sessions for the dog to ensure it’s still reliable to work.

If an individual needs a service dog, they should not be put off by the price; some organizations offer not only financial aid but may offer qualifying individuals service dogs at no charge.

When you or someone you know needs a service dog, you will have to work with these organizations and so we strongly encourage you to do your research and find the most trusted and reputable company or trainer you can. Ask for recommendations and speak to professionals first before making any final decisions.

Does a Service Dog Have to be Professionally Trained?

Though this may surprise some, there isn’t actually a requirement for a service dog to be trained professionally and it is theoretically possible to train them yourselves.

The ADA has confirmed that individuals with disabilities have the right to train a service dog themselves and not use a professional service dog trainer or training program, but a service dog candidate for training must meet the following criteria. 

What Criteria Does a Service Dog Need to Meet?

  • Be calm and friendly
  • Be alert yet not reactive to the public and other strangers
  • Be willing to please
  • Be ready to follow owners everywhere
  • Be socialized
  • Be able to learn and retain information
  • Be capable of being socialized to many different situations and environments
  • Be reliable in performing repetitive tasks
  • Be able to retain information easily
  • Be quick at learning new skills

Training a Service Dog Yourself

It’s also worth bearing in mind that when trained, for the dog to pass the test, they must be able to respond to the handler’s first command 90% of the time, regardless of the environment they find themselves in.

This goes as far as being able to potty on command too. This means they need to be focused on the handler at all times. If your dog lacks focus in everyday life and normal obedience, they may not be a great candidate for service dog training. 

Individuals who want to train their service dog should first work with their candidate on basic skills. Start with house training and then move on to socializing. Socialize the dog with the main objective being that they remain on task when there are unfamiliar people, places, sights, sounds, and animals near.

You then need to turn the focus onto training them to focus on the handler and not become easily distracted. The AKC Canine Good Citizen program can provide guidelines on these foundational skills and commands. These basic commands are the fundamentals for standard Service Dog commands and include ‘come’, ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘lie down’, and ‘heel’.

You should then test the dog’s obedience in many different environments and ensure they can follow these commands no matter what is going on around them. This part of the training ensures they will not be distracted when assisting an individual in what can be a very important task. Training your dog not to be distracted is a core part of the whole training program.

Public access skills are another requisite and they need to be trained in all settings. This part of the training is called desensitization and means the dog becomes completely focused on the handler, ignoring every other distraction in public spaces.

After they have mastered the foundational skills and basic commands, however, a service dog must be trained to perform the work or tasks that assist the handler.

To train your dog you need to have plenty of patience and understanding as well as time and a thorough plan. If you get stuck at all or feel out of your depth, do not be afraid to contact a professional for help. It helps greatly if you have experience training dogs. Learning to train a dog by using the one you intend to have as a service dog could be very challenging.

Once trained, a service dog can complete a whole range of different tasks and services. Common services they provide include:

  • Guiding the blind and visually impaired
  • Opening and closing doors, cabinets, and drawers
  • Turning the lights on and off
  • Calling 911 in the case of an emergency
  • Alerting the deaf to noises
  • Identifying and alerting people to symptoms
  • Helping people to get dressed or undressed
  • Assisting people to an upright position
  • Retrieving items
  • Barking or finding help on command
  • Assessing an owner’s safety and guiding them away from dangerous or stressful situations
  • Preventing people from falling
  • Providing stability
  • Detecting allergens
  • Detecting low and high blood sugar levels
  • Interrupting flashbacks and preventing self-harming behaviors using a tactile stimulation
  • Calming people with PTSD down during an anxiety attack
  • Reminding someone to take their prescribed medication
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Helping with insomnia and interrupting nightmares that could cause the person stress
  • Moving feet and arms onto wheelchair footrests and armrests
  • Finding places, vehicles, or their owners when disorientated and bringing them to safety
  • Providing deep pressure therapy

From the examples listed above, it is no surprise that we consider service dogs superheroes. Once trained, they help individuals with a disability live a much happier and more independent life and without them, millions of people all over the globe would struggle.

The list suggests that some behaviors and tasks that the dogs can be trained to do are very complex for a dog, such as dialing 911 in an emergency, and some of the tasks, not even humans are able to do, such as sensing and alerting an owner to a seizure or diabetes attack.

However, because of the difficulty of these tasks, training them properly is vital. They have to follow an extensive and complex training program and it’s no guarantee that after following this training program your dog will be a full-time service animal anyway.

Although there are no specific regulations regarding training your service dog in the US, international standards prescribe at least 120 hours of training over a period of 6 months.

Out of this quota, at least 30 hours should be filled with public access skills and it’s not uncommon for service dog training to take up to two years.

Certain dogs will take longer learning to simply heel, whereas others may take longer to learn to avoid distraction. Additionally, learning specific complex tasks can be time-consuming and so having a lot of spare time to dedicate to your training program is key to success.

The Fake Service Dog Epidemic

Federal laws provide accommodations to the handlers and limit any quotations that could be asked about one’s disability. Unfortunately, this leaves room for abuse by people who misrepresent their dogs as service dogs.

It can be harmful to people who have a disability, confuse the general public, and affect the reputation of service dog users who are legitimate and have followed guidelines.

Moreover, a service dog that has not been trained properly can be a danger to the public as well as a danger to actual service dogs. In response, the American Kennel Club in 2015 issued a policy position statement on the Misuse of Service Dogs which was called the Canine Legislation Position Statement.

On the statement, the American Kennel Club condemns characterizing dogs as service animals when they aren’t or attempting to benefit from a service dog when the individual does not have a disability. 

In 2016, the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans created “CGC Plus”, which is a minimum standard for training and behavior for the service dogs their members can provide to veterans.

CGC Plus ensures that the dog has passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen, as well as the Community Canine, and CGC tests and can perform three services for the individual that are selected at random.

Furthermore, state and local governments across the country have been constantly introducing and passing laws that make it an offense to misrepresent a service animal, and in 2018 along, 48 measures were introduced. The measures addressed the fake service dog crisis. 

The AKC also work with the American Service Dog Access Coalition, which is a not-for-profit organization made up of major service dog groups, providers, advocates for disability, dog trainers, and policymakers who are actively seeking to improve access to service dog teams whilst also incentivizing behavioral standards for service dogs everywhere and educating the public about service dog fraud, a crime with figures that are constantly rising with the high demands for service dogs. 

a working service dog

Are All Dogs in Vests Service Dogs?

How do we spot a service dog? We look for a dog with a vest on right? Well, this isn’t exactly true. Even though some service dogs may wear identification such as vests, collars, tags, or even a special harness, the ADA does not require this and many dogs that wear ID vests are not actually service dogs. 

So the presence of a service dog vest does not in any way guarantee that the dog has been trained or recognized as one by the ADA.

Dogs That Wear Identification

Emotional support animals provide comfort by simply being with the person, but because they are not trained as service dogs to do a specific task based on that individual’s disability, the ADA does not qualify them as service dogs.

The ADA instead distinguishes the difference between psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals. According to the US 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.”

Under the ADA, emotional support animals aren’t allowed to access public facilities yet some governments have put laws in place to allow owners to take their animals into public places.

Furthermore, owners of emotional support animals may be allowed access to housing that is not available for pet owners and they also may be allowed to bring their animals onto cabins on certain commercial flights (though this option has been extremely limited as of 2022). For travel and housing rules, however, it depends on location and the rules are subject to change. 

Therapy dogs are not defined as service dogs by ADA either. They do not receive any access to public facilities, aren’t eligible for housing, and are not allowed cabin access on commercial flights.

This is because instead of offering emotional support, they simply provide opportunities for petting, interaction, and affection in a variety of settings, and this is based on a volunteer basis.

They are often brought into hospitals, living centers, airports, and colleges to relieve temporary stress and offer some cheer. However, though not defined as service dogs, many groups that train these animals have matching ID tags, vests, or collars. 

Courthouse dogs are our final kind of animal that can be seen in a vest or form of ID but are not classed as service dogs. Many states allow a child or other vulnerable person to be accompanied by a courthouse dog during trial proceedings but the rules surrounding how they are used in court vary by state.

Like therapy dogs, courthouse dogs are not protected under ADA however, they also aren’t eligible for special housing or aren’t allowed cabin access on commercial flights. 

Final Thoughts

We hope you now have a better understanding of service dogs and what they are, how to train them, and where to find them.

Although not considered pets on a technical level, they are more than this and are a life companion to help those with a disability live a happy and fulfilled life. You form a strong bond with your service dog as they help you with everyday activities and stop you from getting into danger.

All the work they do not only enhances a handler’s independence but also their overall quality of life. They help the handler with cognitive, physical, and developmental disabilities and the world would not be the same without them.

Superb Dog Editor

Superb Dog Editor