Service Dog Guide - Everything You Need To Know About These Wonderful Companions

What makes these dogs so special? Why are dogs especially suited to serve the needs of persons with disabilities? How does the connection between a service dog and its handler come about?


Read on to find the answers to these and other questions about working dogs.

Dogs are uniquely qualified to work as service animals. Because the canine-human bond is so strong, the old adage that a dog is “man’s best friend” is undeniably true.

Service Dogs are Working Dogs

According to the American Kennel Club, humans first domesticated dogs about 15,000 years ago to perform certain jobs. Early working dogs served as watchdogs and guarded herds or flocks of livestock. Large, strong breeds such as Doberman Pinscher and Great Pyrenees were bred for their ability to protect their human handlers as well as flocks of sheep from predators.

Today, working dogs can be found in many environments. German Shepherds perform courageous duties in the military and in law enforcement. Alaskan Malamutes pull sleds over the frozen tundra. Numerous breeds serve as hunting, retrieving, and herding dogs.

german shepperd working animalwearing a vest

While the average family pet might spend his day napping and playing with the kids, working dogs are trained to perform specific jobs. Working dogs tend to be medium-to-large breeds with high intelligence, physical strength, and calm personalities.

Service dogs are working dogs. They are trained to perform specific duties to assist their handlers. The distinction lies in the fact that these dogs provide assistance for handlers who have medically diagnosed physical or mental disabilities.

The Legal Definition

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)¹, a service dog is one that is trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Furthermore, the tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Reasonable accommodations under the ADA require the following:

A disabled person with a service dog must not be denied admittance to public places.

Service animals must be allowed into all facilities and areas that are open to the general public.

Establishments that serve food must allow working dogs, even if health regulations prohibit animals on the premises.

Persons with disabilities who bring a service animal into public places may be asked only two questions: (1) if they require the dog’s presence because of a disability, and (2) what task the dog is trained to do. Extensive questioning is not allowed.

Disabled persons who use guide dogs must not be isolated from others or treated unfavorably because of the dog.

A disabled person with a service dog may be asked to remove the dog from a public place only if the dog is out of control or is not housebroken.

By definition, the ADA considers service dogs to be working dogs. They are not pets.

The ADA does not require service animals to be licensed, certified, or registered. Additionally, there is no requirement under ADA for service animals to wear special vests or harnesses. Individuals and organizations sell these items, but they are not recognized by the Department of Justice as proof of a service dog’s legitimacy under the ADA.

The Difference Between Service Dogs and Therapy (Support) Dogs

A service dog is not the same as an emotional support dog or a therapy dog. The difference lies in how the service dog is specifically trained to perform necessary tasks for a person with disabilities.

An emotional support dog provides love and comfort to its handler but is not trained to do work or perform specific tasks. Because emotional support dogs do not receive this training, they do not get the same accommodations and rights under the ADA.

Therapy dogs are similar to emotional support dogs. They go into schools, hospitals, and nursing homes to provide comfort and a calming influence for persons in need of that emotional connection.

Requirements for Service Dogs

When service animals are working, they are not functioning as pets. Because their handlers rely on their service animal for mobility, communication, and safety, it is important that the dog is dependable while working.

Here are some of the requirements for service dogs, they must be:

  • Calm and well-behaved in various environments.
  • Well socialized around humans and other animals.
  • Housebroken.
  • Content to settle beside their handlers and ignore distractions.
  • Intelligent and able to remember commands.
  • Alert to the needs of their handlers.
  • Willing to please their handlers.

These Breeds are Often Trained to be Service Dogs

Medium-to-large breeds that are highly intelligent and social make excellent support animals for people.

Golden Retriever

Golden Retrievers are known for their intelligence and people friendly. They love to spend hours right beside their handlers, and they are attentive to their humans’ needs. After the puppy stage, Golden Retrievers exude calm confidence and willingness to interact with humans. Weighing in at about 55-75 pounds and standing about 25 inches tall, Golden Retrievers are a sturdy breed, in summary, they make a great service dog

Labrador Retriever

The average Labrador retriever stands about 24 inches tall and weighs 55-80 pounds. They are strong and energetic dogs who need exercise. Labrador retrievers are among the friendliest, most people loving dogs you’ll ever meet. They love to be around humans, and they have a strong desire to please their handlers.

German Shepherd

german shepherd

When we think about working dogs, the German Shepherd comes to mind. We are accustomed to seeing German Shepherds working alongside law enforcement officers and members of the military. They also make excellent service dogs. Because of their high intelligence, German Shepherds are easy to train. They display an excellent ability to remember training lessons, and they love to work. The average German Shepherd weighs about 60 pounds, and they are considered a medium-large breed.

Standard Poodle


Poodles are affectionate, intelligent, and easily socialized with humans and other dogs. This makes them highly trainable, and they make great service dogs. Other pluses for Poodles include a low tendency to bark and an absence of shedding. While some Poodles are miniature or toy dogs, the Standard Poodle grows to be 45-70 pounds. Their size contributes to their suitability as service animals.

Great Dane

great dane

Because of their extraordinary size and strength, Great Danes are especially suited for some types of service. They can provide physical support for persons who need help with balance and mobility. As well as physical strength, Great Danes provide a calming influence to those around them. Their presence can be reassuring to people with physical disabilities.

Types of Service Dogs

Service dogs are trained to do work that assists their handlers with needs resulting from disabilities. Depending on the disability, the dogs are trained to perform specific tasks. Here are some of the jobs that service dogs do for persons with various types of disabilities.

Service Dogs for Sensory Disabilities

Guide dogs for blind or visually impaired persons

These dogs help their visually impaired handlers with mobility, balance, and spatial orientation. With the help of a guide dog, a person who is blind or has low vision is able to navigate safely through the world. Guide dogs are trained to help their handlers in specific situations such as going up or downstairs and avoiding obstacles in their path. While guide dogs are trained to follow commands, they are also trained in “selective disobedience” to assess potential danger and keep their handlers out of harm’s way.

Hearing dogs for deaf or hearing-impaired persons

For a person who is deaf or hears very little, aural cues go undetected. This is where a service dog can provide crucial assistance. The dog alerts its handler to warning sounds in the environment such as a fire alarm or a crying baby. In this way, the hearing dog helps to ensure the handler’s safety. Additionally, the hearing dog alerts their handler to social cues such as conversation or a knock on the door. Hearing dogs are trained to make physical contact with their handlers in response to noises. They lead their handlers toward or away from the sound sources, depending on the circumstances.

Service Dogs for Physical Disabilities

Mobility assistance dogs for persons with physical mobility challenges

A person with physical disabilities might use a wheelchair for mobility. A strong service dog can provide assistance by pulling the wheelchair. For those with physical disabilities, service dogs also perform other work. These tasks might include pushing elevator buttons, pushing buttons for automatic door openings, or fetching items that their physically disabled handlers are unable to reach.

Medical Alert Service Dogs

Diabetic alert dogs

According to NOVA, a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000-to-100,000 times more acute than that of a human. Their ability to “sniff out” information through their remarkable olfactory sense makes dogs uniquely qualified to work as medical alert service animals.

Some service dogs are trained to use their sense of smell to detect chemical changes in the blood of a diabetic person. The dog alerts its handler and/or others when a critical drop in blood sugar is about to occur.

Seizure alert dogs

Subtle changes in behavior can be signs of an impending seizure episode for a person with epilepsy. Service dogs can be trained to detect even the tiniest changes that alert the dog to an oncoming seizure. The dog can then alert their handler or other persons about the danger. Furthermore, seizure alert dogs are trained to position themselves in a protective way to ensure their handlers’ safety when seizures occur

Allergy detection dogs

For children and adults with severe allergies, the world can be a dangerous place. Even being in proximity to allergens can pose a danger. Service dogs are trained to use their amazingly acute sense of smell to detect allergens in the air or in foods and to warn their handlers. Often working with severely allergic children, allergy detection dogs accompany their handlers to school and other activities so that the children can socialize with others and lead a more normal life.

Service Dogs that Provide Support for Mental Disabilities

Psychiatric service dogs

These dogs are not the same as emotional support or therapy dogs. Psychiatric service dogs receive specialized training to perform tasks that help their handlers cope with symptoms of mental disorders.

Service dogs can assist handlers with a range of mental disorders such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. Their handlers might experience anxiety attacks, compulsive behaviors, or severe discomfort in public places.

Service dogs can perform tasks such as turning on lights for safety or offering stability through their close proximity in social situations. They can also be trained to interrupt compulsive, repetitive behaviors or to remind their handlers about taking medications.

How Service Dogs are Trained to Assist their Human Companions

Many service dogs are trained by professional trainers. Professional dog training organizations exist throughout the U.S. Some are for-profit organizations, and some are non-profits.

Training a service dog is time-consuming and rigorous, and the drop-out rate is high. So, only the most qualified dogs complete the training to become service dogs. Training costs approximately $25,000.00. Some organizations make service dogs available to disabled persons at no cost to the individual. Others charge fees for their training services.

Training a service dog typically includes a lengthy initial training period followed by intermittent follow-up training sessions. Each dog it trained to perform specific tasks for their individual handler, based on their handler’s disability.

The ADA does not require that service dogs must be trained by professionals. A person with a disability has the right to train their own service dog. They are not required to pay someone to do the training for them.

What to Do When You See a Service Dog in Public

For those of us who are lifelong dog-lovers, the natural instinct when meeting a dog in public is to approach the dog and reach out to pet it. This is particularly true when we see a friendly breed such as those who work as service dogs. But it's important to resist this urge when you see a service dog working with its handler. The dog is not a pet.

Do not distract the dog or try to play with it. The dog is working. Respect the service dog and its handler.

Keep in mind the accommodations required by the ADA. The service dog has the right to be in a public place just as much as you do. The dog's handler must not be made to feel slighted or isolated because they have the dog with them.

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    Jason M. Collins

    Hi. I'm Jason

    As a dog owner myself I've always been obsessed with ways to keep my loyal friends healthy and happy. The truth is, we can do so much more for our dogs if we have the right information, this is what motivates me to keep writing.

    I hope you enjoyed this article.