All About Service Dogs: An Insider's Guide

Service Dogs: An Insider’s Guide

This Guide is dedicated to those in the community that may have the opportunity to personally see a Service Dog at work someday. Whether you are a family member, friend, business owner, educator, dog trainer, breeder, medical professional, landlord or a friendly member of the public, this article is for you.

There is so much misinformation and considerable misunderstanding surrounding the topic of Service Animals. What do they do and who are they for? Where are they allowed and when? In this article we answer those questions along with explaining some of the most confusing aspects of Service Animals.

We hope you find this insider’s guide to be informative, and as Service Dog handlers we greatly appreciate you taking the time to learn more. Here is what you need to know:

1. You Must Have a Disability to Have a Service Dog

The very first criteria for being eligible to use a Service Dog is to have a disability (as defined by the American’s with Disabilities Act):

“An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

*It’s important to note that the ADA definition of disabled is not the same as the Social Security definition of disabled. There are many Service Dog handlers with disabilities that are still able to work for a living and support themselves. An individual does not need to be receiving SSI or SSDI to be eligible for a Service Dog.

There are no specific diagnoses that automatically qualify an individual as disabled (as we discuss in our Diagnosis vs Disability article), so it’s important to have an in depth discussion with a medical doctor in order to make that determination.

If you see someone out and about with their Service Dog, it’s safe to assume that they have a very real need for that dog’s assistance. Many times disabilities aren’t obvious, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist and aren’t legitimate.

2. Service Dogs Must Be Specifically Trained

Service Dogs do more than just make their handlers feel better. According to the ADA, the tasks or work that Service Dogs do must be purposefully taught:

“The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. 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. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”

It’s true that dogs seem to naturally have a way of helping people relax and feel happier, and some are so emotionally in-tune with their owners that they “just know” how to respond in a medical crisis. The law is very clear that this natural inclination, by itself, is not enough to qualify a dog as a Service Dog:

“Q: Are Emotional Support, Therapy, Comfort, or Companion Animals considered Service Animals under the ADA? A: No. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

“Q: If someone’s dog calms them when having an anxiety attack, does this qualify it as a Service Animal? A: It depends. The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. 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.”

These dogs go through extensive training for approximately 2 years (sometimes more!) to learn how to mitigate a disabled individual’s disabilities. This means that their training has been focused towards learning specific actions (tasks or work) in response to verbal cues (ex: “block” or “brace”), physical cues (ex: tapping a leg or low blood sugar) or environmental cues (ex: a doorbell ringing or the presence of dairy). There are many many tasks that Service Dogs can be taught and you can learn more about them from our task list.

3. Service Dogs Shouldn’t Be Disruptive

Being a Service Dog doesn’t automatically give a dog (or their handler) a free pass to do as they please. The reason it can take so long to legitimately train a Service Animal is not because tasks are particularly difficult to learn, but because of how much practice and maturity it takes for the dog to be able to seamlessly fit-in in public spaces. Service Dogs should ideally be as invisible as possible when out with their handlers.

Even a bonafide Service Animal can be asked to leave a business if they are being disruptive, dangerous or aren’t house-trained. From the ADA Service Animal FAQ:

Q: When can Service Animals be excluded? A: …if a particular service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or if it is not housebroken, that animal may be excluded.

Q: What can my staff do when a Service Animal is being disruptive? A: If a service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises.

Q: What does under control mean? … Do they have to be quiet and not bark? A: The ADA requires that service animals be under the control of the handler at all times. In most instances, the handler will be the individual with a disability or a third party who accompanies the individual with a disability. …The service animal must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered while in public places unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the person’s disability prevents use of these devices. In that case, the person must use voice, signal, or other effective means to maintain control of the animal. …She may not allow the dog to wander away from her and must maintain control of the dog, even if it is retrieving an item at a distance from her. …Under control also means that a service animal should not be allowed to bark repeatedly in a lecture hall, theater, library, or other quiet place. However, if a dog barks just once, or barks because someone has provoked it, this would not mean that the dog is out of control.

This is a key facet of Federal Law that is often overlooked. The right of disabled individuals to utilize the assistance of a dog does not trump the safety of the general public. This is very important. Businesses do have the right to ask that a Service Animal be removed if it is out of control.

So how should you proceed if you think a Service Dog is being disruptive? Please read our article on How To Tell if a Service Dog is Real or Fake to learn more about what you can do if you encounter that particular situation.

4. There Are Many Types of Service Dogs

Most people are aware of Guide Dogs: Service Dogs that assist individuals who are blind or partially blind. There are records of dogs being used to assist the blind  dating back to at least the mid-16th century, with the first Guide Dog schools being established in Germany during World War I.

Since that time, the list of disabilities that Service Dogs have been trained to mitigate has grown substantially. It’s truly amazing what tasks dogs can be taught to help support their handlers. Here are some of the types of Service Dogs that exist today:

  • Guide Dogs
  • Hearing Dogs
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs
  • Balance and Mobility Service Dogs
  • Seizure Alert/Response Dogs
  • Medical Alert Dogs
  • Autism Service Dogs
  • PTSD Service Dogs
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs
  • Allergen Detection Dogs
  • and more!

It’s important to realize that some of these types of Service Dogs aren’t as outwardly obvious as others. For example, you can’t tell just by looking that an individual is autistic, or fatally allergic to gluten, or disabled by depression. Be careful not to assume that someone is “faking” a Service Dog because you can’t discern their disability or tell what tasks their dog is trained to perform. Unless their dog is disruptive or behaving dangerously (see point 3 above), it’s always best to give a handler the benefit of the doubt.

5. Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs Are Not the Same

If you aren’t directly involved with working dogs it can be easy to lump them all into the same group. Police dogs, companion dogs, service dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, therapy animals, comfort dogs, and so on. Each of these provides a different service and it’s important to understand the distinction because the handlers of each may or may not be given specific rights and the dogs have different training requirements.

The three types that we will address here are Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs. Below you will find an infographic explaining some of the similarities and differences between these working dogs.

SD vs TD vs ESA


Service Dogs are specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled individual. They are allowed to accompany their handler into public places as well as on airplanes and in no-pet housing.

Therapy Dogs visit the elderly in nursing homes and sick people in hospitals. They go through specific training to be sure that they can behave safely in these environments. They help these populations feel better by cuddling, allowing themselves to be pet and simply with their presence.

Emotional Support Animals are also prescribed for individuals with disabilities, specifically psychiatric disabilities. Unlike Service Dogs, ESAs require no special training and comfort their owner just by being there. People do not have public access rights with an Emotional Support Animal but they are allowed in no-pet housing and on airplanes with specific documentation.

6. Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Are Not the Same

Just as Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals are not the same, neither are Psychiatric Service Dogs and ESAs. The only similarities they share are that they both assist people with mental disabilities and that a letter can be required for housing/FHA and air travel/ACAA situations. The DOJ has this to say about the distinction:

“The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. 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.”

For some reason, Psychiatric Service Dogs are sometimes viewed as less legitimate than other types of Service Dogs. Perhaps this is because psychiatric disabilities are not readily visible (but then again neither are seizures, allergies, etc) or because they are confused with ESAs. This idea could not be further from the truth.

Psychiatric disabilities should be treated with just as much seriousness and respect as physical disabilities. Psychiatric Service Dogs undergo the same strenuous training and provide just as important a service as their physical counterparts. These dogs change the lives of their handlers and make it possible for them to live as normal a life as possible.

7. Service Dogs Don’t Have to Wear a Vest

You may be surprised to learn that Service Dogs in the United States aren’t required to be dressed or identified in any way. Here’s what the Department of Justice has to say about it:

“Q: Do Service Animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as Service Animals? A: No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.”

Many handlers do choose to outfit their dog in some fashion, whether it be a homemade cape, a simple harness, a professionally made vest or something totally different. Some owners require special gear because of their disabilities, like a mobility harness that features a rigid handle to brace on. Even still, it’s possible for a Service Dog handler to work their dog “naked”, with no gear whatsoever. This could be to help keep their dog cool in hot weather, or simply personal preference.

If you see a Service Dog in public, try not to judge their status by what they are wearing (or not wearing). In most cases apparel has no effect on the dog’s ability to do its job (unless specific gear is required such as the mobility harness mentioned earlier). As long as the dog is well mannered and trained to perform a task or do work to mitigate its handler’s disabilities, that is what matters!

8. Service Dogs Are Allowed Even Where Pets Aren’t

In order to assist their disabled handler, Service Dogs are allowed to accompany them almost anywhere they may go. This includes places that dogs and other animals aren’t usually permitted such as restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, retail locations, concerts, pet-free hotels and housing, tattoo parlors, medical offices, public transportation, etc.

There are a few select situations where Service Dogs can be denied. The first is places where the presence of a dog would fundamentally alter the nature of the business. An example would be specific sections of the zoo where the dog could cause predatory animals to become agitated. The second would be places of worship (churches, synagogues, etc) because they are exempt from the ADA. The last is sterile environments like operating rooms. A good way to determine if an environment is truly sterile is if entrants are required to scrub down and wear special clothing (tattoo parlors are not sterile since people can wear regular clothes).

If you happen to see a dog in a location where pets aren’t normally allowed, it’s safe to assume that dog is a Service Dog. Federal Law protects the handler’s right to be there with their dog and to be treated with as much respect as any other patron.

9. Disabilities Aren’t Always Obvious

It has been mentioned a few times above, but it is worth addressing again: disabilities are not always obvious. Here are some examples of invisible disabilities:

  • Life-threatening allergies
  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Postural Orthosatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS)
  • Diabetes
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Epilepsy
  • and too many more to list

Invisible disabilities can be deadly and should be taken seriously. Keep this in mind when you see an individual with a Service Dog but you can’t immediately tell why. Even if you are curious, it’s best not to ask the person what their disability is. This is private medical information. Consider how you would feel if a stranger approached you and asked such an intimate question: probably surprised and possibly very offended.

10. Owners Can Train Their Own Service Dog

There are many wonderful professional Service Dog training programs that provide dogs to people in need. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t possible for these organizations to train enough Service Dogs for all of the people that qualify for them.

While some programs give Service Dogs to people for little to no cost, it’s not uncommon for a program dog to cost a substantial amount up front, even tens of thousands of dollars. This fee isn’t the result of greed. Make no mistake, the time, energy and resources that are put into these animals justify the price tag. No matter how justified it is, the cost still puts a program dog out of reach for many.

In some cases, it’s possible that there are no programs that train dogs to mitigate certain disabilities. If a person has a particularly rare condition they might find this to be true.

Luckily for these situations, the government has given disabled individuals the freedom to train their own Service Dog if they so choose:

“Q: Does the ADA require Service Animals to be professionally trained? A: No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.”

Owner-trained Service Dogs are just as legitimate as program trained dogs. Most of the time handlers will utilize the assistance of private dog trainers and group classes to give their Service Dog in Training the best education possible. In some cases, owner trained dogs can come out just as or better trained than a program dog. It depends a lot on how experienced and dog savvy the handler is and how much they invest in the process.

11. Allergies and Fear Aren’t Reasons to Deny a Service Animal

This is a particularly controversial aspect of the laws regarding Service Dogs. After all, if you are severely fearful or allergic to dogs why should you have to give up your right to be safe and comfortable in a public space? Why do you have to accommodate the disabled handler’s disabilities but they don’t have to accommodate you?

The first thing to consider is if you are truly disabled by your allergies or phobia. To review, here is the definition of disabled:

“An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

Does this apply to you? If not, then you will likely need to just avoid the Service Dog team as well as you can. Most handlers, if made aware of the situation, will be sensitive and do their best to help you feel more comfortable by keeping their distance. Also keep in mind, in the case of allergies, that you are likely coming in contact with just as much fur and dander on the clothing of regular dog owners as you are a Service Dog that is in the same space as you.

If you are in fact disabled by fear of dogs or a severe dog allergy, then, according to the DOJ, accommodations should be made for both parties:

“Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.”

12. A Service Dog Can Be Any Breed

Service Dogs are found in all shapes and sizes, from tiny Chihuahuas to giant Great Danes. Depending on what a person’s disability is, it might be more convenient or even necessary to have a dog of a certain size. As long as a dog has the proper temperament and training to meet the high standards of a Service Dog, the breed makes no difference. Here is what the DOJ has to say on the subject:

“Q: Can Service Animals be any breed of dog? A: Yes. The ADA does not restrict the type of dog breeds that can be service animals.”

For example, a giant breed is capable of helping a person with mobility impairments by bracing themselves and providing a stable object to grasp. Small and medium breeds are not sturdy enough to provide this benefit.  Smaller breeds are much more convenient to have in public and tend to have longer lifespans, thus a longer working career.

Each breed of dog has different instincts and strengths. It can be beneficial to match these instincts with a person’s disability. A diabetic would do well having a dog that enjoys using its nose. That desire can be focused towards detecting the high or low blood sugar scent and alerting the handler when it is present.

13. There is no Service Dog Registration, Certification or ID in the US

In their Service Animal FAQ the DOJ explicitly says that no special registration or ID is necessary for Service Dog handlers to be granted public access:

“A: Does the ADA require that Service Animals be certified as Service Animals? A: No. Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry. *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.”

Most people will never be in a situation where this will matter, but if you are an employee or owner of a business this is a vital piece of information. You may have even had a disabled individual flash you their special Service Dog ID before. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that other handlers should do the same.

The truth is that these IDs or certifications can be purchased by anyone via Amazon. I’ve seen instances of people purchasing “Service Dog IDs” for their stuffed animal, water bottle or pet rock, just to emphasize how much of a farce they are. Some Service Dog training programs voluntarily certify their graduates, but this is not a legal requirement and different than the IDs that people purchase through the internet.

If you are concerned about the legitimacy of a Service Dog team, asking for ID is not the way to verify their status. Visit our article on how to tell if a Service Dog is real or fake to learn the proper ways to handle the situation.

14. Distracting a Service Dog Could Be Dangerous

Service Dogs train for countless hours to learn how to keep their handler safe. It may not always be clear how an SD helps their person just by looking at them. While it may seem like a Service Dog isn’t working in the moment, they could be monitoring their handler for dangerous hormone levels, helping them recover from a panic attack or even watching out for fatal compounds in the environment. It’s never safe to assume a Service Dog is free to visit or “say hi”.

Trainers do their best to “proof” Service Dogs to as many distractions as possible during the training process. Through doing this the hope is that the dog can maintain its focus and training no matter what is going on around them, but we can’t forget that Service Dogs are still dogs. They aren’t perfect.

Some dogs are more social than others and naturally want to interact with people. By purposefully distracting a Service Dog, you are unfairly pushing the limits of their self-control. Trying to touch a dog, talking to them, allowing your dog to sniff them, or even making prolonged eye contact and waving at them can be
distracting to a service dog. If they aren’t perfectly determined in that moment and their focus is successfully redirected from their handler to you, their handler could be in considerable danger. Some states have even ruled that deliberately interfering with a Service Dog is illegal (check your local laws).

15. Service Dogs Get Time Off Too

Contrary to what some might believe, Service Dogs LOVE what they do! Ask any handler and they will probably tell you how motivated their dog is to perform tasks and the disappointment that falls across their face in the rare instance that they have to stay home. Most dog breeds were bred to work closely with their human and being a Service Dog can be the ultimate fulfillment of that objective.

Dog Agility CompetitionNo matter how fulfilling the work is, down time is necessary to prevent burnout. For most handlers, their Service Dog is their whole life and they do everything they can to provide fun and enrichment for their dog. Many owners participate in dog sports with their Service Dog such as agility, herding, dock diving, tracking, frisbee, lure coursing and more.

When not working or doing other doggy activities, Service Dogs are shamelessly spoiled at home and are encouraged to play with other dogs and the rest of the family. I know that my personal Service Dog likely eats better than I do and has bags and bags of treats and toys to entertain himself with. He enjoys naps in the sun and rolling in the grass. This is the case with most of his Service Dog friends as well.

Yes, it’s true that Service Dogs work very hard at what they do. Dogs are very good at dedicating themselves to the job at hand. The good news is that Service Dog handlers are very sensitive to their partner’s needs and also work hard to make sure that they get the fun and relaxation that they very much deserve.

16. It’s Not “Fun” to Have a Service Dog

The only reason that people have Service Dogs is because they have a disability. They have a medical condition that makes life so difficult that they need the constant assistance of another being to live somewhat normally. This is far from a good time.

Even if you remove the disabled part from the equation, being a Service Dog handler is a burden. It is similar to having a small child accompany you wherever you go, complete with occasional bodily fluids of the dog becomes ill. Service Dogs are also quite expensive. Service Dog handlers deal with access disputes and folks frequently approaching them to ask invasive personal questions which is embarrassing and causes any outing to take considerably longer.

There are many factors that a prospective handler must take into account before deciding to partner with a Service Dog. I highly recommend that you read our article on the Top Things to Know Before Getting a Service Dog to learn more about everything that goes into the process. It is a huge decision that should never be taken lightly.

It’s easy to see a Service Dog and to wish that you could bring your dog with you everywhere too. It might even be tempting to try and pass your dog off as a Service Dog to accomplish your goal. This is highly discouraged and many states have heavy penalties for doing this. It truly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Whenever this thought crosses your mind, rather than think of ways to bring your dog along, take a second to consider all of the hardship and suffering that caused someone to need a Service Dog in the first place. Be thankful that you are able and send out a good thought to the Service Dogs that are working hard in that moment to make independence possible for someone.



















Service Dog Society
The Service Dog Society is dedicated to the education, training and support of service dog handlers, their friends and family, service dog trainers and programs, puppy raisers, businesses, the general public, and anybody else who has questions about these marvelous helpers.Our goal is to provide as much information as possible, in a centralized location and in an easy-to-follow format. We know first hand how overwhelming the process of getting and/or training a service dog can be, for everyone involved! Our hope is to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty that is a part of the process.