What is a Service Dog?

Here at the Service Dog Society, we’re all things Service Dog, all the time.

That’s not really indicative of the general population so we wanted to do a post answering one of the most basic questions:

What is a Service Dog?

The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines Service Animals as:

“dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”

This definition is made up of a few parts.

  1. Service Animals are dogs.
  2. Service Dogs are individually trained.
  3. Service Dogs do work or perform tasks.
  4. Service Dogs do this work or tasks for people with disabilities.

A Service Dog must meet all of these points to be considered as such.

Service Dogs are Dogs

Service Animals are dogs. According to Federal Law, there are no other species that can be considered Service Animals except miniature horses when reasonable. So unless your state or local laws have additional laws allowing for other animals as service animals, do not bring your “service snake”, “assistance bird” or any other animal into non-pet-friendly stores.

Another thing to remember is that Service Dogs are still living breathing beings, and they’re not perfect! Even though they have an exceptionally high level of training, they can still make mistakes and have off days. They still need to be cared for like any other dog by feeding, grooming, exercising, vetting and training them.

Service Dogs are Trained

In order to be a Service Dog, they must go through specific training. The tasks and work that Service Dogs perform must be intentionally trained and cannot just be “natural behaviors” or “instincts”. Of course, you can use these behaviors and instincts as a great foundation for your final tasks but they must be molded and shaped into specifically trained work or tasks.

Surprisingly, the task training is not the hardest part. The reason training a Service Dog takes such a long time (around 2 years!) is all of the basic obedience, advanced obedience, and public access training they must undergo. It takes a great deal of repetition, proofing, as well as maturity to meet the behavior standards of a top-notch Service Animal.

Service Dogs Do Work or Perform Tasks

As discussed in the previous section, Service Dogs must do work or perform tasks. Providing comfort, looking scary, making you feel better, being protective or similar things do NOT make a dog a Service Dog.

If you’d like to learn more about tasks check out How to Choose Your Service Dog’s Tasks and The Giant List of Service Dog Tasks.

Service Dogs Assist People with Disabilities

In order to utilize a Service Dog you must have a disability according to the ADA definition:

“Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who: Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; Has a record of such an impairment; Is regarded as having such an impairment.”

Note that this definition is different from the Social Security definition where you must be approved.

Not sure if you qualify? Check out Do I Qualify for a Service Dog? Diagnosis vs Disability and have a talk with your doctor!

Service Dogs Come in Many Types

Service Dogs originally came in one type: Guide Dogs for the Blind. Over the years that list has expanded to include many more types of Service Dogs:

  1. Autism Assistance Dogs
  2. Mobility Assistance Dogs
  3. Medical Alert Dogs
  4. Seizure Alert Dogs
  5. Seizure Response Dogs
  6. Psychiatric Service Dogs
  7. Diabetic Alert Dogs
  8. Allergen Detection Dogs
  9. PTSD Service Dogs
  10. Guide Dogs
  11. Hearing Dogs
  12. and more!

Service Dogs Aren’t Emotional Support Animals or Therapy Dogs

Service Dogs are a very specific type of working dog and they are very different from Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Therapy Dogs. Service Dogs are allowed to accompany their handler in non-pet-friendly places, while ESAs and Therapy Dogs are not. Also note that Psychiatric Service Dogs, a specific type of Service Dog that assists people with psychiatric disabilities, are not the same as Emotional Support Animals.

What to learn more about the differences? Read Service Dogs vs Emotional Support Animals vs Therapy DogsWhat is an Emotional Support Animal?What is a Therapy Dog? and Emotional Support, Therapy, Service Dogs, Oh My!.

Service Dogs Aren’t There For Your Entertainment

Service Dogs are Hardworking Professionals

It can be really exciting to suddenly see a Service Dog out in public. They are so sweet and cute, especially if they happen to be wearing working gear like boots or a snazzy vest.

Please don’t pet or distract a Service Dog!

Remember that if you see a service dog, the person that they are assisting has a disability. That person depends on their Service Dog to be able to go out into public and do activities that most people in the general population have no trouble with.

Not all disabilities are visible, so you can’t always tell what that individual is struggling with or how their Service Dog helps them. Give the team a wide berth and let them go about their affairs without fanfare.

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.