Service Dogs 101

The topic of service dogs brings up lots of questions. What do service dogs do, and what do they not do? Are all service dogs the same? How do you get one? What are some of the issues around having one? This article will look into answers to these questions and more.

What is a Service Dog?

People generally have a lot of misconceptions about service dogs. Until 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted, the term “service dog” was included in a lot of unofficial categories.

This situation not only led to confusion about what these dogs actually did, but without the backup of the law, disabled people were regularly denied access to public places and events.

What’s the Difference?

Service dogs are sometimes classified as assistance animals, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, and working dogs. While generally, these could mean the same thing, technically they do not. This is partly because there are laws among different agencies that define them and partly because of public perception. As people become more aware of these dogs’ functions the distinctions become more obvious.

For example, assistance animals can be any kind of animal, trained, or untrained. Working dogs, with or without training, can do any kind of job — from herding sheep to lifeguarding to guarding property. Therapy dogs are often seen in nursing homes or hospitals, lending a comforting and healing presence. Emotional support dogs, along with service dogs, are recognized by psychiatric agencies as assistance animals whose presence helps to ground patients and alleviate mental and emotional distress in the moment.

According to the ADA, a service dog is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for someone living with a disability.” Of course, not any dog can do every kind of task, and not every kind of disability requires the same kind of assistance.

Service dogs-in-training are not covered by the ADA, which means that technically they are not considered service dogs until they have been cleared to do specific tasks for a person with a disability that is covered by the ADA.

Types of Service Dogs

Types of service dogs

The effectiveness of a service dog has a lot to do with temperament. For this reason, German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers are usually chosen for this kind of work. Despite variations within any breed, these three breeds tend to have the right combination of desirable characteristics in the right amounts. They have a natural calm about them and are able to hold their focus on their jobs — and they are especially hard to provoke if properly trained. They are smart, good-natured, they like people and are big enough, inside and out, to be able to take on some of the physical tasks that can be so helpful for a disabled person with issues like mobility, anxiety around crowds, or syncope.

Depending upon the disability they’re assisting with, they can be any of the following types:

  • Psychiatric service dog
  • Medical alert and response dog
  • Mobility dog
  • Guide dog for the blind or visually impaired
  • Hearing alert dog
  • Service dogs for veterans with military-related PTSD

Clearly, some of these categories need the capabilities of a larger dog. For instance, a larger dog would be well able to create a safety buffer between handler and strangers by “blocking” one side, often the back, of the handler’s personal space. Most people will see the dog first and maybe not be quite so quick to approach, leaving the handler free to remain generally focused on the surroundings. This would be especially important when navigating traffic, live events, and other things involving moving parts.

A mobility dog needs to have strength and stamina to be able to help a handler up or pull physically whenever needed. This dog can also brace to serve as an anchor during balance or coordination episodes.

A medical alert and response dog is trained to identify and respond to potentially life-threatening developments like blood pressure fluctuations, fainting, or epileptic onsets. Part of the dog’s response is to “take down” the handler to the ground and cover the handler’s torso with their weight, even pushing on the ribcage, to assist with stabilizing blood pressure. This too would require a large dog.

Hearing alert dogs can be any size. Their job is to signal the handler when a doorbell or cellphone rings, an alarm sounds, a baby cries or someone calls a name.

Bad Behavior

And then, there are “fake” service dogs whose owners carry “certifications” (easily obtained by mail order, costing between $40 and $200) in order to gain credibility and access to public places such as restaurants, bars, and stores with their pets.

Sometimes people try to make their dogs look official because they do not want to live in a pet-friendly apartment building and find that a “certification” will get them into one that does not allow pets. This practice, while not always creating a hazard, can muddy the water. Such dogs are not usually as highly-trained in how to behave in public as a valid service dog would have to be. It is those unfortunate incidents in which a “fake” service dog

  • barks
  • frightens or even bites someone
  • bolts after a squirrel
  • poops on the sidewalk, or
  • growls at passersby

that can give service dogs a bad name.


Exactly how long people have benefited from their connection with dogs as service animals is unclear. We do know that the connection goes back to at least the first century AD. Amid the ruins of Herculaneum, a town that was destroyed in the same eruption that destroyed nearby Pompeii in 79 AD, a mural was uncovered that depicted a blind man being led by a dog.

Other evidence like medieval woodcuts and ancient folk songs tell stories like that of a blind knight whose friends gave him a dog on a leash when he lost his elite status and became a beggar.

In the mid-18th century, a Parisian hospital for the blind developed a teaching system for guide dogs. A few decades later, a blind Austrian man taught his two dogs to assist him so well that people didn’t believe he was really disabled. Later, in 1819, another Austrian man published the first guide dog manual.

Many soldiers who fought in WWI were blinded by mustard gas, which led to the establishment of schools to train guide dogs for these men.

In 1929, Dorothy Harrison Eustis and a 19-year-old blind man, Morris Frank founded The Seeing Eye, a guide-dog training center with an interesting background that reached back to World War I. Eustis had been training German Shepherds for the Swiss army and was inspired by the work of German doctor Gerhard Stalling, who had started a guide-dog program to retrain his collies from the WWI battlefield. Frank requested a dog, trained it himself, and succeeded.

In 1945 the American Humane organization began to provide service dogs to disabled WWII veterans suffering from PTSD.

“Service Dogs” as a Distinct Category

Special education teacher Bonita (Bonnie) M. Bergin started the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Penngrove, CA in 1991 as the Assistance Dog Institute. She was the first to actually coin the term “service dog” and create a curriculum and training system around this concept.


Service dog certifications

The ADA states that handlers do not have to certify their dogs. Although as mentioned elsewhere in this article there are profit-motivated businesses that purport to certify service dogs, and caution would be advised in order to avoid issues later. Other organizations provide ID cards, vests, and other accessories that can be helpful to handlers when asked about their dogs. One such organization is the United States Service Dog Registry.

Service dogs do have to be cleared for the categories under which they will assist, meaning that they will have to show competence at specific tasks needed for ADA-approved disabilities. There are tests given by various organizations to show good behavior and competence. One such test is the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test (AKC CGC. As previously mentioned, these credentials are not mandatory, but they can help a handler’s credibility if questions arise.


Commonly-Used Training Techniques

Unless a handler is very skilled in dog psychology, some of the more highly specialized doggy skills may need to be referred to a professional trainer to develop. An example of this would be selective obedience. This is a sort of “disclaimer” that goes into the dog’s training to allow the dog to use his or her own independent judgment on occasions when a handler’s command could create a hazard.

Let’s say the command is given to cross the street – and a car runs the light. The service dog, who has been trained to be obedient, has also been trained to make an alternate decision to override the command in order to stop the handler from stepping out into the crosswalk. (This is an example of how handy it can be to have a bigger service dog.)

A lot of trainers start off training sessions with a handful of treats, ready to go. To let the dog know s/he really is going to get some of those treats, the trainer will let the dog have a few before making any requests.

Make everything a game! Use toys to teach the tasks of retrieving and picking up objects, and make the dog want the toy before throwing or hiding it. Always reward with treats.

Be sensitive to the dog’s attention span. When it begins to wane, make a few attempts to continue the session but don’t force it. This kind of work takes energy, so let the dog go before s/he gets too tired to enjoy the game anymore.

These example techniques use positive reinforcement, part of Pavlov’s theory of Classical Conditioning, which uses association to connect a behavior to a reward. If used as a template, many variations can be used to keep training time fun and mentally stimulating for both dog and handler.

It’s OK for handlers to train their own dogs, but for more advanced skills like selective obedience, there are many excellent individual professional trainers as well as some of the organizations listed below. Just do your due diligence.

Some Commands

  • Touch
  • Cover
  • Get/go get
  • Drop
  • Heel
  • Bring it
  • Hold
  • Now
  • Block
  • Couch
  • Brace

…along with the standard sit, stay, come, down, etc.


The three main laws that cover service dogs are the

The 1990 ADA, which is the main law for service dogs, states that:

  • Only dogs can be recognized as service animals (2010 revision)
  • Service dogs are allowed to go anywhere the public is allowed to go
  • Staff is legally limited to 2 questions of the handler:
  • whether the service dog is needed due to a disability or what task/s the dog is trained to do
  • handlers and service dogs cannot be treated differently or isolated away from other customers or clients
  • Handlers must pay hotel damages caused by a service dog if the hotel already normally charges visitors for damages
  • Handlers and dogs cannot be asked to leave if the dog is under the handler’s control
  • Reasonable accommodations must be made in case of allergies or other issues through physical distancing
  • pet deposits and fees do not apply to service dogs

State and local laws may vary from federal laws, usually in the direction of defining service dogs more broadly. The applicable State Attorney General’s office has more information about this.

In addition to the protections and definitions stipulated by these laws, most service dog organizations like the American Kennel Club (AKC) have a government relations department that works with legislators to ensure that the law gives adequate consideration to service dog-related issues.

Famous Cases

  • In February 2017, 13-year-old Ehlena Fry, who suffered from cerebral palsy, won a case in the Supreme Court that was brought against her school district. Before slightly relenting, the school had prohibited Ehlena from bringing her service dog, Wonder, with her to classes, citing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which allows a teacher’s aide to assist students instead. Ehlena’s parents countered with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allowed them to sue the school for emotional damages due to having not accommodated Wonder for 2.5 years.
  • In August 2018, Natalia Duran was refused entry to a Tulsa Drillers game because she had a service dog. Duran’s dog, Madalyn, has 120 hours of training as a psychiatric service dog. Madalyn is trained to monitor and mitigate signs of PTSD. When detected, the dog reorients Duran in the present by pawing at her face until she responds. The ADA guidelines were at issue in this case because Duran claimed that before she started recording, two gate attendants asked her what her disability was, which is illegal under the ADA. The woman at the final gate persisted in calling Duran’s dog an emotional support dog, therefore not covered under the ADA access laws. Drillers management stated that they followed ADA rules. No news appears about the outcome of this dispute.

Service Dog-Related Organizations

Service Dog Organizations

The process of getting a service dog roughly involves finding a valid, reliable service-dog organization, applying for approval, waiting for a match, making financial arrangements, receiving training and getting a dog. Not every organization does things in exactly the same way, but they generally put a high priority on finding ways to help clients overcome any financial hurdles that might otherwise prevent them from being able to afford the rather steep expense of acquiring a service dog.

These are only a few of the organizations that are out there. With a little due diligence, it shouldn’t be difficult to locate reliable information or assistance with anything, including finances, that is related to service dogs.


Headquartered in Princeton, MA, NEADS provides dogs for disabled veterans, adults, and children. Even though each dog is valued at $45,000, there is no charge to the client, but the client instead becomes part of the fundraising effort to continue providing dogs for future clients.


NSAR offers certification and a public access test. In other words, they will register and certify service dogs after putting them into common public situations to see whether they are well-behaved, ensuring that handlers have appropriate control over their dogs, and that handler and dog as a team do not present any hazards to the public.


ADI sets the standards for service dogs. It is a coalition of not-for-profit member organizations from all over the world. All train and provide service dogs. While ADI holds each member to its uniform standard, each has its own structure and funding resources.


Based in North Dakota, SDA considers applicants from anywhere in the US. Trains mobility, emergency medical, and PTSD service dogs. A service dog costs $25,000. There is a dedicated staff member who will work with approved clients to find funding options, including grants, fundraising, and any available scholarships.


Since 1975, CCI has been providing service dogs to clients free of charge. Started by Bonnie Bergin after she witnessed the challenges of the disabled in India while traveling, CCI eventually led to the Bergin University of Canine Studies. CCI is funded by grants, donations from civic organizations and businesses, and individual gifts. It also has 3,000 volunteers nationwide, most of who are “puppy-raisers.”

Celebrity Service Dogs

There are many unsung heroes among service dogs. Here are a few we do know about.


A pointer, Judy served in the British Royal Navy and became the only official canine prisoner-of-war. When her ship Grasshopper was sunk, Judy towed several crew members to jetsam. Marooned, she found them food and water. Captured and brought to the Sumatra prison camp, Judy became a hearing-alert dog for her men, warning them when guards were nearby. The BBC broadcast her bark worldwide on Victory Day in 1946.


A St. Bernard who lived from 1800-1812 at a monastery in Switzerland’s St. Bernard Pass, Barry helped to rescue those of Napoleon’s soldiers who had collapsed under the snow. He made over 40 Swiss mountain rescues and found a lost boy who had fallen asleep on the ice and was nearly frozen. Barry licked him to get his temperature back up and once the boy revived, carried him on his back to safety.


A yellow Labrador Retriever, Sully is a hospital corpsman second class at Walter Reed. Qualified in the service, therapy, and guide dog categories, he was trained by America’s VetDogs, an organization that trains service dogs for disabled veterans and first responders. He was assigned as George H W Bush’s service dog, literally answering phones and turning lights on and off, until President Bush passed six months later.