What exactly is a service dog? A question that seems simple, but has many puzzled along with the increased trend of animals seen in public. With misleading information circulating, it can be challenging to sort through what is fact and what is false. Simply Googling “what is a service dog” won’t cut it. Knowing the correct resources for information on service dogs is important for the safety and well being of individuals with disabilities as well as the general public. We will cover the basics of everything you need to know about service dogs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act:

For starters, it’s important to note that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and department of Justice declares everything in relation to service animals in the United States. The ADA states all regulations, definitions, expectations and laws in regards to service animals. Anywhere, anything, and anyone that says anything differently from the official ADA are unreliable, false and most importantly illegal. What is a Service Dog

In short, the ADA directly states that “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” A task is a trained action or behavior that a dog does to assist with or mitigate an individual’s disability. Each service dog’s trained task(s) are individualized to only a single individual’s needs in regards to their disability or disabilities. A service dog does not assist anyone, but their handler.

Service Dog Tasks and Training:

Service animals are most commonly known for their work in guiding the blind, but their duties can extend to a variety of disabilities from physical to psychiatric. Not all disabilities are visible. Other examples of tasks a service dog can be trained to do include alerting to an oncoming seizure or diabetic attack, medication reminders, item retrieval, pulling a wheelchair, interfering with a panic attack and so much more. It’s important not to always make assumptions about the legitimacy of a service dog by the appearance or impression of their handler. The best way to identify a service dog should be by its demeanor while working.

What is a Service Dog

In addition to being task trained, service dogs go through a wide range of training including basic obedience and public access training. Each dog’s training duration can be different, but typically takes around 2 years. Realistically, a service dog is always training throughout its lifespan. A service dog can legally be trained by their handler or through a training program such as Canine Companions for Independence. This gives all individuals with a disability the opportunity to have access to a service dog.

Public Access:

Legally a service animal is considered medical equipment, much like a wheelchair. The rules that apply to a wheelchair are very similar to those of a service dog. Only service dogs have public access rights, meaning they are the only kind of animals that are allowed in a majority of public places with a very few exceptions.   A service dog must be able to accompany their handler in all places the public is normally able to go.

“No pets” policies do not apply to service dogs even despite health codes. When a service dog enters a business, there are legally two questions that should always be asked to ensure they are actually a real service dog. According to the ADA, legally an individual with a service dog can be asked “(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.” Emotional support, comfort, or therapy are not legally recognized as tasks under the ADA that qualifies a dog to be considered service or have full public access rights. When businesses do not ask these two questions they put others and themselves at risk of pets, emotional support animals, and fraudulent “service dogs” taking advantage of public access laws in place for service dog teams which is in violation with health codes and the ADA.

Registrations and Certification:

It is a common mistake that a service dog requires a doctors note, documentation, certification or registration. The ADA does not legally recognize or require a service dog to have any form of documentation. Some service dog training programs do certify their dogs through their program but it is not a requirement to have one. Online registries and websites that “register,” “certify,” or provide a certificate, ID card, or a doctors note are considered scams.

Quality of Life:

In conclusion, service dogs are dogs that are highly trained to task and assist individuals with all types of disabilities. To have a service dog, the handler must have a disability and their dog must be task trained for their disability. A service dog also must meet behavioral expectations set by the ADA and be well-behaved in public. Service dogs have full public access rights and legally do not require registration or certification.

Service dogs are a tool that individuals with disabilities can use to mitigate their everyday challenges, but they are also so much more than that. Service dogs provide independence, reassurance, and peace-of-mind. They provide companionship and even friendship. They help improve overall quality of life.

To learn more about service dogs, visit the official ADA website. 

What is a Service Dog