About Service Dogs


What is a Service Dog?

A Service Dog is a working dog (not a pet) who is specially trained to perform jobs for a specific individual with a disability.   Some examples of jobs that a service dog can do are assist individuals who are blind with navigation, alert individuals who are deaf to the presence of sounds, pull a wheelchair, detect blood sugar levels, assist in a medical emergency such as a seizure, provide physical support for balance and stability, and help persons with psychiatric or neurological conditions by preventing or interrupting certain behaviors.

Other common terms for service dogs are sometimes used by individuals and organizations to help further describe the dog’s job such as Guide Dog, Hearing Dog, Assistance Dog, Medical Response Dog, Diabetic Alert Dog, Seizure Response Dog, and Psychiatric Service Dog.  The U.S. federal law only uses the term Service Animal in its definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The important distinction is that the dog has been specially trained to recognize and respond to the individual needs of the person with a disability by performing a job or task.

A disability is defined as any physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, performing manual tasks, and caring for oneself.  Some disabilities may not be noticeable such as psychiatric and medical conditions.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a U.S. federal law that protects the civil rights of individuals with a disability.  The ADA requires businesses to admit persons with disabilities and their service dog onto their premises (without any additional charge or deposit for the dog).  Some examples of public accommodations that must allow service animals include restaurants, shopping malls, hospitals, public transportation, taxi cabs, hotels, government buildings, hair salons, dental offices, and grocery stores.

A Service Dog may be excluded from public accommodations if “the animal is out of control and the animal´s handler does not take effective action to control it or the animal is not housebroken”.  Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.

What is NOT a Service Dog?

Dogs who provide emotional support, a sense of well-being, comfort, or companionship are not Service Animals according to the ADA.  The mere presence of the dog, even if it helps the disability, does not qualify as a service animal under the ADA.  The difference between an emotional support animal and a psychiatric service animal is the work or tasks that the animal performs.  In order for the dog to be considered a service animal the dog must be trained to perform a specific task related to the person’s disability.  Some examples of tasks that a service dog may perform for a person with a psychiatric disability include arousing a person from a dissociative state by nose nudging,  deterring self injurious behavior through licking or pawing, creating greater personal space in social situations by circling the person when necessary, and alleviating over stimulation by leading the person away from crowds.  These type of tasks require the service dog to recognize and respond in a specific manner rather than just be present.

Dogs used for personal protection from crime are also not defined as Service Animals.  According to the ADA, “The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence … do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition”.  Even if the person’s disability includes fear of crime, such as in many PTSD conditions, a dog used for protection from crime is not considered a Service Dog.

Taking My Dog into Public is No Big Deal, right?  …Wrong!

It is against U.S. law to take your dog into non-pet friendly public areas such as restaurants and grocery stores unless your dog is specially trained to do so and you have a disability (as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act).

Dogs can suffer irreparable harm if they are not adequately prepared and trained to withstand the rigors and stress of public work.  Even a dog who has successfully passed obedience classes is not adequately prepared to deal with the unpredictable nature of most public areas.  Consider that your dog probably has minimal exposure to the beeping of cash registers, movement of automatic doors, loud speaker noises, rolling shopping carts, children who impulsively approach, and many more unfamiliar sights, sounds, and scents all at the same time.  The over exposure can cause the dog to suffer permanent behavior changes and emotional trauma.

Untrained dogs pose a danger to the public, and service dogs and their handlers.  Otherwise very docile pet dogs can react in ways that are uncharacteristic such as bolting, charging, freezing in place, defecating, and even becoming aggressive in response to the unpredictable experiences.  If the dog happens to injure someone in public or another service dog, you could be liable for damages.  Many States and counties are now passing laws that make it a punishable crime to interfere with a working service dog.  In addition to fines and penalties, the owner of the attacking dog could be sued for the cost of pain and suffering, and replacement of the trained service animal.

A pet dog may lose its potential to be a future service dog if public exposure is conducted incorrectly or prematurely.  Service dog training is a specialized field that requires extensive knowledge and experience to help dogs become successful at their future job.  CCH recommends that dog owners seek the guidance and expertise of specialized trainers before embarking on training their own service dog.  CCH  offers a comprehensive service dog training and certification program to help handlers and their dog achieve their potential.  For more information, check out The Service Dog Training page.