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How to Get a Service Dog

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In this article we will explain what a service dog is and how someone can qualify for one. In basic terms, a service dog is a canine that is trained to do work or perform tasks for a person that has a physical or mental disability. The job being performed by the service dog has to be directly related to the handler’s condition. 

Steps to getting a Service Dog

In this section we will go over some of the steps and considerations involved in selecting, training and utilizing a service dog. 

  1. Select a dog to be your service animal
  2. Train your service dog, on your own or with professional help
  3. Make sure your service dog is ready for public environments
  4. Understand your rights as a service dog owner
  5. Understand how to register your service dog, use equipment and respond to public inquiries

Step # 1 – Select a dog to be your service animal

The type of dog you choose to be a service animal may greatly depend on your physical and/or mental health needs. Both larger dogs (like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds) and smaller breeds (such as Poodles) work as useful service dogs for their owners. For physically demanding tasks such as pulling a wheelchair or traversing through crowded streets, larger service dogs are more appropriate. Smaller service dogs however also have their advantages, such as being easier to handle for some owners and requiring less space.

The temperament of the dog and its personality are also important considerations. While stereotypes and general characteristics about a breed may be helpful to know, the specific personality traits and quirks of a dog can vary widely within breeds. That is why it is also important to spend some time with the dog you are considering adopting to get a sense of its character.

A service dog should have a stable temperament, particularly if the dog will be working in stressful environments such as crowded areas or if the service dog will need to respond to crisis situations. A service dog should also be alert, responsive and highly receptive to training. No matter what breed of dog is selected, an ideal service dog should be able to maintain its attention on its handler, be kept under control at all times, tune out unnecessary distractions (especially in busy, noisy environments) and be consistently dependable when it comes to performing the tasks they were trained for. 

Training a service dog is a time consuming and substantial investment. Service dog owners will want to ensure to the extent possible that the dog they adopt is healthy. Young canines with a clean bill of health are ideal choices for handlers, as they may respond better to training and have a greater lifespan than an older dog. Older dogs however can also make great service dogs, especially ones with prior training. It’s important to recognize however that it may be more difficult to break bad habits in older dogs, and that an older dog will simply have a shorter lifespan. 

It’s also important to consider how much maintenance a dog may need. For example, a dog that is constantly shedding and requires routine cleanup may be less favorable for some owners than a dog that sheds less and is hypoallergenic. Some dogs also require a high degree of activity and mental stimulation, while others are content with being more sedentary. 

A service dog is an incredibly worthwhile investment, but requires time, resources and long term commitment. Choosing the right dog for the job from the outset is important for service dog handlers, but perhaps more important is the training the service dog receives, which we will discuss in the next step. 

Step # 2 – Train your service dog, on your own or with professional help. 

The essence of a service dog is that it must be trained to do work or perform tasks for its handler. Training your service dog can be done on your own or with a professional trainer. There is no official qualification program under the ADA for service dogs. Owners of service dogs fully have the right to train their service dogs on their own, and there is no requirement to use a professional training program.

If you have the skills, time and patience to train your dog, it can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. The training process itself can also help strengthen the bond between the handler and their service dog. For those that need help, there are professional trainers available as well as organizations that provide guidelines for proper training. For example, one organization recommends a minimum of 120 hours of training over a period of six months or more, with at least 30 hours dedicated to public excursions that will train the service dog to work effectively in real world settings. 

In addition to being trained for the tasks required by its handler, a service dog should also have a mastery of basic commands and be well-behaved in all settings.

A service dog should have the following qualities: 

  1. No aggressive behavior towards other people or animals (i.e., no biting, growling, lurching, chasing or excessive barking).
  2. No begging for food or attention from other people while working. 
  3. Ability to be controlled calmly on a leash without tugging or darting when distracted. 
  4. No sniffing behavior while working. 
  5. No hyperactivity or excited behaviors
  6. Ability to tolerate novel stimuli in busy environments. 
  7. No unruly behavior in public settings. 
  8. No relieving itself in public places unless given permission to do so by its handler. 

Whether you decide to train your service dog on your own or use professional help, the important thing is that your service animal is fully trained to perform the tasks required by your disability. 

Prospective service dog owners should be aware that under ADA rules, the service dog must already be fully trained before it can accompany the owner in public settings. That means a service-dog-in-training is not yet considered a full-fledged service dog for purposes of ADA rules. However, there are some State and local rules that do provide protections for service animals that are still in the process of completing their training. 

Step # 3 – Make sure your service dog is ready for public enviroments.

After your service dog has been trained, you will want to ensure that is ready to handle real world situations. Training a service dog in your home or yard is fine, but those are controlled environments that cannot replicate the unpredictability and variables found in public settings. 

There are organizations that provide tests that can help determine whether your service dog is ready to perform in real world settings. There are also trainers and programs that can provide public access tests to determine whether your service dog is ready. However, these tests do not confer any “official” status on a service animal and are completely optional for handlers who are training and testing their service dogs on their own. 

A service dog owner will want to make sure their dog has been trained to have certain abilities that will help it master being in public environments.

Some of the things you may want to test your service dog for are its ability to:

  1. Tune out distractions in busy and noisy environments while on duty. 
  2. Safely navigate streets that have vehicular and pedestrian traffic. 
  3. Navigate tight quarter environments such as store aisles and restaurants. 
  4. Behave appropriately when approached by children. 
  5. Remain calm in the presence of other dogs and animals. 
  6. Not become easily distracted by objects on the ground or food. 

It’s also important before bringing a service dog into a public setting to ensure the handler is also adequately prepared. Under ADA rules, a service dog must be under the control of its handler at all times. The handler should be able to safely transport the service dog, use voice, signal or other methods to control the service dog, recover control if a leash is dropped and be able to deal with inquiries from other people and staff members in public establishments regarding the service dog (which we will discuss in Step 5). 

Step # 4 – Understand your rights as a service dog owner. 

Under the ADA, a service dog must be allow in all areas where the public is allowed to go. This applies to businesses and public property. Some examples of venues where service dogs must be allowed are: 

  • Restaurants
  • Theaters
  • Malls and retail outlets
  • Grocery stores 
  • Hospitals
  • Hotels
  • Public transportation
  • Gyms, bowling alleys, arenas, stadiums and other entertainment facilities
  • Libraries and schools

Facilities must allow service dogs even in cities where local rules prohibit the service dog’s particular breed. An establishment may only exclude a service animal if it has behaved in a way that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others or is not under the control of the handler. That is another reason why it is so important that your service animal is appropriately trained and capable of being kept under control.

Pursuant to the Air Carrier Access Act, service dogs also have the right to travel with their handlers in the airplane cabin, free of charge. Service dogs and their handlers also have certain housing rights under Fair Housing Actand various State laws. These housing protections allow handlers to live with their service dogs even in buildings that ban animals. Landlords are never allowed to charge a fee or deposit because a tenant keeps a service dog in their home. 

Step #5 – Understand how to register your service dog, use equipment and respond to public inquiries

When out in public, service dog owners have a right to privacy when it comes to their disability. If it is obvious to an observer that the dog is a service animal, the staff at an establishment cannot bother the handler about their disability or need for the service dog. 

However, in situations where it is not immediately apparent that the dog is a service animal (for example, if the service dog is used for a psychiatric condition or only during sporadic emergencies) the staff may only ask two questions: 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? Third parties are not entitled to any further information. 

The staff members cannot request documentation for the service dog, ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform its task, or ask questions regarding the handler’s disability. Disability laws were designed so that service dog handlers do not have to undergo invasive scrutiny or questioning. 

Service dog owners commonly use accessories such as vests, IDs, tags, harnesses and registration certificates to signal to members of the public that their dog is a working service animal. These accessories are not mandatory and do not by themselves certify that a dog is a service animal, but they are nevertheless useful and popular with service dog owners. 

Registering your service dog with an organization and obtaining vests, ID cards, harnesses and other accessories is an effective way to inform the public that your animal companion is a service dog. These tools can help prevent intrusive inquiries about why your service dog is at a particular location. They also help give warning to members of the public that they should not try to play with, pet or feed your service dog while it is on duty. Many service dog owners who are anxious about being interrogated about their condition or need for their service dog find these tools to be particularly useful.

Service Dog Tasks

Service dogs are employed to help with a wide variety of disabilities. These are just some examples of the important duties that service dogs are called upon to perform for their handlers:

  1. Helping the blind navigate public areas. 
  2. Pulling a disabled person’s wheelchair.
  3. Reminding someone with a mental illness to take their medication. 
  4. Providing pressure therapy to calm someone in an agitated psychiatric state, such as a severe anxiety attack or an episode relating to post-traumatic stress disorder. 
  5. Opening doors for someone with limited mobility.
  6. Alerting someone to an oncoming health issue such as a drop in blood sugar. 
  7. Preventing the handler from harming themselves while experiencing a seizure by protecting their head. 
  8. Picking up dropped items, and retrieving/carrying items such as mail for someone with mobility issues. 

Regardless of the work these amazing dogs perform, these canine companions are vital to the individuals that need them. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs are not considered normal pets and have special legal rights. Under the ADA, businesses and state and local governments that serve the public must allow service dogs to accompany their handlers in all areas of the premises where the public is allowed. For example, a grocery store, hotel, beach or restaurant open to the public must allow a handler to be accompanied by their service dog. 

Service dogs are not to be confused with emotional support animals

Emotional support animals have more limited rights than service dogs. Owners of emotional support animals have the right to be accompanied in their home pursuant to the Fair Housing Act and can fly in airplane cabins pursuant to the Air Carrier Access Act. Unlike service dogs, ESAs do not require any special training and provide support to their owners by their mere presence for mental and emotional health issues. 

Many people with psychiatric conditions utilize service dogs, but for some people who suffer from mental or emotional health issues, an emotional support animal is more appropriate. An ESA requires a letter of recommendation from a licensed counselor, therapist or doctor. The main difference between service dogs and emotional support animals is that service dogs require specialized training and have much greater rights when it comes to accompanying their owners in public places. 

Service dogs play an indispensable role in the lives of disabled people

Owners of service animals deservedly enjoy many rights under the ADA and other disability laws. Service dogs benefit their owners in so many ways in addition to the direct help they provide for the owner’s disability. Prospective service dog owners should carefully consider these steps if they are considering adopting and training a service dog. Owning a service dog is major responsibility that requires dedication and commitment, but service dog owners will agree that the rewards are well worth the effort. 

Get your custom Service Dog ID Card and Certificate

Unable to train your dog as a service dog?

You may be interested in an Emotional Support Animal instead. ESAs do not require specific training and have access to airplanes and no-pet apartments. Click here to learn more about ESAs.

1 comment

  1. Tricia says: August 18, 2020

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