What is a Service Dog? (Frequently Asked Questions)


While discussing Samson’s tasks with a colleague the other day, it occurred to me that most of the general public has no idea about all the wonderful things that service dogs are capable of. When people ask questions in public, most don’t mean to be rude but rather they are inquisitive because society hasn’t done a good enough job showcasing all the wonderful things that assistance dogs can do. Most people don’t know how a service dog can help someone who isn’t blind, and it is up to us to help spread that awareness in a courteous and educational manner.

What is a Service Dog?

Legally, a service dog is a dog that has been trained to work or perform commands/actions (called tasks) that are directly related to helping mitigate its handlers disabilities. Service Dogs are often referred to as Assistance Dogs (particularly outside of the United States).

How is a Service Dog different from an Emotional Support Dog or Therapy Dog?

In short, services dogs have particular commands/actions (called tasks) that they are trained to perform to help their handler. Providing comfort (although important) is not considered a task under the definition of a service dog and therefore if the animal’s existence helps the handler by just providing comfort, it is not considered a service dog. Additionally, service dogs have to meet the highest standard of obedience as they are allowed in “no pets” places.

Service Dog – A dog that is specifically trained to do work to directly mitigate its handler’s disabilities. Service Dogs are legally covered by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and allowed to accompany their handlers anywhere. Service dogs are held to an utmost standard and must stay focused and be trained to behave properly in public.

Emotional Support Dog (ESA) – A dog who provides comfort to one particular person via their existence. An ESA makes its handler feel better but not by performing trained tasks or specific work. Since it is the existence of the ESA that helps the handler as comfort, the dog is not considered a Service Dog. ESAs require documentation from a doctor and are only allowed additional privileges in “No Pets” buildings and airplanes. ESAs are not allowed in any other “No Pets” areas such as restaurants or grocery stores. There are no training requirements for an ESA and this has become a point of contention in the United States.

Therapy Dog – A dog that has been trained to help other people such as patients at hospitals or children at schools. Therapy dogs can help many people at once, as opposed to Service Dogs who are trained to only focus on their handler. Therapy dogs are not allowed in “no pets” places except the facilities that they volunteer at.


FAQ: My dog calms me when having an anxiety attack, does this qualify it as a service animal?

Not necessarily. First, Is the dog trained specifically to respond, alert to, or stop a panic attack? Secondly, does the handler have an illness or impairment which limits a major life function to be considered a disability? If it is only the presence of the dog is that comforts someone who is having an anxiety attack (I.e by petting it) then the dog is not considered a service dog.

However, if the dog is trained to recognize when their handler is having a panic attack (I.e deep breathing, increased heart rate) and acts to help stop it, the dog could be considered a service dog. Additionally, if someone feels anxious “sometimes”, this is not the same thing as having a psychiatric DSM-IV diagnosis of anxiety, so a handler must be considered medically disabled in order for their dog to be considered a service dog.

FAQ: I am depressed and my dog makes me feel better, does this qualify it as a service animal?

Again, not necessarily. If a dog helps someone through depression or sadness by sitting on the couch with them, cuddling on the bed, or letting their human give them hugs, these actions fall under the category of “comfort” (still important and life changing, but not a trained service dog task).

However, if a dog is trained to directly interrupt behaviors of self harm that may be related to a DSM-IV diagnosis of depression, they could be considered a service dog. One example of these types of interruptions could be something such as a paw nudge, or more physical interruption to self harming behaviors (I.e hair pulling, breakdowns). During a depressive episode, a dog may also be trained to provide deep pressure therapy to help a distressed handler.


What kinds of illnesses or impairments can a Service Dog help with?

A service dog could hypothetically help an individual with any type of ailment that limits important day to day life functioning. Below are some (but definitely not all) of the impairments that are more commonly considered to be disabling.

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Side effects of Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Cardiac disease
  • Schizophrenia
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depression
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Missing limbs or partially missing limbs
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair
  • Intellectual disability

Does having one of the above illnesses/impairments automatically qualify anyone for a service dog?

Having one of the above illnesses/impairments may qualify someone for a service dog but not always. If you are impaired by your illness to the point of your symptoms impacting major life functions, your illness might be considered disabling. “Impacting a major life function” means that the individual has difficulty performing an activity that the average person can easily perform. It has become all too common for people to equate diagnosis with disability as a way to justify the need for a service dog. However, having an anxiety diagnosis does not automatically mean that anxiety disables you, but it may. Every diagnosis impacts an individual differently and not all disabilities are visible just by looking at someone. Your healthcare team can determine if you qualify for a service dog.

What are the most common types of service dogs?

  • Guide Dogs
  • Hearing Dogs
  • Mobility Assist Dogs
  • Medical Alert Dogs
  • Medical Response Dogs
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs (not the same as ESA because they are formally task trained)

What are examples of some ways that Service Dogs can mitigate disability?

Service dogs are most commonly associated with guide dogs helping individuals with visual impairments – yet there are many other ways that a service dog can help its handler. Here are some examples of how a service dog can aid its handler:

  • A dog pushing a button to open doors for an individual with limited mobility.
  • A dog detecting a seizure or blood sugar drops for an individual impacted by epilepsy or diabetes.
  • A dog notifying a handler with hearing impairment of the doorbell, incoming phone call, or an alarm ringing.
  • A dog detecting increased heart rates and responding (as trained) to prevent or mitigate the impact of a panic attack for individuals with PTSD or other psychiatric illnesses.
  • A dog detecting changes in vitals to alert and respond to an oncoming medical episode
  • A dog finding help or finding the exit in an establishment for an individual who may be dissociating with reality.
  • A dog retrieving dropped items or bringing items for an individual with mobility issues, heart conditions, or chronic pain that makes movement difficult.
  • A dog helping to stop behaviors such as finger picking, leg scratching, crying, self harm, or other compulsive behaviors associated with some psychiatric illnesses. Dogs can interrupt behaviors in multiple ways including licking, jumping up, pawing, (and more)
  • A dog acting as a brace for a handler with chronic dizziness or balance issues.
  • A dog providing deep pressure therapy to help decrease cortisol levels in the body that may lead to panic attacks or fainting
  • A dog trained to find help if its handler is in danger
  • And many more…..

Can any dog be a service dog?

Any dog breed can legally become a service dog. Some dog breeds such as retrievers and poodles have temperaments with a more proven track record for service work, but hypothetically any type of dog could be a successful service dog.

However, not all dogs can succeed as service dogs and most dogs would not be considered fit for service work. Even organizations where puppies are raised from birth and picked specifically for service work will “career change” (I.e not pass) most of the dogs. Service dogs must have stable temperaments, be non-aggressive in all environments, non-reactive, extremely well trained and obedient. Even having a disability does not justify taking any dog and claiming it as a service dog. The dog must meet the highest standards of behavior AND directly help its handler – having a disability does not entitle an individual to bring any dog where they please if the dog is not in control.

I don’t have money to properly care for or train a service dog, but I am disabled…Should I get a service dog?

The short answer is No. Being disabled or eligible for a service dog does not automatically turn a dog into a service dog. Additionally, not having the time or resources to train a dog does not make it ok to cut corners with training or excuse inadequate obedience. If the dog is not trained, it is not a service dog and shouldn’t be. Service dogs are held to the highest standards and it is a handlers responsibility to ensure their dog meets these requirements. Properly training a dog is expensive or very time consuming and caring for a dog is also expensive – it is a responsible handler’s duty to be able to provide care to their dog. If the cost of training is the biggest roadblock, check out non-profit organizations that provide a fully trained dog free of charge!

Is there a Service Dog Registration or ID tag to identify Service Dogs?

A service dog should be discussed with a doctor as part of a treatment plan but legally there is no federal registration or “official list” of service dogs. It is common for websites to try to get uninformed individuals to buy “paperwork” for their dogs, but this paperwork is not what makes a dog a service dog and holds no legal standing – in fact, these websites have become increasingly problematic. A lot of handlers DO choose to have their dogs take exams such as the “ADI Public Access” test or “Canine Good Citizen” tests but these are NOT required and do not determine whether a dog is a service dog. It is the dogs impeccable public access skills and help at mitigating disability with trained tasks that makes a dog a service dog.

What can be confusing is that even though there is no official federal list of service dogs, some cities DO have voluntary registrations where handlers provide a doctor’s note to register their dog as an assistance dog. In San Francisco, the voluntary registration requires the handler to confirm residence, vaccinations, sign an affidavit, and provide a doctor’s note to get the city specific assistance dog tag. Although this registers the assistance animal with the city, it has no federal/legal implications and is not required.

How do you know if a dog is a service dog? Does it have to wear a vest?

A service dog is not required to wear a vest or any identifying markers but people generally choose to vest their dogs as a signal to the general public that the dog is working. If it is not clear that the dog is a service dog, a handler may be asked only two specific 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? Staff at an establishment are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.


Can’t I just say my dog is a service dog?

Some people do…but that is illegal and generally blatantly obvious by how the dog behaves. It is best to follow the law and moral code of conduct – i.e don’t fake a disability or a doctor’s recommendation. A common phrase used by service dog handlers is; if you want to bring your dog everywhere with you, you need to accept the life altering disability that goes along with it.

What laws protect service dogs and their handlers?

Service Dogs are protected by Federal Law under the Americans with Disabilities act of 1990. Punishments for falsely representing a service dog vary by state. In California, those pretending to be the owner of a service dog is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months’ imprisonment.

My Service Dog is in training, is it allowed to go to the same places that a fully trained Service Dog can go?

It depends! Check out your state laws to see whether the state allows Service Dogs in Training into places of public accommodation.

Are there any places service dogs can legally be denied?

Places of Worship: Religious institutions and organizations are not legally required to accommodate service dogs. However some states may have different regulations especially if the organizations are receiving any type of Federal Funding.

Sterile Environments: Although service dogs are allowed in hospitals and doctor’s offices, they may be excluded from parts of a hospital where their presence could compromise the sterile environment. This includes the operating room or areas such as burn units.

If the dog appears out of control: A dog may be asked to leave an establishment if it is not adequately under control or not housebroken. This is generally not an issue for trained service dogs.

How does YOUR service dog help you?

My service dog is trained to help respond to medical episodes that I exhibit. He may also sometimes let me know of a medical episode before it occurs so I can take the proper precautions to stay safe. My dog’s most used tasks are medical response, tactile simulation, grounding, and interruption tasks. Therefore, my dog is a medical response dog. He allows me to live a better life every single day.

For additional information, the ADA has a FAQ page about Service Animals

One Reply to “What is a Service Dog? (Frequently Asked Questions)”

  1. Thank you for sharing this. As somebody with psychiatric disabilities and a service dog for it, this meant a lot that someone is spreading awareness and the facts. Thank you!

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