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

Therapy Dog Training (Animal Assisted Therapy)

calvin is a certified therapy dog

How to Train Your Dog to Become a Therapy Animal

Therapy dog training is lots of fun. Once your dog becomes a certified therapy animal they’ll make so many people smile. There are lot of great therapy dog programs such as PetPartners, Therapy Dogs International (TDI), Love on a Leash, ect. These programs fall under the category of “Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)”.  One of the most heart warming things is hearing that your dog has made someone’s day…or month. Some dogs are able to get patients to speak after they haven’t uttered a word in months – they are natural healers and spread love to all. Spreading joy is the goal of every therapy dog and indicative of a job well done.  Therapy dogs help those who need them most and have a lasting impact on the people they visit.  Both our dogs are Therapy Dogs through the SF SPCA so we want to share everything you need to know to turn your pup into a certified healer. The world needs more therapy dogs!

What is a Therapy Dog? Is a Therapy Dog a Service Dog? 

As per Wikipedia, the definition of a therapy dog is as follows: “A therapy dog is a dog that might be trained to provide affection, comfort and love to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with anxiety disorders or autism. [Unlike service dogs], they are NOT covered or protected under the Federal Housing Act or Americans with Disabilities act. They also do NOT have public access rights with exception to the specific places they are visiting and working.” In short, therapy dogs have very important jobs, but they are not considered service animals and only have access rights in the facilities where they are doing their job.

What are the requirements for a therapy dog? What is the therapy dog certification process?

I want to say that therapy dogs are born, not made but the truth is that a certified therapy dog will be a mix of both. There are legal requirements and testing for dogs to start volunteering as Therapy Dogs. First of all, dogs are required to be at least 1 year old before their first visit.  Dogs will be dealing with a variety of people – the elderly, mentally ill, incarcerated, young children, terminally ill, immune compromised, so the therapy dog organization has very high liability for the dogs they accept into their programs. Dogs need to be able to handle any new sights and sounds. Organizations conduct a series of evaluations to ensure that your dog will be a good fit.

Temperament: Your dog’s natural temperament will be most important – therapy dogs can have absolutely no history of snapping at a human. None. Ever. End of story. Do they snap over resources like food? Do they growl at people in costumes? If a dog has ever snapped, there is no way to be sure they won’t do it again. The dogs need to be comfortable approaching new humans of every ethnicity, size, height, ect. They need to be ok with erratic movements and unpredictable human tendencies.  Additionally, they need to be comfortable being touched, hugged, and prodded without losing their cool. Your dog should LOVE human interaction no matter who reaches out to them.

Training: Temperament will be the most important evaluation factor but training is an additional component.  Most programs require passing the 10 part Canine Good Citizen Test especially if the dog is planning to visit hospitals or schools.  If your dog is able to successfully pass the CGC test, they’ll have mastered all the commands they need for therapy dog evaluations. This includes things like sit/stay, down/stay, loose leash walking, ignoring distractions, leave it ect.

therapy dog training includes testing such as the canine good citizen test

What was your Therapy Dog Evaluation Process?

Every organization will have a different process so below you will find how our organization handles evaluations.  Our dogs were certified through the SF SPCA but some organizations such as Therapy Dogs International do the entire process in one day.  Both our dogs passed the CGC test series before starting the program but our program only required the CGC test for specialized facilities and the children’s reading program. We knew we wanted to be able to volunteer at any facility so we passed the tests before starting the program.

We started by attending an orientation to learn more about the program, evaluation process, and testing.

Preliminary Evaluation for Therapy Dogs
Next, we went through a preliminary canine evaluation.  This included a few parts:

1. Reaction to holding of paws, ears, tail, restraining hugs, looming stares. Does your dog have any “sensitive spots”? (they should not).
2. Sit/stay, down/stay (in a later evaluation this will be testing as a 20ft stay)
3. Touch command
4. Leave it – dog is off leash and a high value treat is thrown at the dog. Dog must leave the treat via voice command without any contact from the handler.
5. Ensure the dog will voluntarily go up to the evaluators for petting without jumping up (evaluators try to rile up the dog so make sure your dog can handle that without losing his cool).

Training Series/Additional Evaluations for therapy dogs
After passing the preliminary evaluation, we started the training series, which included two more evaluations in a class setting with other dogs.  The evaluators wanted to see the dogs a few times to make sure that their good behavior was consistent. They retested the preliminary evaluation, made sure the dogs could work around other dogs, tested reactions to loud sounds (blow horn), and reaction to mobility equipment. The mobility equipment section included waving around canes, tapping crutches, and acting erratic. Additionally, they dropped the equipment to see the pup’s reactions and whether the dog would be able to recover quickly and still greet the patient after being caught off guard.

Mentored Visits
Before being officially certified, we practiced out into the field with our dog and a mentor. Our mentor watched us at a 2 different visits to ensure that the dog was ok with all types of environments.

Shadowed Visits
We shadowed others dogs in the program to see how other volunteers handle visits.

Therapy Dog Graduation!
Our graduation/final evaluation was a group visit at the nursing home with all the other dogs in the program.
therapy dog graduation

How do I Start Therapy Dog Training? Where Can I Find a Program Near Me?

Legally, Therapy Dogs are tested and evaluated through an organization. The organizations handle testing, evaluations, and insurances costs. Click here to find a list of the recognized Therapy Dog Organizations near you.

How can I prepare my dog to become a therapy dog?

Loud noises, unfamiliar sights, a variety of surfaces
A therapy dog should be desensitized to any unfamiliar things they may see or hear.  Luckily, you can prepare for this by making sure your pup is desensitized from an early age.  You can prepare them by exposing them to costumes, hats, glasses, grates, tile, gravel, carpet ect so they will be familiar with things they may encounter on their visits.  Desensitization will take time if your pup is wary, but can be successfully completed with patience. Repetition and positive reinforcement will help to desensitize.

Mobility Equipment
Therapy dogs MUST be comfortable around mobility equipment and will be tested on this. This includes walkers, canes, wheelchairs, crutches as well as the movement that these will have.  If an elderly man waves his cane in your dog’s face, how will the pup react? During testing, evaluators want to make sure the dog will happily come up to the evaluator even if they are using the equipment in a weird or crazy way. Borrow equipment from family and friends to practice familiarity with mobility equipment.

Leave It
Your pup will need a strong leave it command to pass these evaluations.  This is because food, pills, medical solutions will be all over the facilities you visit.  Sometimes patients may try to feed things to your dog that could make them sick. Your pup needs to be able to reliably respond to your command to stay safe.  Our organization tested leave it by walking towards Calvin (while he was off leash) and throwing a very high value treat towards him.  He was required to ignore the treat via voice command and stay in control (i.e still focused on the human). Practice makes perfect – practice in a variety of contexts until your dog gets it.  Can you recall your dog back to you without him snatching that treat?

No Jumping
A pup who cannot keep all 4 on the floor during exciting times will not pass the evaluation. If your pup is still young, help him out by tiring him before socializing with strangers. Jumping up can be a tough behavior to crack, especially since most of the times the dogs are just jumping because they are super friendly and would otherwise be the perfect therapy dogs!  We have some info here about how we taught Calvin to stop jumping up on strangers.

No Teeth
Pups love to mouth – chances are that if you play rough with your dog they’ll bring out their teeth even when they are older.  Even though this is generally harmless, if can be frightening to people who are not used to your dog.  It’s important to make sure your dog learns that it is not socially acceptable to mouth while they are being pet or riled up.  You can practice by riling your dog up and correcting them if they mouth at you to teach that teeth never belong on human skin even in a loving way.

Ignore/work around other dogs
Your dog should be able to coexist with other dogs – you’ll be with other dogs during training and potentially on some visits.  If your dog isn’t able to ignore the other dogs, they will not be able to help the humans!

Touch/go say hi command
We don’t let Calvin randomly go up to people on the street and say hi since some people don’t want dogs all up in their business. This will also be the care on visits – not all patients in the room want the dog to get too close to them. Because of this, we have taught him the “touch” and “go say hi / go get em” command.  This is essentially his release command letting him know that he can go and say hi to the person who is comfortable with dogs.

How can I make the therapy dog process better for my dog?

You know your dog better than anyone and will be your dog’s biggest advocate. You are entirely in control of the situation and can let people know if your dog has had enough.  You should be familiar with your dog’s signs – excessive yawning, lip licking, hair raising, ect.  If you are familiar with how your dog behaves when they have had enough, you need to end your visit before anything gets out of hand.  This is totally ok! Everyone has an off day from time to time but it is up to you to make sure that your dog’s off day does not escalate into a career ending situation. End your visit if you sense your dog is getting uncomfortable.

What was the hardest part of becoming a therapy dog?

Calvin: Every dog is different and has different challenges.  For Calvin, we weren’t worried about any of the obedience parts of the evaluations as he had already aced the CGC test months earlier – this will be different for EVERYONE so try not to compare your pup to others (this is hard, I know!).  Calvin’s biggest challenge is harnessing his extra energy – he was 1.5 yrs old…so we were most concerned that he wouldn’t be able to settle quickly enough.  We think that his really strong obedience plus making sure to exercise him was the best way to set him up for success. He was able to immediately relax for all his evaluations and blew us away!

Samson: With Samson, the biggest question mark during evaluations was that we weren’t sure if he would be interested in getting attention from other humans. We knew that his mellowness & obedience would be great for any type of facility, but we weren’t sure if he would actually enjoy the job of giving other people attention. Samson is generally focused only on me, so we worked on teaching a “go say hi” command as a release word to go and greet people around him. Turns out, Samson is a natural healer and was more than happy to lend a paw. Samson was fully trained and evaluated as a Therapy Dog just 2 weeks after his 1st birthday and his first official visit went perfectly. Again, you know your dog best so you will be able to set them up for success in whatever way works best for them.


Free hugs for all!
-Your Pal Cal
calvin the therapy dog after his training