How to Make Your Pet a Service Animal

group of dogs in obedience classMany pet owners rely on their animals to provide them comfort and companionship on a daily basis. Pet owners with disabilities, however, may be wondering if they can promote their furry friend to service animal status in order to receive the assistance they need without the cost of purchasing a fully trained service animal.

In this article, we will be discussing the basic requirements for a service animal that you need to keep in mind. We will also be giving you an idea of what training service skills in your pet look like and detailing some of the legal protections that may be granted to you once your pet reaches service animal status.

Requirements for Service Animals

According to the ADA, the only pets that have the potential to be considered service animals are dogs and miniature horses. Both animals must be well behaved in public, under the complete control of the owner, and trained to perform a specific task that helps with a person’s disability. Additionally, any service animal you have must not display aggression toward other animals or people and must be able to navigate a public area without becoming distracted.

If you believe that your dog has a good temperament, is intelligent, and is eager to please, then you may have a great candidate for turning into a service animal.

Which Type of Service Animal Do You Need?

“Service animal” is more of a broad term that can apply to several different types of animal assistants. Dogs are the most popular service animal, and the help that they provide can be broken down into psychiatric service dogs, medical assistance dogs, or guide dogs. Much like the names would imply, psychiatric service dogs help individuals with psychiatric or mental health conditions, medical assistance dogs assist owners with conditions that cause seizures, low blood sugar, or low blood pressure, and guide dogs help individuals with vision or hearing impairments.

Before you set out to make your pet into a service animal, you should evaluate which tasks you need help with so you can be better prepared for training and finding targeted service animal resources.

Training Service Skills in Your Pet

To be considered a service animal, your pet will have to learn how to perform specific skills that help relieve symptoms of your disability. Below, we will give an overview of the skills that most animals must be trained in before they can be utilized as a service animal on a daily basis.

General Public Access Test

Like we mentioned above, a service animal must be calm and well-behaved in public. Most training organizations determine a dog is ready is by performing a general public access test with them. This test includes taking the dog in training into populated, public areas such as a mall or store and ensuring that they can follow their owner’s commands. The dog will also be evaluated on how well they handle being around people and children, their response to startling noises, and their self-control when it comes to food.

If you would like to view a general public access test and get a good idea of what you will need to train your dog for, you can check out this video.

Specialized Task Training

For your pet, part of being a service dog is learning how to perform specialized or more complex tasks that can directly help your disability. Which tasks they learn exactly depends on the nature of your disability and what you need assistance with. Below, we will give you an idea of the tasks that you may want to teach your service dog to perform.

  • Retrieving medication and water
  • Alerting to outside emergencies
  • Alerting to changes in medical condition (such as low blood sugar or an imminent seizure)
  • Grounding during dissociative episodes, meltdowns, or panic attacks
  • Attention redirection and self-injurious behavior prevention
  • Guiding
  • Searching rooms, corridors, and corners
  • Acting as a buffer in public
  • Deep pressure therapy
  • Retrieving phones in an emergency
  • Guiding first responders
  • Calling or retrieving help for an unconscious owner

This is not a comprehensive list of everything that your service animal may be taught to do, but many of these tasks are basics in a service animal repertoire. Depending on the type of service animal you need and the disability symptoms you need help with, your pet may learn all of these tasks and more, or they will learn a completely different range of service tasks.

It is important to make a list of the items that you would need help with before starting any type of training and then work with your pet to build up foundational obedience skills, eventually teaching them the more complex tasks you need assistance with.

Do You Need to Register Your Pet as a Service Animal?

It is not required by the ADA to register your pet as a service animal, though many owners do choose to use a registration service. Any letter or card you receive will state your pet’s purpose as a service animal and verify their training. You can then take this registration with you when you are out and about in public and show it if a business tries to deny you entry because of your service animal’s presence.

This being said, it is illegal for businesses to ask anything about your service animal or disability except for the two following questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Any other questions or inquiries into your medical history do not need to be answered and may count as discrimination if you are denied entry or service due to the presence of your service animal. This is protected under the ADA.

Do Service Animals Need to Wear Vests?

It is not required for your service animal to wear a vest out in public, but a lot of owners will have their animal wear one anyway. A vest is a good way to indicate that your dog is out working and should not be approached by strangers or children who are looking to interact with your dog.

We recommend a vest like this one that is both reflective and adjustable.

Should You Train Your Service Animal Yourself?

When you are considering turning your pet into a service animal, there are a few options that you can take – you can choose to train your pet yourself or use the assistance of a professional trainer. Training your pet yourself can take longer, but it may end up costing less over time. If you visit a trainer, you can end up paying between $150 and $250 per hour. However, you may need professional training to help your dog achieve some of the more complex skills out there.

Many owners will opt to start training their pet themselves and will occasionally visit a professional service dog trainer when they need help mastering a specific skill or pointers on how to grow their dog’s range of abilities. Doing it this way will allow you to spend less money but still receive specialized help when necessary.

It is important to note that it can take up to two years to fully train a service dog. Training your pet to be a service animal does take a significant time commitment and will not happen overnight. No matter how you train your pet, you need to remember to stay consistent and use positive reinforcement throughout every learning session.

Legal Protections for Your Service Animal

Once your dog is a trained service animal, you may be wondering what you can and can’t do with them. Fortunately, the ADA offers significant protections for service dogs in both public areas and businesses. Your service dog will be allowed into any business, government building, or public area – even those that don’t typically allow dogs – and will be able to board flights, stay in hotels, and live-in apartments or dorms without being charged a pet fee. These rules enable you to access the same services and areas as those without a disability without being charged extra for it.

You should also note that it is illegal for a business or apartment to ask you to show proof of or explain your disability, seat you separately, or give you access to altered services simply because of the presence of your service animal.

To read more about legal protections your service dog would have, you can read this breakdown of the ADA’s provision on service animals.

Receiving the Assistance You Need

When you are considering turning your pet into a service animal, the first thing you need to think about is whether or not your furry friend has the temperament and willingness to learn new skills. If they do, you can begin the process of evaluating your own needs and training your dog to perform tasks that help make daily life with a disability much more comfortable. Just remember to keep up training consistently and to seek professional training help when necessary, and you will be well on your way to receiving the service animal assistance you need.