Service dogs do an invaluable service to people every day. Certain physical and psychiatric conditions can be helped by having a highly trained animal companion to go around with you daily.
What kind of animal companion are you allowed to have? Can any dog be a service dog? Are there any restrictions? If you’ve ever asked these questions, we’ve got the answers for you.
Do Service Animals Have to Be Dogs?
According to the ADA, the category of service animals excludes every species except for dogs and miniature horses. The dogs must be domesticated, not wild dogs. No other species of animal is allowed to be an official, protected service animal.
As official service animals, service dogs are granted a number of rights by federal, state, and local county laws. Miniature horses that provide help for disabled individuals also have rights, though they are not as broad as with dogs. Because of their size, miniature horses may not be allowed in all places that a dog would be allowed, but they are afforded generally the same rights.
These are the only two species of animals allowed to be classified as service animals under American law. Other animals can be therapy animals, such as emotional support animals, but they are not given the same legal protection as a service animal.
Dogs are by far the most common service animals in the US.
What Kind of Dogs Are Allowed to Be Service Dogs?
According to the ADA, all breeds of domesticated dogs that have undergone training may legally be service dogs. There are no officially recognized service dog breeds.
You’re most likely to see a few specific breeds of dogs as service animals. This is not because of a regulation or limitation, but because of that breeds’ characteristics and temperament.
While some cities, states, and local counties have laws banning particular breeds of dogs, these do not apply to service dogs. You are allowed to have any breed of service dog you want in any area of the US, even if a particular area has banned the breed.
Common Service Dog Breeds
Different physical and psychiatric conditions require different types of dogs. Not all dog breeds work well for all tasks. Psychiatric service dogs and physical service dogs need
Golden Retriever / Labrador Retriever
Both golden and Labrador retrievers make great service dogs. In fact, retrievers are the most common breeds trained for service work, with labs outnumbering golden retrievers. People love how friendly and loving these dogs are and how well they get along with people and other animals.
Retrievers do well with many physical tasks. They can grab things with their teeth gently, lead their handlers around outside or inside, or retrieve on command. Both labs and goldens develop a strong bond with their owners and love to please them.
Large and intimidating, German shepherds have a reputation as police dogs. However, the same qualities that make excellent police dogs make them great service dogs as well.
German shepherds are easily trainable, intelligent dogs that form a strong bond with their handlers. Many German shepherds enjoy the working life, as it keeps them moving and gives them the satisfaction of pleasing their owners.
One task German shepherds are well qualified for is blood sugar monitoring, because of their powerful sense of smell. Their large size is also great for mobility assistance, whether they’re seeing eye dogs or balance assistance dogs.
The best poodles for service work are standard poodles. These dogs are large enough to help with many physical tasks, and their high intelligence makes them well-suited for working.
Poodles are very intelligent dogs that train well. They love a challenge and enjoy working. Most poodles are passive dogs with a friendly nature. One unique benefit of a poodle is their hygienic nature and their hypoallergenic fur. They don’t shed as much fur and dander as other breeds.
While Pomeranians are tiny dogs, they make great psychiatric service dogs. They’re probably not appropriate for leading or balance help, but they can do a great job with fetching. Most Pomeranians are very attentive to the needs of their owners, which makes them a perfect choice for those with certain psychiatric conditions.
When you don’t need a large dog for physical help, a Pomeranian is a smart, teachable dog that does great with psychiatric help tasks. As an added benefit, they’re easy to keep with you for emotional support if you need that as well.
Boxers can make good service dogs for a variety of disabilities. They’re generally good-natured dogs that are friendly to all age ranges. Most boxers are comfortable in large and small groups and can be taught to navigate through a crowd.
One of the best qualities of boxers is their friendly nature. With the intelligence to learn many tasks, especially tasks associated with work as a psychiatric service dog, boxers are a good choice for many families with children or loud households.
If you’re not very physically mobile, boxers may be difficult. They have a lot of energy and will need regular exercise to stay healthy.
Used as farm dogs around the world, border collies have been working for people for hundreds of years. They are among the smartest dog breeds in the world, making them a great choice for handlers who need multiple tasks or complex tasks.
In general, border collies are good-natured dogs that do well with individuals or families. Some owners have reported their border collies herding children, as they would with sheep or farm animals, which is a non-aggressive working behavior.
Before you get a border collie, you need to be prepared to handle their mental and physical needs. As highly intelligent dogs, they need mental stimulation and daily exercise to stay happy.
Bernese Mountain Dogs
Beautiful, gently dogs, Bernese Mountain dogs are a large breed that takes well to service work. They are extremely friendly, love to please, and are physically strong enough to help you around when you need it most.
Because of their gentle demeanor, this breed is good for families and works well in public spaces. Good for both physical disabilities and psychiatric conditions, Bernese Mountain dogs are capable of learning complex tasks and enjoying working with their handlers.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
While they may not be a good choice for physical tasks, dogs of this breed tend to be very attentive to the emotional state and needs of their handlers. They’re commonly trained as psychiatric service dogs to help with PTSD, OCD, depression, or anxiety.
These are lap dogs that tend to be strongly bonded to their handlers and enjoy being around them all the time. For psychiatric service dogs, this is a great quality, especially for those who need emotional support on top of their service dog’s normal tasks. They’re friendly dogs that aren’t as demanding or high-energy as some of the larger breeds.
Traits to Look for in a Service Dog Breed
No matter which breed you go with, the dog you choose to train should have the right character traits for success. Some dogs are not suited to the challenging life of a service animal. There should be a good balance of the following traits:
A service dog has to accompany you to many public spaces full of people. You want a friendly dog that doesn’t have a nasty disposition. Service dogs should be happy around large or small groups of people and shouldn’t react poorly when people approach them.
While standoffish dogs are great as guard dogs and family protectors, they’re not good service dogs. Consider that a service dog may have to interact with others while you’re having a medical emergency (depending on its training). You need a dog that’s enthusiastic about meeting new people, not afraid of social situations, and loving or at least friendly to everyone.
Being a service dog is complex. If you want a dog to be successful, they need to be able to learn how to do the tasks to help you. Not all dogs have the intelligence to learn and perform the necessary tasks. If a dog is not intelligent enough, it will lose interest in the training and may not be able to perform as you would expect.
There are an abundance of breeds that tend to be intelligent and individual dogs of any breed may be intelligent enough on their own. You need an intelligent dog for any task, even physical support and assistance tasks.
Friendliness isn’t enough. A calm disposition is necessary for service animals. They should be able to be calm and composed in all situations, including busy public environments. If your service dog isn’t calm, they may not be able to help you during chaotic situations when you most need them. Your dog has a job to do and it won’t be able to do it if it’s not calm.
The ability to stay calm is invaluable for service dogs. They must not be hypersensitive dogs that overreact to situations. Training helps a service dog to learn when they’re allowed to be excitable versus being calm, but they should already have a calm disposition. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to train a hyperactive, excitable full-grown dog to be a calm service dog.
You want a dog that’s predictable while it’s working. It’s not good for you to questions whether or not your dog will respond appropriately when given a command. If they can’t reliably act in all reasonable situations, they’re not fit to be a service dog for a disabled person.
Reliability often goes hand-in-hand with a calm demeanor. If a service dog can remain calm, it’s more likely to be reliable. However, even calm dogs are not always reliable.
Energetic / Hard Working
Energy levels are important for a service dog. They can’t be hyperactive, but they also shouldn’t be lazy and unwilling to put in the work when you need it. Service dogs need the energy to do as much work as necessary without being difficult to control.
Along with the energy, they need to be hardworking enough to use their energy for what you need. Not all dogs are willing to work. Some have too much energy and get distracted from work too easily, while others are just unwilling to do the training or work every day. Balance is necessary.
Willing to Bond
Many dogs are loving and bond well with their handlers. However, some dogs are more individualistic and do not bond with humans. Your dog must be able to form a strong with you, or else they won’t be motivated to work for you. Some breeds are more social and better at bonding, while others are more individual and may not bond well. Choose a breed that tends to bond.
Eager to Please
Many different breeds love to please their owners. As a disabled handler, you want a service dog that loves to please you. This character trait makes them easy to train and helps them to continue serving you faithfully for years.
Because service dogs are allowed to enter many public spaces and businesses, you want a dog that won’t leave a mess behind. They’ll also be in your home and near you often, so it’s for your own benefit as well. A hypoallergenic dog is great for public spaces where allergies may be fear.
Dogs that shed excessively, drool, or have other unhygienic qualities don’t make great service dogs in all cases. This isn’t always a deal-breaker if the dog has all the other qualities of a good service dog, but it’s an important part of the package.
Service dogs are treasured animals. You’ve probably seen them out and about with their handlers while they do their normal activities. All breeds are welcome, as long as the right traits are present.