Service Dogs Requirements

chocolate lab with service dog vest“Man’s best friend” is a title well-deserved; our furry canine companions not only bring oodles of joy and laughter to our lives, but they can also help disabled individuals live fully functional lives with the proper training. These specially-trained and infinitely talented animals are known as service dogs.

Over half a million disabled Americans own and enjoy the services these dogs offer, so it makes sense that a slew of federal laws have been enacted to allow disabled owners of service dogs to enjoy them in public spaces.

But that doesn’t mean you can throw a blue service dog vest on your fuzzy little guy and expect him to perform all the tasks a service dog can. Just like humans with in any technical profession, it costs a pretty penny (between $10,000 and $20,000) and a couple years of training to prepare a dog for the job.

This is because a lot of the disability-related duties service dogs fulfill are highly specific, like alerting a diabetic patient that their blood sugar is low or assisting mobility-limited people with balance problems.

Extensive, specialized training isn’t all it takes for service dogs to effectively do their job, though. In this article we’ll talk a little more about statutes surrounding service dogs and the training that’s required of them to become one of the furry, few, and proud.

We’ll also answer some frequently-asked questions about service dogs later on, so stick around to learn everything you need to know.

Federal Requirements for Service Dogs

The American Disability Act (ADA) outlines the federal provisions and definitions for service dogs, including what makes a dog a service dog, what they must do to be considered a service dog, and which public places they can occupy with their owners.

The ADA defines a service dog (or “service animal,” as their definition terms it) as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Because this federal definition only technically applies to dogs, though, many state laws broaden this definition to include other service animals, like miniature horses.

The language “do or perform tasks” specifically points to disability-specific actions that the service dog can perform for their owner. Like we mentioned at the beginning of this article, this can be dogs who are able to detect low blood sugar in their diabetic owners, seeing eye dogs, alert dogs for deaf individuals, or mobility dogs who can help their owners perform mobility-related tasks.

These statutes require state and local governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other public entities to allow service dogs to accompany their disabled owners in all areas where the public is usually allowed to go. But certain areas are still off limits to service dogs, like operating rooms and burn units in hospitals, even if other areas of the hospital–like cafeterias and waiting rooms–aren’t.

Service dogs must also be under their owner’s control at all times, meaning they should always be tethered, leashed, or otherwise harnessed while they’re with their owner in public. The only time an owner is exempt from this requirement is if having them on a leash or harness would prevent them from performing their owner’s disability-specific tasks for them. In that case, owners must be able to control their service dogs through voice, signal, or other types of effective commands.

Service dog owners may also be asked to pay for any damages incurred by the service dog to the public establishment or accommodations.

Employment and Housing Accommodations

The ADA and Fair Housing Act (FHA) both intertwine to provide disabled owners of service dogs the right to have their service dogs with them at home, at work, and even on public transportation.

Service Dogs at Home

The FHA requires landlords to allow disabled owners of service dogs (or “assistance animals,” as their definition calls them) to live with them in their house or apartment if it means they can enjoy the living accommodations as freely as an able-bodied individual.

Any standard animal housing fees must also be waived for disabled owners of service dogs. Similar to public accommodations laws, landlords may legally ask disabled owners of service dogs to pay for property damages incurred by the service dog.

Service Dogs at Work

The ADA has similar employment provisions for allowing disabled owners to have their service dogs with them at work. The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for their disabled employees, and this phrase often encompasses the right to enjoy service dogs.

However, disabled employees will usually have to furnish medical documentation verifying their disability, as well as written documentation from their primary medical care provider outlining all the disability-specific tasks and duties the service dog is trained to perform. The provider must also explicitly state how the service dog will help their disabled employee perform the duties that are required of them for their job.

Employers must also make special accommodations for the disabled employee and their service dog, like allowing the employee to feed their service dog throughout the day or by periodically taking it outside to relieve itself.

Special Exclusions

There are some important exceptions to keep in mind when making sense of all these federal provisions for service dogs, though.

Valid Questions About Your Service Dog

Even if it’s not obvious what kind of duties or tasks your service dog is trained to perform, public accommodations are prohibited from inquiring too much about it. The only questions a public establishment can really ask you about your service dog’s status is if they’re required because of a disability and what tasks and/or duties they’ve been trained to perform.

Public accommodations are not allowed to ask you about your disability, ask for medical documentation verifying your disability or an ID card verifying your service dog’s status as a service dog, or require the service dog to demonstrate its abilities to perform disability-specific tasks and duties.

Dog Phobias and Allergies

Fear of dogs and allergies are not reasons to deny a service dog and its owner entry onto public premises. If someone working at the public establishment is allergic to dogs and has to spend an extended period in the same room as the service dog, then special arrangements must be made to accommodate everybody.

This could look like placing the staff member and service dog far apart in the same room, or in separate rooms entirely.

Equal Treatment, Access, and Fees

Service dogs and their owners are not allowed to be separated from other patrons, charged additional fees, or otherwise treated differently than patrons without service animals. More importantly, businesses that normally charge patrons a fee for having their pets with them must waive this fee for disabled patrons.

When Your Service Dog Can Be Asked to Leave

There are a few instances where a disabled person and their service dog may be asked to leave the premises. If the owner cannot adequately control the service dog, if the service dog is not housebroken, or if the service dog is acting in a threatening or aggressive manner towards staff members or other patrons, then the establishment is within their rights to ask the service dog and its owner to leave.

However, if the establishment does ask the disabled person to leave for these reasons, then they are required to offer the disabled patron goods or services that are contingent on the animal’s absence.
happy golden retriever service dog

Frequently-Asked Questions About Service Dogs

Here we’ll answer people’s most commonly-asked questions about service dogs and everything they do. Most of these questions focus on federal definitions of service dogs, and how they’re practically applied in real-life settings.

Are Emotional Support Animals Considered Service Animals by the ADA?

They are not; for an animal to be legally considered a service animal, they must receive special training that allows them to perform disability-specific tasks for their disabled owners. Emotional support animals do not receive any training whatsoever to offer their owners emotional support and comfort.

Naturally, this extends to therapy, companion, and comfort animals as well, none of whom receive any special training to alleviate their owners’ emotional distress, either.

Does a Dog That Can Calm Someone During an Anxiety Attack Qualify?

This is a relatively gray area, as the training a dog receives to do this will ultimately decide whether it’s a service dog or not. This means that if a dog’s mere presence is all the support it provides its owner during an anxiety attack, it does not qualify as a service animal under the ADA’s definition.

However, if a dog is trained to take specific actions to mitigate the effects of the attack or avoid it altogether, then it would qualify under the ADA’s definition. Keep in mind, it’s best to check your state’s service dog laws as well, as some state-specific provisions may tangle with federal statutes in a way that blurs legality.

Are There Any Breed Restrictions for Service Dogs?

No; any breed of dog can be a service dog, provided it’s physically capable of performing the disability-specific tasks for its owner. However, there are a handful of breeds that seem to be crowd favorites thanks to their docility and intelligence, like border collies, Labradors, poodles, German shepherds, and even little Pomeranians.

There are breeders out there who specifically breed dogs that are going to be trained to become service dogs. NEADS World Class Service Dogs is one such breeder, and they also receive purebred dogs who were sold or donated by their breeders.

Most of NEADS’ dogs are Labradors, and they work closely with purebred breeders to see if the dogs they receive are suitable for service dog training. This means they assess each dog’s temperament, behavioral history, and overall health, as well as that of the dame and sire (mom and dad, respectively, in the dog world).

However, any calm, highly-trained dog that’s desensitized to distractions and is handler-focused will make an excellent service dog, as they’ll be attentive and responsive to their owner’s needs.

What Are the Most Common Services That Service Dogs Perform?

While the list of disability-specific tasks that service dogs could perform is theoretically endless, the most common types of service dogs you’ll see are seeing-eye dogs, hearing dogs, mobility dogs, and medical alert dogs.

The definition of a medical alert dog can be pretty broad, including dogs trained to alert their epileptic owners to an oncoming seizure or allergen detection animals who can sniff out potentially life-threatening allergens in food for their owners.

What’s the Difference Between a Service Dog and a Working Dog?

Even though all service dogs are technically working dogs, the reverse is not always true. Working dogs are also specially-trained dogs, but they usually perform different types of tasks and duties for humans.

Most of the tasks working dogs perform are related to search and rescue, as well as cancer, drug, and explosives detection. A dog’s sense of smell is tens of thousands of times keener than ours, so their noses can certainly find what us olfactory-deficient humans are looking for.

What Is Service Dog Training Like?

In a word: difficult! 50-70% of dogs who set out to become service dogs fail their training, so service dog training can deal your four-legged friend a pretty tough hand–or paw, we suppose. Because a service dog must be as calm, cool, and collected as possible, they’ll receive training for staying under control in a variety of different settings among other public access skills, like sitting quietly near their owner in public and house training.

Service dogs are trained by both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Some of these organizations provide service dogs to disabled individuals at no cost, while others charge a fee. Some even offer financial aid to disabled people who can’t afford a service dog entirely on their own, so read up on reputable service dog organizations in your area to see which one would suit you best.

Can I Train My Own Service Dog?

In theory, yes. Interestingly, the ADA doesn’t legally require service dogs to receive professional training before earning their coveted blue vests. This means that you can train your service dog yourself, which is welcome news given the hefty price tag that comes with professional training.

However, it’s important to remember that your dog’s temperament will play a huge factor into whether it’s a good candidate for service dog training or not. The ideal candidate will be calm and alert, but not to the point where they’re lethargic or reactive. They must also be quick learners and able to adapt to different social settings when there’s a lot of people around.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting that not every pooch is cut out for the job–and that’s okay. There’s a long list of folks who are ready and willing to take in the world’s cutest dropouts and give them homes.

It takes a minimum of 120 hours to successfully train a service dog, so you’ll need at least six months to do this. Of course, this will vary depending on your dog’s breed, nature, and the skills you’ll need it to perform. Additionally, they’ll need to work at least 30 hours in public to train them how to use their newly-acquired skills in practical settings.

What Are the Best Methods for Training a Service Dog?

Traditional methods historically used negative reinforcement to train service dogs, such as shock collars, prong collars, and choke chains. However, these all raise a dog’s cortisol levels, stressing them out and hindering their ability to acquire the skills they’ll need to perform the disability-specific tasks for their owners.

This is why choosing to train a dog with a high food drive is important; if they respond pretty strongly to food or treat rewards, then you won’t need to scare or hurt them to get them blue vest-ready.

Ultimately, you want to build your dog’s confidence. Negative reinforcement methods damage the relationship between you and your service dog, so try rewarding your dog for good behavior instead of punishing them for bad behavior–they’ll learn a lot more quickly and will love you for it!
owner walking with service dog

A Final Word on Our Fantastic Four-Legged Friends

Clearly, becoming a service dog is no small feat. If you want to do it the right way, you’ll likely need to spend at least $10,000 and a year and a half to properly train them. Of course, you can try and train them yourself for a fraction of the cost, but understand that it will be a steep learning curve.

In any event, we hope we’ve shed some light on what it takes for your canine companion to become a service dog, and we also hope it brings you one step closer to getting the help you need.