US Service Animals – What Disabilities Qualify for a Service Dog? Our Comprehensive Guide

service dog trainer

A service dog can be life changing for a person suffering from a disability. Service dogs are animals trained to perform specific tasks according to their handler’s needs. Service dogs assist people with a range of disabilities from physical impairments such as blindness and mobility issues to mental disabilities like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Service dogs help their disabled handlers through tasks such guiding while walking, alerting to noises, alarms or sirens, retrieving dropped objects, reminding the handler to take prescribed medications, and diffusing anxiety attacks. 

If you or someone you know has a disability, a service dog may be a helpful course of treatment. It’s important to do research to make sure your disability is eligible for a service dog before applying. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) describes an “individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of the impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.”

Eligible Physical Disabilities

The ADA defines physical abilities as:

“Any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.”

Physical disabilities that may qualify for service animals include but aren’t limited to:

  • Blindness (partial and complete)

  • Deafness (partial and complete) 

  • Paralysis

  • Multiple Sclerosis

  • Autism

  • Epilepsy

  • Osteoporosis

  • Scoliosis

  • Allergies

  • Asthma

  • Arthritis

  • Seizures

Service animals can assist people with physical disabilities in a variety of ways. They can assist their handler with sensory issues by guiding them while walking, by navigating through streets and buildings or by alerting the handler to sounds such as a phone ringing, sirens, knocking on the door, or an alarm. The dogs are able to provide help for handlers with mobility issues such as pushing or pulling a wheelchair, providing stability during walking or standing, retrieving objects from the floor or from across the room, and completing tasks such as turning lights on and off and covering their handler with a blanket. Service dogs can also remind their handler to take prescribed medications and call 911, a doctor or family member in the case of emergency such as an allergic reaction, allergy attack or seizure. Service dogs can be trained to do many other tasks, all specific to the handler’s needs. 

Eligible Mental Disabilities

The ADA defines mental disabilities as “Any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.”

Eligible mental disabilities include but aren’t limited to:

  • Bipolar Disorder

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Mood disorders

  • Eating disorders

  • Neurocognitive disorders

  • Psychotic disorders

  • Substance abuse disorders

Service dogs can perform a range of tasks to help and support people with mental disabilities. The animals can be trained to distract and diffuse the handler from things such as depression, mood swings, self-harm or a panic attack by rubbing, nuzzling or licking their owner, or by distracting the handler by instigating play such as bring a ball or stick to the owner. Service dogs are also trained to provide deep pressure therapy by lying on the chest of the handler to calm them during a panic attack. Another task the dogs can perform is reminding the handler to take prescribed medications or calling a support person, therapist or suicide hotline through programmed numbers on a dog-friendly phone. Service dogs can assist people with anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder through crowd control by circling or guarding the handler to create a barrier, or by guarding their back. They can also enter a building to check the perimeters and reassure the handler that the area is safe. 

A person’s disability must first fall under the ADA definition of a mental or physical disability, but this is not necessarily enough to qualify a person for a service animal. The person must provide documentation from a medical professional that their disability could be improved or supported in someone way by the service animal. If the person is unable to provide a valid explanation of why a service animal is necessary, he or she may not be approved.  

The ADA does not list every mental and physical disability that could be eligible, as there are too many to list, and there are many other factors that go into the decision to qualify a person for a service animal. If a person feels that his or her disability qualifies for a service animal and they meet all other requirements, he or she will need to go through the application process in order to determine if their specific case qualifies for a service animal. If you feel you may benefit from a service dog, talk to your therapist or physician today.