What Do Service Dogs Do? Your Full Guide

Service dogs are well-known for their role in helping individuals with disabilities have a better quality of life and more easily complete their day-to-day tasks. However, there are many different types of service dogs, and each one has a variety of different skills they can meet, so it is easy to get confused when considering whether or not a service dog is the right choice for you.

In this article, we will discuss what exactly a service dog is and how they may assist individuals with certain types of disabilities. We’ll make sure that you know the difference between types of service dogs and give you some tips on obtaining your own service dog so that you know where to start.

The Definition of a Service Dog

It is important to understand the exact definition of a service dog, as only service dogs have legal protections under the ADA, unlike emotional support dogs (ESAs). Service dogs are permitted to be with their owners in almost all public places and accompany their owners through day-to-day life. According to the ADA, the definition of a service dog is a dog that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” These disabilities can include things like psychological conditions, mobility disabilities, or medical disabilities.

You can read more about what you are legally allowed to do with your service dog and your general protections by accessing the ADA website here.

Different Types of Service Dogs

As you now know, a service dog is a dog trained to perform specific tasks for their owner that helps them get through their day-to-day life or significantly reduce symptoms of a disability. It is also important to know that ‘service dog’ is a rather general term. There are a few different types of service dogs that can provide assistance to individuals, and these dogs are categorized based on the type of help they provide.

Mobility Assistance Service Dogs

Probably one of the most well-known types of service dogs, mobility assistance service dogs help support an individual with a disability that interferes with their ability to move freely and reach certain items. This can include conditions such as spinal cord injuries, paraplegia, and other conditions that leave individuals wheelchair-bound or unable to move about freely. The goal of a mobility service dog is to help their owners achieve functional independence and obtain the highest quality of life possible despite any injury or disability they may have.

Tasks that mobility assistance service dogs help with include:

  • Retrieving medication and alerting their owners to medication times
  • Supporting their owner while they walk
  • Guiding their owner and keeping pace with them
  • Guiding owners in a wheelchair or those who have visual impairments
  • Retrieving water, food, and other household items for their owner
  • Turning off lights, closing and opening doors, bringing phones to their owner
  • Alerting for help if their owner is unconscious or having an emergency

Of course, a mobility assistance service dog can be trained to perform many other more specific and disability-related tasks, but the above skills are a majority of what this dog can do and how they may help you.

Medical Service Dogs

Another common type of service dog, medical service dogs, are those that are trained to respond to and support an individual who has certain medical conditions such as diabetes, blood pressure or blood sugar issues, or seizures. The dog’s main role is to alert their owner when they detect a change in their baseline condition, such as alerting to a drop in blood sugar or making their owner know a seizure is about to take place. This alert from the dog allows the owner to immediately work to counteract the change or get to a safe space.

Medical service dogs save their owners from suffering more severe consequences of their medical conditions, such as not being able to reach medication in time or falling over due to an unexpected medical incident.

Tasks that medical service dogs are often trained to perform include:

  • Alerting to baseline changes in their owner’s condition
  • Bringing juice, medication, or water to their owner
  • Retrieving emergency items such as phones or alert devices for their owners
  • Providing a safe space for their owner to lay their head on in the case they need to move to the floor
  • Retrieving emergency help if their owner is unconscious or gives the command

Again, depending on your specific medical condition, a medical service dog may be trained for more specific or targeted commands, but this general list of tasks gives you an idea of the help that a medical service dog can bring to your life.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

A less well-known type of service dog, but equally important, is the psychiatric service dog. This assistance animal is trained to help relieve the symptoms of psychiatric conditions such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety and relieve the major symptoms of autism or similar disorders. In addition to providing a calming presence and comforting individuals during low moods or spells of panic, psychiatric service dogs are trained to complete the following tasks:

  • Interrupting self-harming behavior by placing themselves in the way or redirecting their owner’s attention
  • Helping to calm meltdowns and sensory overloads by providing a calm, comforting presence
  • Checking rooms, new areas, and around corners for those with conditions like anxiety or PTSD
  • Helping those with hallucinations to verify what is real
  • Acting as a buffer between their owner and the public to provide comfort or stress relief
  • Retrieving medication and water to help keep their owner on schedule
  • Alerting for emergency help when their owner is unconscious or gives the command

Psychiatric service dogs may also be trained to complete a number of other specific tasks depending on your condition and what you personally need assistance with. To learn more about training and obtaining an official psychiatric service dog, you can check out the general requirements here.

What About Therapy and Emotional Support Dogs?

Golden retriever support dog looking happy

Even though therapy and emotional support dogs provide a major role in assisting those with certain mood conditions or relieving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fearfulness, they are not considered service dogs according to the legal definition we mentioned above. This is because therapy and emotional support dogs are not trained to complete any specific task for their owner, such as fetching medication, checking rooms to relieve PTSD or anxiety symptoms, or interrupting self-harming behavior. As a result, therapy and emotional support dogs are typically not granted the same public access as service dogs.

That being said, if your dog provides you with significant assistance in relieving poor mood conditions and gives you general emotional support for a mental disorder, you may be able to register them as an emotional support animal. Doing so will allow you to keep your dog with you in any living space, according to the Fair Housing Act. So, even though your dog won’t be allowed to enter public spaces such as restaurants and shopping malls, they can stay with you in a dorm or most pet-free rentals once they are registered as an emotional support animal.

More information on completing this process can be found here.

How to Obtain a Service Dog

If you think that you would greatly benefit from having a service dog in your life, then you should first consult with a medical professional or a therapist. They can help you narrow down the tasks that a service dog could help you with and point you in the right direction for adopting one. Several organizations across the United States work to train service dogs for specific conditions, so you should be basing your search on the type of service dog you think you will need.

Adopting a service dog will likely cost you anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000, depending on the specific training your dog needs to have and the organization that you adopt from. Some local and national organizations will work with you to lower this cost or provide a service dog for free, depending on certain qualifications and your disability type. It is important to conduct searches based on your location and inquire directly with service dog training organizations to see if you are eligible.

Also, keep in mind that in order to get a service dog, you will need to meet certain conditions such as:

  • Being able to provide proper care for your service dog, including all food and veterinary care
  • Being able to train with the dog before they are released into your care (the specifics of this depends on the organization you receive your service dog from)
  • Have a medical, physical, or psychological disability that can greatly benefit from the assistance of a service dog

Additionally, certain service dog training organizations will have other preliminary qualifications and conditions that you need to meet before you are eligible to adopt a service dog and start benefiting from their assistance. You should inquire directly with the organization you are hoping to receive your service dog from for more information.

Receiving the Assistance You Need

When it comes to dealing with a disability, either physical or psychological, it can be hard for many individuals to complete their daily tasks and stay on top of everything that needs to be done to make life easier. This is where a service dog can greatly help out and provide relief of symptoms. If you feel like a service dog could help you in your day-to-day life, your first step is to carefully review our article and determine which type of service dog would fit you the best. Then, you should speak to a medical professional about your concerns to get the ball rolling on obtaining a service dog and receiving the assistance you need.