If you’re a person living with a disability, you may have considered getting a service dog to assist you in some way. Service dogs are no longer only for the blind, after all. They can be trained to assist people who are hearing impaired or have mobility issues; to recognize low blood sugar in diabetics; or to alert people with epilepsy of an impending seizure. In fact, the abilities of these specially trained animals is almost boundless, provided they receive the right training and are paired with the right partner.
Still, finding a service dog to meet your needs isn’t always an easy task. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide to help you learn if you qualify for a service dog and how to get a service dog if you do.
A service dog can provide many different kinds of assistance to a person with a disability. He can also provide companionship, loyalty and unconditional companionship and love.
Who Is Eligible for a Service Dog?
In general, anyone living with a disability is eligible to get a service dog. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this means any person with a “condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.” The World Health Organization further explains that disability has three main components:
- Impairment, such as the loss of use of a limb, eyesight or hearing, or cognitive impairment such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
- Activity limitation, such as limitations in seeing, walking, thinking or remembering
- Participation restrictions, such as the inability to work, drive, go to school or participate in social and recreational activities in the community.
A disability may result from a mental illness as well as a physical impairment. For example, people living with crippling anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder may be disabled by their condition and eligible for a service dog.
With that being said, most organizations that provide service dogs to people with disabilities have their own criteria as well. For example, Paws With a Cause, a nonprofit headquartered in Wayland, Michigan, that provides service dogs to adults with mobility issues, seizure disorders, or hearing loss and to children with autism, requires that applicants meet a predetermined threshold of disability (e.g., moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears, or a medical condition affecting one or more limbs). They must also be at least 14 years-old and live in a stable home environment with no other dogs (other pets are okay).
Almost every disabled person qualifies for a service dog under the ADA. However, not every organization provides every type of service dog.
Similarly, Canine Companions Inc. requires that applicants be at least 18 years of age (5 years for a child) and complete a lengthy review process that includes a medical referral, an in-person interview and more.
Additionally, all professional organizations that train and provide service dogs require that applicants demonstrate they have the physical and financial resources to provide food, exercise, grooming and veterinary care for the dog.
What Are the Different Types of Service Dogs?
The history of service dogs dates back to the 1750s, when a Paris hospital for the blind began training guide dogs to assist their patients in performing the tasks of daily life. Since that time, the concept of a service dog has evolved to include dogs that perform a wide range of tasks for humans with physical and emotional disabilities and a variety of medical conditions. This includes:
Once called seeing-eye dogs, guide dogs help visually impaired or blind individuals navigate through life. They are most often German shepherds, golden retrievers or labs, but standard poodles and mixes like labradoodles and goldendoodles are also well-suited to the job. Unlike most service dogs, guide dogs are trained in “intelligent disobedience.” That means they will disobey a command from their human partner if the dog judges the action to be dangerous or unwise. For example, a visually imparied person might not see an oncoming car and command the dog to cross the street. In that case, a guide dog would disobey to keep its owner safe.
Mobility Assistance Dogs
Mobility assistance dogs are trained to assist people with mobility issues in a variety of ways. They are very helpful to people who are confined to a wheelchair or who’ve lost the use of one or more limbs due to a condition such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, ALS or a stroke, as well as to amputees. They can be taught to turn on lights, press elevator call buttons, open doors, retrieve items and much more. Some mobility service dogs may also pull a wheelchair using a special harness, or “brace” a person with balance or strength challenges when they stand up, transfer from a wheelchair or move about.
Great Danes are often trained as mobility assistance dogs because of their size and relatively calm temperament
Because mobility dogs generally need size and strength to perform their jobs, they are usually large dogs. Bernese mountain dogs, border collies, boxers and even Great Danes can make excellent mobility dogs, as can German Shepherds and retrievers.
As the term suggests, hearing dogs help people who are hearing imparied respond to sounds in their environment, such as a knock on the door, a smoke alarm, a doorbell or someone calling their name. Depending on the situation, the dog may lead their human partner to the noise (e.g., to the front door) or just alert them to the sound (e.g., an alarm clock) Hearing dogs can be almost any size or breed, but the breeds most often trained for the job are golden retrievers, labs, poodles and cocker spaniels.
Diabetic Alert Dogs
Thanks to their incredible sense of smell (about 100,000 times more powerful than a human’s) dogs can sniff out changes in body chemistry that no human can. Dogs can detect many kinds of cancer, for example, and they can also be taught to recognize when a person with diabetes has low or high blood sugar and to take appropriate action before a serious emergency occurs. The dog may be trained to fetch emergency medical supplies, for example, or alert another family member if the diabetic loses consciousness. Some service dogs are even trained to call 911 using a smartphone or tablet with a touchscreen, or using a special K-9 alert phone or device.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are trained to help people with serious mental health issues interact with others and function independently in the world. Unlike emotional support animals, which can be any type of animal that provides companionship and emotional support, psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks. For example, a psychiatric service dog might help interrupt a panic attack by repeatedly nudging his owner or sitting on their lap. They can also help a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder control repetitive behaviors that disrupt their lives. PSDs are also very beneficial for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder who need the calming presence of a trained dog that can “run interference” for them when they are out in the world.
Autism Support Dogs
Partnered primarily with children and families, autism support dogs are taught to recognize behaviors that are common to children on the autism spectrum and to take action when they occur. For example, many children with autism engage in self-harming behaviors, such as head banging or biting themselves. Autism service dogs can be trained to gently interrupt these behaviors by engaging in some way with the child or by fetching an adult who can intervene. Autism dogs can also accompany children with autism to medical and dental appointments to help alleviate their anxiety, and make social interactions less stressful and more enjoyable.
A service dog can help children on the autism spectrum regain their independence and interact with others in a more satisfying way.
What Breed of Dog Can be a Service Dog
Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes, depending on what task they are trained to do. The most common breeds are German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers because they are large, strong and — as a rule –obedient and smart. But a tiny Pomeranian can be trained to alert a hearing-impaired person to certain sounds, or to interrupt a panic attack for someone with PTSD. And poodles make wonderful service dogs for people with a variety of disabilities because they come in three sizes (toy, miniature and standard), are hard-working, athletic, and among the smartest dogs in the world.
In fact, depending on your disability and where and how you live, almost any dog has the potential to be a good service dog for you. Of course, if you need a dog to pull a wheelchair, a little shih-tzu won’t do. But as long as the dog’s size and strength is appropriate for the tasks at hand, what’s most important is not the breed but the temperament and personality of the dog. According to United Disability Services, the best service dog candidates have the following traits:
- A desire to work — Working dogs are happiest when they are active, even if they are just going out for a walk. Dogs that prefer a sedentary existence are usually not the best service dogs.
- Calm demeanor — A good service dog is alert and eager to please, but not particularly reactive to external stimuli such as noises, cars, people or other pets.
- Friendly disposition — A service dog interacts with many people in many situations, so a friendly disposition is a must.
- High intelligence — Let’s face it. All dogs are cute, but not all dogs are smart. In order to follow the complex commands he must learn in training, a service dog should be smarter than average as well as obedient and eager-to-please.
- Loving and loyal — Almost any dog will bond with their owner if given the right amount of attention and love. But a service dog and their human partner need to form a special kind of bond.
Where to Get a Service Dog
Although it is possible to train a service dog yourself, it is a long and painstaking process that requires a great deal of patience, energy and skill. Service animals must be trained not just to assist their human partner, but also to behave in public in very specific ways. For example, they must be calm and attentive to their partner in crowds, walk calmly on a loose leash, and not behave aggressively towards humans or other animals. These behaviors alone typically take at least 120 hours of training over a minimum of 6 months, according to public-access standards developed by the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Additionally, the dog must be fully house-trained, trained in basic obedience, and able to reliably perform all of the specific tasks he will need to learn. Fully training a dog to act as a service dog will usually take several years.
Most professionally trained service dogs are raised from puppyhood by specially trained volunteers, who begin to teach the dogs basic obedience and other social skills
For these reasons, most experts in dog behavior recommend that a person seeking a service dog does so through an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of nonprofits that raise, train and place service dogs. These professional organizations maintain high standards for breeding, training and placing dogs with human partners, and assist clients throughout the U.S. Many of these organizations do not charge clients for the dogs they provide. However, if there is a fee, it may be as high as $30,000 or more. In that case, the organization will usually work with approved applicants to help them raise the necessary funds.
ADI maintains a database of accredited service dog providers on its website. You can search for an organization that provides assistance dogs in your area by entering your location here.
How the Process Works
Once you have identified an organization that you believe can provide a service dog to assist you or a loved one, you should be prepared to go through a rather rigorous process before you’re actually paired with a dog. In almost all cases, waiting lists are quite long — United Disability Services says a typical wait for one of their service dogs is three years. With that being said, most of these organizations provide interim training and other learning opportunities, so that when a dog partner is identified, you will be ready to begin working with the dog.
Although each organization has a different process for how to get a service dog, the steps typically follow a predictable path.
No. 1. Supply basic information about you and your needs
Most organizations that provide service dogs to the public begin the process with a short preliminary application on which you supply basic demographic information and an overview of the person’s disability. If the preliminary application is approved, the process moves on to the next step. In some cases, a staff member may reach out by phone to discuss the process in more depth once the preliminary application is approved.
No. 2. Complete an Application
Complete a full application with all documentation. This is a much more lengthy application and will usually include a referral from a health care provider or other proof of the person’s disability. You may also be required to supply personal references and financial documents proving that you have the resources to properly care for the dog.
No. 3. Interview with Staff
Depending on the organization you’re working with, this step may be done in-person, via teleconference or on the phone. This is usually a more in-depth interview in which the staff get a better sense of the disabled person’s personality, physical attributes and needs. If the disabled person is a child, both the parents and the child will attend.
No. 4. Receive an Approval Letter
If your application for a service dog is approved, you will typically receive a letter in the mail with instructions for completing next steps. This letter almost always indicates conditional approval; it is not a guarantee that you will get a service dog. In most cases, at this point you will be placed on a waiting list until a suitable dog is available for you. This wait can be fairly brief or quite long. For example, Canine Companions International estimates a wait time of between 2 and 20 months. During this time, a representative from the agency may visit your home to assess the physical space, or you may be asked to submit a video instead.
No. 4. Attend In-person Training
This is the most critical part of the process of getting a service dog — teaming up with a dog. This in-person training usually takes about 2-3 weeks, and, unless you’re fortunate enough to live within driving distance, you will need to arrange travel and lodging for the time you’re required to stay. During this time you will meet the dog selected by the staff to be your canine partner and begin public access training (e.g., walking calmly in a crowd; appropriate behavior around people and other dogs; entering buildings and elevators etc.). You will also begin to work with the dog around performing specific tasks.
If this training goes well and you and the dog pass the public-access test required to graduate, you will be allowed to bring your service dog with you when you return to your home.
When you attend in-person training, you and your dog will bond and learn how to work together as a team.
No. 5. Follow-Up and Aftercare
All organizations that place service dogs with disabled persons will follow-up with you regularly to ensure that you and the dog are doing well. The number and nature of follow-up visits vary quite a bit. Some organizations simply ask you to check in regularly by phone, while others require in-person training at regular intervals to reinforce learning and correct any inappropriate behaviors that may arise. Service Dog International, for example, requires that you return to its facility within 12 months of graduation and every 24 months thereafter for recertification. In some cases, a dog may be reclaimed by the organization if for any reason its needs are not being met.
Getting Around With Your Service Dog
Once you and your service dog have learned public access skills, you are free to bring your dog with you nearly everywhere you go. All entities that serve the public, including restaurants, bars, arenas, and theaters, as well as businesses and government offices are required to allow a disabled person to enter with their service dog as long as the dog is leashed or otherwise under your control. You have the right to take your dog with you on a bus, train, airplane or any form of public transportation. You can also take your dog to work, school and to church.
With that being said, there are often circumstances when your right to bring your animal into a place of business may be challenged by an employee who is unfamiliar with the Americans with Disabilities Act. For that reason, it’s a good idea to have a working knowledge of your rights under the ADA so you know what to do should an incident occur. The list below is not all-inclusive, but it addresses a few of the most common questions disabled persons ask about their service dogs.
Does my service dog need to wear a vest?
No. Service dogs do not need any special identification. Nor do they need to be “certified” or “registered” or wear a special tag. Legally, you cannot be asked to show documentation that your dog is a service dog.
Can my service dog be excluded from an area because of his breed?
No. Some apartment complexes, condominiums and even some municipalities have “breed bans” in place (for example, against bully breeds such as pit bulls and American Staffordshire terriers). However, these rules cannot be used to exclude a service dog based solely on its breed.
Can an employee ask me what my disability is?
Legally, no one has the right to ask you what your disability is. According to the ADA, they can ask only two questions:
- Is the dog a service animal required by a disability?
- What task has the dog been trained to perform?
They cannot ask you to demonstrate what the dog does for you or ask what disability requires you to have a service dog.
Can I take my service dog into the hospital to visit a friend?
Yes. Dogs are generally allowed in hospitals, including patient rooms, as long as their presence doesn’t pose a safety hazard of some kind. Generally speaking, any area of the hospital that allows visitors must allow service animals to accompany them.
Can a local municipality force me to register my service dog?
No. The ADA prohibits cities and other municipalities from requiring that a disabled person register their service dog. However, the dog does need to be licensed and have proof of required vaccines like any other dog.
If you believe your rights are being unfairly challenged, ask to speak to a manager or supervisor and explain the situation to them. Most people in supervisory positions are aware of ADA rules. In the most extreme scenario, you can request local law enforcement to enforce your rights.
For more information on your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, visit ADA.gov.)
Even a tiny Pomeranian can be a service dog for a person with a hearing impairment or mental health issues such as anxiety or panic attacks.
The Bottom Line
Now that you know how to get a service dog, the next step is to ask yourself: Is a service dog right for me? Being the caretaker for any animal is a huge commitment, and a service dog needs at least as much care and attention as any companion dog. With that being said, the rewards of having a service dog in your life can be enormous. When you’re paired with the right partner, you’ll experience independence, companionship, freedom, and, of course, unconditional love. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.