How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog

More than 26 million Americans are living with some form of disability, and 1 in 4 Americans struggle with mental health challenges. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of Americans living with disabilities, including the right to have a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal.

There are more than 500,000 Service Dogs and countless more Emotional Support Animals helping Americans with physical and emotional challenges. The ADA gives Service Dogs access to almost all the same spaces at people, allowing Americans with disabilities or mental health challenges to have the support they need with them at all times.

Benefits of Canine Companionship

There are so many benefits to having dogs in our lives; from keeping us active and healthy to supporting our mental health and social lives, our dogs provide all kinds of support. 

Dogs are good for us – they keep us active and healthy, help us be calmer and more mindful, and make us more social and less isolated. For those living with a disability or mental health challenge, canine companionship can be truly lifesaving.

Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals can perform a wide range of impressive tasks to support their human. Dogs can be trained to alert their handler to a medical alert, like low blood sugar or a seizure. Dogs can also support people struggling with PTSD, anxiety and other mental health challenges by increasing self-esteem and reducing isolation, and even providing tactile support during panic attacks.

There are no nation-wide standards for registering your dog as a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal, but there are some basic guidelines to follow to determine if you qualify for a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal, properly train your dog to support you, and obtain the necessary documentation.

Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal.

There is a difference between Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals.

The ADA defines a Service Dog as any dog trained to perform a task for the benefit of a person with a disability. You must have a qualifying disability to be able to register your dog as a Service Dog. If you don’t have a qualifying disability, you may still be able to register your dog (or other pet) as an Emotional Support Animal if you struggle with a mental health challenge (a doctor’s note might be required).

If you’re not sure whether you qualify for a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal, read on to learn more about the difference between the two classifications of support animals.

Service Dog

Service Dogs help people with disabilities perform tasks that they can’t do on their own.

Under the ADA, Service Dogs are allowed to accompany their handlers anywhere the general public is allowed to go, including government buildings, nonprofits and businesses. The ADA also protects the individual with a disability from discrimination, and forbids staff from asking about the individual’s disability. They are only allowed to ask limited questions to confirm that the dog is a Service Dog – like if the dog is a Service Dog, and what task the dog has been trained to perform.

To qualify for a Service Dog, an individual must have a qualifying disability that causes significant difficulty with at least one life-task, such as walking, seeing, or hearing. The Service Dog must be trained specifically to do something the individual with the disability cannot do themselves. Common tasks performed by Service Dogs include assisting vision or hearing impaired individuals in navigating, or alerting a diabetic to low blood sugar or an epileptic to an oncoming seizure.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

Emotional Support Animals help people with mental health challenges feel more comfortable and less isolated.

If an individual does not have a qualifying disability, they may still be able to register their dog as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). Emotional Support Animals do not have the full access to public spaces that Service Dogs do, but they do have some legal protection under the ADA. ESAs are allowed in pet-free housing, and can fly with their handlers. Many businesses and other public spaces, and even some workplaces, have flexible policies for Emotional Support Animals.

To qualify for an Emotional Support Animal, an individual needs to have a mental health challenge which has been documented by a doctor or mental health professional. Emotional Support Animals can provide comfort and support to individuals dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression, or cognitive disorders.

Training a Service Dog

There are no training standards for Service Dogs, but experts estimate that is takes up to 120 hours to properly train your dog to act as a Service Dog. At least 30 of those training hours should be done in public areas with distractions.

You have many options when it comes to training your dog to be a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal. 

You have many options when it comes to training your dog to become a Service Dog. If you are looking for a dog specifically to be a Service Dog, you can purchase a puppy that has already been trained through a Service Dog organization.

If you already have a dog in your life, you can still turn them into a Service Dog with some focused training. You can find trainers who specialize in Service Dog training, and will either work with you and your dog, or train your dog for you. Working together helps you bond with your dog, which will make it easier for them to perform their job.

You can also train your dog to be a Service Dog yourself. If you have the time and patience, do some research and follow a goal-focused program, you can successfully train your dog to perform Service Dog jobs yourself. There are countless resources available to help you with your training program, like the expert-recommended book “Training Your Own Full Potential Service Dog”.

Before you embark on your Service Dog training, you should ensure that your dog is fit and healthy enough to perform the job. Take them for a vet check up to ensure they are in good shape and up to date on all the vaccines they’ll need to accompany you everywhere. Older dogs especially should be in good shape before becoming a Service Dog.

Best Breeds for Service Dogs

Labs are a popular breed for Service Dogs, bu any breed can make a good Service Dog with proper training. 

Any breed can make a great Service Dog, and any animal can be an Emotional Support Animal (there are even Emotional Support Snakes!).

Shepherds, Retrievers and Labs are popular breeds for Service Dogs due to their trainability and temperament. Larger dogs are best for individuals with mobility issues, but small dogs can perform Medical Alert tasks and may be more convenient as Emotional Support Animals.

Commands & Tasks

Service Dogs can be trained to perform a wide variety of tasks. The specific tasks that you’ll train your dog to perform will depend on the support that you need.

In addition to specific support tasks, Service Dogs should be well-behaved and follow basic commands. 

That said, there are some general commands and tasks that all Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals should be able to perform with ease.

  • Heel: All Service Dogs should always maintain their relative position to their handler.
  • Proofing: A Service Dog should always be alert for commands, not distracted or sniffing around.
  • Calmness: Service Dogs must always been calm in public and focused on performing their job. They should be able to avoid getting overexcited by other dogs or people.

Once your aspiring Service Dog can Heel and show proofing behaviour even when facing distractions, it’s time to move on to Tasking. Tasking refers to the specific assistance tasks that the Service Dog will perform. There are many different tasks that Service Dogs can do, but the specific tasks that you’ll train your dog to perform will depend on your support needs.

Some common Service Dog tasks include:

  • Medical Alert: Alert a person to a medical issues, like low blood sugar or a seizure
  • Tactile Support: Provide deep pressure therapy
  • Blocking, Mobility and Guidance: Guiding vision or hearing impaired people or protecting a person’s space
  • Emotional Support: Calming people during panic attacks or overstimulation

The list of tasks that Service Dogs can perform is truly endless, but you can customize your training program to meet your needs.

Certifications

Although by law you only need to verbally confirm that your dog is a Service Dog, having documentation or a Service Dog vest can make explanations easier.

There is no standardized certification process for Service Dogs in the US – if fact, you aren’t even required to register your Service Dog. There are some general guidelines and best practices to follow to ensure your Service Dog is well-trained and to avoid possible issues in public.

Once you’ve trained your dog to perform tasks for you, you can complete a Public Access Test to prove that they are fit to be in public spaces with people. During this test your dog will need to show that they can remain calm and not get overexcited, beg for food or attention, or show any aggression.

Although certification is not required, and the ADA protects individuals from being questioned about or discriminated against due to a disability, some businesses and employers may request documentation to prove that your dog is a trained Service Dog.

Once you’ve confirmed that your dog is a service dog, either verbally or with documentation, accommodations must legally be made for you and your Service Dog. Obtaining a certificate or registration card or having your dog wear a Service Dog vest can make these conversations easier, but you also have the right to stand your ground and provide only verbal confirmation that your dog is a Service Dog.

Making Your Dog a Service Dog

Canine companionship is good for us, especially for those of us with a disability or mental health challenge. 

More than a quarter of Americans suffer from a disability or mental health challenge, and more than 500,000 Service Dogs and countless more Emotional Support Animals help those individuals every day.

The ADA protects people with disabilities and gives legal protection to Service Dogs and, to a lesser extent, Emotional Support Animals. However, Service Dogs are fairly unregulated and there is no requirement to certify or register your Service Dog.

A Service Dog needs to be calm and able to avoid getting overexcited around people and other dogs. Service Dogs can be trained to perform countless tasks, including mobility-related assistance, guidance, medical alert and emotional support.

You can purchase a trained puppy from a Service Dog organization, pay a trainer to work with your dog or both of you together, or train your dog yourself. The important thing is that your dog remains focused while working, behaves in public and ignores distractions, and can assist you with tasks that you struggle with.

The benefits of canine companionship are huge for all dog owners, but individuals with physical or emotional challenges can benefit even more so from the love and support that dogs can provide.