What is a Service Dog?

All About Assistance Dogs

Service dog
Scott Olson/Getty Images

You have probably heard the term "service dog" or "assistance dog" before. Do you know what this truly means? Generally speaking, a service dog (or assistance dog) is a working dog specially trained to help a person or group of people with a disability or specific needs. However, there is a bit more to the definition of a service dog, especially in the eyes of the law. A service dog is a type of working dog, but is different from other working dogs (such as police dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, etc.).

 

Service Dogs and the Law

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, "service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities." The dog must not be a pet, but be specially trained to assist the handler with something directly related to his or her disability. Emotional support dogs are not considered service animals. In addition, therapy dogs are not considered service dogs in the eyes of the law.

The ADA also notes that their definition of a service dog "does not affect or limit the broader definition of 'assistance animal' under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of 'service animal' under the Air Carrier Access Act."

Under the ADA, service dogs cannot be denied entrance to businesses (even food service establishments), state and local government facilities or nonprofit organizations that serve the public.

However, service dogs must be under control at all times. This generally means they should be leashed or harnessed (unless these get in the way of the dog's duties, in which case the dog must still be under the handler's control). 

The ADA mandates that a disabled person cannot be asked questions about his or her disability.

The staff of businesses can only ask two questions to the handler of a service dog:

  1. Is the dog indeed a service animal and required to assist with a disability?
  2. What specific task(s) has the dog been trained to do (in service to the handler)? 

Handlers of service dogs cannot be charged more money because of their dogs, nor can they be denied the rights and access granted to those without service animals. Disabled persons with service dogs can only be asked to leave the premises if the dog is out of control and this cannot be corrected by the handler, or if the dog is not house trained.

Types of Service Dogs

There are many types of service dogs, and some even serve multiple purposes. Potential service dogs go through rigorous training programs before they can team up with a handler. Here are just a few types of service dogs:

  • Guide Dogs for the blind
  • Hearing Dogs for deaf or hearing impaired persons
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs for wheelchair-bound persons or those with mobility limitations  
  • Seizure Response Dogs to protect and help persons with seizure disorders when a seizure occurs
  • Diabetes Assistance Dogs to detect blood sugar highs and lows (dogs are scent-trained)
  • Mental Health Service Dogs or Psychiatric Service Dogs are task-trained to assist those with PTSD, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, major depression, Autism Spectrum Disorders and much more.

    Service Dogs on the Job

    Most of the time, service dogs can be easily identified. Many wear special vests and/or harnesses. However, special identification is not actually required. Never assume -- always be sure to ask before petting a dog (even if the dog is a pet, this is essential to prevent bites). Service dogs should not be petted, fed or otherwise given attention while at work. Please be respectful and allow these dogs to do their jobs. They make a major difference in the lives of disabled persons.