Service dog

If you are a dog, cat, reptile or bird lover, you already know what a vital difference these creatures can make in your life. Unconditional love, comfort, structure, joy and laughter are just a few of the countless gifts they give. When you consider everything that our pets represent, it is no wonder that some of the most special of these creatures are being trained to be service animals. Just what are service animals, who do they help and how are they trained?

Service Animals Defined

According to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” These disabilities include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or mental impairments. An additional provision in the law also extends the definition beyond dogs to include miniature horses. As this definition suggests, service animals can perform a host of different tasks:

  • Alerting their handler to the imminent onset of a seizure and ensuring that they get to a safe place.
  • Guiding a blind person around obstacles and through traffic so that they can safely reach their destination.
  • Letting a deaf person know when an alarm has sounded or alerting them to the ringing of a doorbell.
  • Reminding patients with cognitive loss that it is time to take medications.
  • Providing physical support to those with poor balance.
  • Retrieving objects.
  • Helping to calm handlers with severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is important to note that in order for it to be legally recognized as a service animal, a dog or pony must have received targeted instruction to perform specific, disability-related tasks. Although some other animals such as monkeys have also been successfully trained to assist their disabled handlers, only dogs and miniature horses are included under the ADA umbrella.

How are Service Animals Trained?

As the above information suggests, service animals assist their handlers with a wide range of tasks. As a result, the training they receive is equally targeted to the job they will be doing. Potential guide dogs, for instance, are raised in the homes of foster families who work to help the pups to gain house manners and become highly socialized. Throughout their youth, these dogs are regularly evaluated on physical and behavioral characteristics and are called back to formal training at the guide dog school once they are deemed ready. For the next few months, the dogs learn how to perform the work they will eventually do with their blind handler: walking in harness, stopping at curbs and stairways, contending with traffic, navigating public transportation, ignoring distractions and resting calmly when instructed. Once the dog has successfully grasped all of these tasks, it is matched with a blind person. The team spends anywhere from 10 days to several weeks learning to read each other’s signals. For the team to fully gel, it can take anywhere from six months to one year.

Out and About With Service Animals

Service animals are allowed to be in any place that serves the public, including restaurants, transportation and places of worship. However, they can be barred from entering sterile environments like operating rooms where their presence might endanger a patient’s health or interfere with an essential duty. Moreover, all service animals must be properly leashed, harnessed or tethered. Those that need to be unrestrained in order to perform disability-related tasks must be controlled with visual or vocal signals.


Even if there is a “no pets allowed” policy in an apartment or condominium complex, service animals are still allowed to enter or live there. This is because “reasonable accommodations” must be made for them under the ADA.

Flying with a Service Animal

Although the ADA protects the rights of service animals and their handlers on the ground, the same responsibilities are governed by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) after takeoff. The ACAA requires that service animals be allowed onboard any public airplane free of charge. Space should also be made for essential supplies like water and crates. That being said, service animals cannot block the aisles, sit on a seat or be in an emergency exit row. Handlers may be asked to complete a form for their service animal before flying and may be required to show proof of vaccination. If the dog is aggressive or out of control, the airline reserves the right to refuse access. These rules only apply to domestic flights, and service animal owners should check with relevant local authorities in other countries if traveling abroad.

Misconceptions about Service Animals

There are several myths surrounding the service dog lifestyle. Clearing them up will help to enhance your understanding of this unique handler-dog relationship:

  • Myth: Service animals are allowed everywhere no matter what. Reality: they can be refused access if they are unkempt, aggressive or poorly controlled. They are also not allowed in sterile environments or in the exit rows of airplanes.
  • Myth: I need to carry a service animal ID with me at all times. Reality: The law does not require that handlers present proof that their dog is a service animal, including collars, leashes, vests, harnesses, tags or identification cards. However, possessing a certificate or ID card proving that your dog has been specially trained to perform disability-related tasks can save time and provide clarity. After all, many transportation drivers and business owners have little or no experience with service dogs and are unfamiliar with the legislation governing them.
  • Myth: Emotional support animals and service animals are the same. Reality: They are quite different. Service animal owners must have a recognized disability, whereas ESA handlers need only have an impairment. A service animal is trained to meet the disability-related needs of its handler, whereas an ESA is there to give generalized comfort and support.

Whether they are guiding a blind person across a busy street, warning their handler about an oncoming seizure or alerting a deaf individual to the sound of a fire alarm or doorbell, service animals perform vital functions. Thanks to their assistance, people of all ages can realize an enhanced quality of daily life at home, at school and in the air.