Beginner’s Guide to Service Dogs

So you’ve decided upon obtaining a service dog? Perhaps you’ve reached this conclusion with the consultation of a medical provider, a suggestion from a friend, or by doing your own research. Regardless of how you have come to find that a service animal may be beneficial to you, it can be a confusing and complicated process.
You may find yourself wondering where to start out, so We’ve come up with a basic guide of how to start the process of obtaining a service animal. Although we have stated this guide is “basic,” you will find that it is a lengthy one – this is to give you the most comprehensive guide to how the process works. The world of service dogs is a very complex one, and this guide offers a general outline of how things work. Here at Washington State Service Dog Association, we want you to be successful in this endeavor; service dogs have provided hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people with disabilities around the world with a sense of independence and grater quality of life. This guide can be used as a template for future service dog handlers around the world, but the information outlined is based off of the United States Americans with Disabilities Act, and relevant United States laws and policies. This document is also geared towards dogs specifically, although miniature horses are also included as service animals under the ADA and occasionally other species of animals may also be service animals- depending on the individual state laws that define a service animal where the handler resides.

First things first, what is required?

You must have a disability. It is important to note that the definition of “disabled” is more of a legal term, rather than a medical one in reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA definition of “disabled” is: “A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
That’s it! It may sound fishy or incredibly inclusive, but that really is the only qualification a person must meet in order to have a service dog in the United States. Service dogs serve a variety of purposes in mitigating a multitude of disabilities, and the tasks that a service dog may be trained to perform are seemingly endless, as new tasks are discovered frequently.

What’s the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal?

A service dog (SD) is a specially trained dog who mitigates a handler’s disability/disabilities through the assistance of work or trained tasks. The handler is allowed public accommodation with their service dog into non pet-friendly establishments, housing, workplaces, educational facilities and airline travel.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that requires no special training and mitigates the owner’s disability/disabilities (typically psychiatric) through presence, companionship, and physical affection. Persons with ESAs do not have public accommodation rights to bring their animal into non pet-friendly establishments, but the handler does have the right to accommodation for housing, and for airline travel.
The biggest difference between the two is the level of training – service dogs are very specially trained and perform specific tasks to assist a disabled person, ESAs do not have special training. This is largely why service dogs are allowed to accompany their handlers into stores, restaurants, etc. and why emotional support animals are not.

What are the requirements of a service dog?

A service dog must meet these three requirements set forth by the ADA to be protected by federal law:
  • Fully task trained (minimum of 1 task)
  • Fully housebroken
  • Under control of the handler at all times

These are very MINIMUM requirements, and many programs, organizations and owner trainers choose to train far above and beyond these minimum standards for the safety of both the handler and the dog. We will return back to this point later.

**It is VERY important to understand that a service dog DOES NOT NEED AN I.D. card, CERTIFICATION or be REGISTERED to be “legitimate/legal.” Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Department of Justice do not recognize any ID card, certification, or registration as legal documentation to prove that a dog/animal is a service dog/animal. There are many online websites that will try to sell you certificates, ID cards, and offer to register your dog as a service dog, and may even offer full kits that include a vest- do NOT buy from these sites- they are scams, and an unfortunate amount of people are conned every day.**

So what do you need to do in order to determine if a service dog is right for you and to be protected by the law?

First, you will need to determine if you meet the ADA definition of “disabled.” Once you establish this, you may want to come up with a list of tasks a dog could perform to assist you. This should be a list of things that you cannot do yourself, such as (but not limited to): alerting you to a medical change (such as drop/rise in glucose level, heart rate changes, or occasionally seizures), assisting you to open doors and cupboards, alerting to sounds (for hearing impairments), guide work (for visual impairments), fetching rescue medication, performing deep pressure therapy, and many more. Once you have these figured out, you may ask your medical provider to provide you with a letter of accommodation and/or a prescription for your service dog or future service dog in training if you rent housing, plan on traveling via airplane, or need accommodation in the workplace. Examples of letters of accommodation can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/serv…
Under the FHA, ACAA, and EEOC laws and policies, you may be asked to provide one of these letters for reasonable accommodation. Your request may be denied for various reasons, but typically you should have little to no issues. You also have to make sure that your service dog meets the ADA minimum requirements, are vaccinated to the local requirements, and are not aggressive in any way to remain protected by federal and state law.

So how does one get a service dog?

You have a couple of options.
  1. Go through a program or organization that provides service dogs
  2. Owner train your own puppy or dog

Programs and organizations that provide service dogs are great options for those who are not able to train a service dog themselves. They typically have specialized breeding programs, puppy raisers, professional training teams, a veterinary care team, and an organized process for application. The downside to this option, is that they can be very costly and often have extensive waiting lists for persons in need of their dogs. Some programs and organizations may donate service dogs, but these typically have much longer wait lists. A service dog that comes from a program can cost on average $8,000-$60,000, depending on the level of training and specialization of the tasks. A mobility assistance service dog usually costs significantly less than a seeing eye dog. Wait lists are on average 1 year to 5+ years.

This is why many people who are interested in service dogs opt to owner train. Owner training can be difficult as well. You have to make sure to select a dog or puppy that will be well suited in health and temperament for assistance work. It is also highly recommended to hire a professional trainer and/or behaviorist, especially if you have little or no training experience. There are many more things to think about when selecting your own puppy or dog to be a service dog, that are all dependent on your needs.

When selecting a puppy or dog to owner train, some things to keep in mind are:
  • temperament (calm, willing to work, not fearful or aggressive, etc.)
  • size (size is appropriate for the task- larger breeds for mobility, any size for other tasks, etc.)
  • maintenance (grooming, amount of food they consume, energy level, etc.)
  • health (not prone to dysplasia, not currently disabled or unhealthy, etc.)
  • age
Many owner trainers will select puppies that are bred through reputable breeders, but some also adopt from rescues and shelters. Any breed of dog can be a service dog, but some are better suited for novice trainers or first time dog owners. Some of these breeds include: Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles and Papillons. Some breeds may not be suited for certain work; for example, German Shepherds typically do not make good psychiatric service dogs because of their general sensitivity as a breed. This may not be true for every dog or a specific breed, but it is important to take the overall breed characteristics and your own experience with the breed and training into consideration when selecting a potential service dog. This is why using a professional behaviorist or a trainer can be extremely helpful when selecting a puppy or dog.

How long does it take to train a service dog?

On average, it takes about 2 years to fully train a service dog. This is the case for program service dogs and for owner trained service dogs. It is highly unusual for a service dog to “graduate” to full service dog status before 18 months of age. Many programs place their service dogs with their new handlers between 18-24 months of age. This is partially due to the training standards that programs have, and partially due to what we call “bomb-proofing” a service dog. “Bomb-proofing” is the process of desensitization and socialization to ensure that a service dog may perform its trained tasks to assist a disabled handler in any situation in any environment. Remember, a service dog should remain under control of the handler at all times. By solidifying the dog’s training in all types of situations and environments, it makes the dog less likely to “wash out” of service dog work later on, due to fears or behavioral issues. Until a service dog is ‘graduated’ it is commonly referred to being a service dog in training (SDiT).

What is “washing” or a “wash out” service dog?

A service dog that is “washed” from assistance work, is a dog who has been deemed unfit to continue working. This can happen at any time- whether the dog is still in training or fully trained. Washing a service dog is extremely difficult, but very common. Only about 35-40% of service dogs in training for the organization Canine Companions for Independence make it to full service dog status, and it is estimated that that percentage of success is even less so for owner trainers. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as health complications, behavioral issues, getting attacked by another dog, and many other reasons. You can read more about this here.

What tests does a service dog have to take?

There are no legally required tests that a service dog must pass to complete their training. However, there are some very common tests that are used by both professional trainers and owner trainers to ensure their service dog in training is ready for public access work. These include:
  • AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy
  • AKC Community Canine
  • AKC Canine Good Citizen
  • AKC Urban CGC
  • IAADP Public Access Test

There are many different tests one can use to use as training milestones and standards to train their service dog in training to in order to be ready for public access.

Training a service dog is hard work and requires a lot of time, money, and energy. This is just a simple guide that is still being revised, edited, and added to. Hopefully this guide will help new and prospective handlers understand the basics of the service dog process.