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According to the University of Arizona, about 1% of individuals with disabilities use a Service Dog. Each day these dogs make a significant impact on their owners’ lives. With the help of their canine partners, people with disabilities are able to function more independently in their day to day life.

Service Dogs assist people with disabilities other than vision or hearing impairment. Guide dogs and Hearing Dogs are still considered working dogs, they are just in a special category. For the purposes of this article, we are talking about dogs that assist their handlers in performing everyday tasks.

Service Dogs must participate in special training in order to help mitigate many different types of disabilities. They can be trained to work with people who have balance issues, use manual or power wheelchairs, have various types of autism, need to be alerted to medical issues like low blood sugar, have psychiatric disabilities, or require seizure alert and response.

Service Dogs
Photo: Lisa Norwood

These specially trained dogs can retrieve objects that are out of their handler’s reach, open and close doors, turn light switches off and on, find another person and lead them to the handler, bark to indicate that help is needed, assist ambulatory or first responder personnel and many other tasks that may be needed by a person with a disability.

Most Service Dogs are either bred in selective breeding programs or rescued from animal shelters and raised by volunteers prior to their formal training. The most common Service Dogs are golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers. Typically Service Dogs are identified by either a jacket, harness, or backpack.

Service Dogs: What You Need to Know

When people think of Service Dogs, they usually think of the large dogs used to guide the blind or help people in wheelchairs. In reality, the majority of certified Service Dogs are small dogs that carry out tasks for otherwise healthy people who have disabilities that are completely invisible. These types of hidden disabilities include those related to diabetes, seizures, psychological issues, emotional issues, and other medical problems.

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Many people aren’t even aware that the problems they have are considered a disability, which qualifies them for a Certified Service Dog. Guide Dogs have been being trained for decades, but service dogs for people with mental and physical disabilities is a much more recent action. Service Dog associations are still trying to educate people about the importance of service animals and the many purposes that they can serve.

Which disabilities qualify for help from a Service Dog?

There are many kinds of disabilities, including such bodily functions as those of the reproductive, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, and neurological systems.

A Service Dog can help people with a variety of disabilities including:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Bone and Skeletal Diseases (such as Osteoporosis, Scoliosis, etc.)
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Diabetes
  • Sensory Issues
  • Mobility Issues (including paralysis)

Are Service Dogs Protected Under Federal Law?

There are many disabled individuals who depend on their service pets every day to help them cope with life. Unfortunately, many businesses aren’t so welcoming to these animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities, both obvious and invisible. The ADA states that anyone with a disability is entitled to a service dog to assist them in living their lives normally.

Service Dogs
Photo: Can Do Canines

All businesses that cater to the public are required under this law to allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities. Even places dogs aren’t generally permitted; this means airlines, sports facilities, concert halls, theaters, taxicabs, retail stores, hotels, and restaurants – almost any place you can think of. If the public is allowed, then so are you and your service dog.

By law, these businesses can’t charge you extra or separate you from other customers because of your certified service dog.

Are you required to register your dog as a Service Dog?

Currently, Service Dogs do not have to be professionally-trained and any dog can be a Service Dog. By law, a business isn’t permitted to ask you for proof that your dog is a service animal, but that doesn’t guarantee they won’t ask. Because many dog owners have purchased service dog gear (like harnesses, leashes, and jackets) to pass their dog off as a service dog, many people (business owners included) are becoming skeptical.

There are many organizations that are trying to stop the sale of service dog gear without proper documentation that the consumer owns a service animal. There are also lawmakers that are trying to make it legal for business owners to require identification for service animals before they are allowed into their establishment.

The best way to simplify the process of being accepted into an establishment is with a Service Dog Certificate. Should someone confront you, you’ll have all the documentation you need if you certify your dog. This document formalizes and assures that you are both protected under federal law (ADA). Most businesses won’t even ask about your dog if your dog has a Service Animal patch and photo ID card displayed.

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Service Dogs
Photo: The U.S. Army

People with emotional or psychological disabilities can also register dogs, cats, and other animals as Emotional Support Animals, although ESAs don’t have the same protection under the ADA law. They do, however, qualify for “no pet” or “limited pet” housing and are permitted to fly with their disabled handler in the cabin of an aircraft.

Choose your registration company carefully

There are several service animal registries operating online that offer various services, but unfortunately, they are not always legit. Some companies accept only checks and money orders, but after taking your money you never hear from them again, while others charge outrageous fees for their services.

Always be sure to verify that the business you choose is legitimate. The best way is to call and see if they have a representative you can speak with. There are different organizations in every region and you can also consult the Better Business Bureau to see if there is a Service Dog registration organization in your local area.

Some of the most common legitimate Service Dog registration services are:

You can get more information from any of these websites or you can call to speak with a representative that can explain the registration process to you and how registering your Service Dog will benefit both you and your canine companion.

Resources for training your dog to be a Service Dog

Your dog will need extensive training to become a service dog. Most handlers choose to purchase a dog that is already trained. Some also choose to purchase a puppy and work with a certified Service Dog trainer to teach him what he’ll need to know.

Trained Service Dogs are extremely expensive, and puppies can be pricey as well, so some people choose to adopt a shelter dog and train him to be a Service Dog. This is possible, but just know that this process will be long and frustrating. You also may not be able to train the dog to do his job completely. If you can afford it, working with a trained professional is best in this case.

Service Dogs
Photo: swong95765

A great place to start is with an online search. The internet has several lists of service dog providers, but remember to do your research and make sure they are what they appear to be. Just because they appear on one of these lists doesn’t mean they are qualified or even legitimate.

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Once you find a trainer in your area it will be up to you to go visit the facility, ask questions, and check references to make sure the trainer is capable of doing the job.

Some resources for finding service dog programs:

Resources for finding experienced Service Dog trainers:

If you’re interested in obtaining a trained service dog, but you cannot afford it, there are many programs available for veterans, people with mental or physical disabilities, and children with disabilities that may be able to help you find a service dog at a free or reduced rate. These programs are hard to get into and they have a very limited number of dogs, but researching them and applying wouldn’t hurt.

If you feel that you have the patience and determination to train your dog by yourself to be a Service Dog, your local pet store or library may have some materials that could help you. You can also search online for training methods to use with Service Dogs, and remember to be consistent. Training a dog to do anything takes time, and training a Service Dog can be especially challenging because the tasks are more in-depth and harder to understand.