Service Dog Definition – Everything You Need To Know

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What Is A Service Dog? - White Golden Retriever puppy walking towards camera wearing blue service dog in training vest.
What Is A Service Dog?

Service dogs are specially trained to perform specific tasks and assist people with disabilities.

Due to their unique set of skills, service dogs are in high demand and can be seen assisting their handlers in hotels, stores, and on busy streets with everyday tasks.

The official service dog definition states that any individual with a physical or mental disability is eligible for one of these special canines. 

The number of service dogs has increased dramatically over the years. And while guide dogs are probably the best-known service animals, there are many different types of service dogs.

All of them are trained to perform specific tasks that are directly related to their handler’s disability. 

It’s important to note that service dogs aren’t pets or companions; they are working dogs who perform specific tasks for their handlers.

The work they do and the assistance they provide helps persons with disabilities to be more independent and lead a fulfilling life. 

In the eyes of the law, service dogs have special rights and are viewed differently than emotional support animals or therapy dogs.

Due to their distinctive roles and qualifications, service dogs can accompany their handlers everywhere, even to places where dogs aren’t normally allowed. 

While any breed of dog can be used as a service animal, these dogs go through rigorous training and most don’t possess the necessary skills to become a true service dog. 

In this article, I will tell you everything you need to know about service animals and list all different types of service dogs.

And hopefully this information will help you understand the role of service dogs and help you get paired with a competent canine assistant. 

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What’s A Service Dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” 

Furthermore, the ADA considers service dogs to be more than pets. Service dogs are regarded primarily as working animals because they perform specific tasks for their handlers on a daily basis. 

The ADA also states that the work or tasks a service dog has been trained to do must be directly related to the handler’s disability.

A service dog is trained to perform a specific task and assist a person with a disability whenever assistance is required. 

To put it simply, a service or assistance animal is a dog that helps an individual with a disability to be self-sufficient and have a more independent life. 

Some examples of work and tasks that service dogs are trained to perform include pulling a wheelchair, guiding people who are blind or visually impaired, alerting people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure.

A service dog can also perform tasks of reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medication on time, or calm a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack. 

Bear in mind, while the terms “service dog,” “emotional support animal,” and “therapy dog” are often used interchangeably, these dogs have distinct roles and rights under the  law.

According to ADA, emotional support dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort to their handlers do not qualify as service dogs and aren’t viewed as such in the eyes of law.  

Under the ADA, service dogs must be allowed to accompany their handlers in all areas where the public is allowed to go.

This means that a service dog can’t be denied entrance to state and local government facilities, hospitals, businesses, or even food service establishments, where animals generally aren’t permitted entry. 

However, a service dog must be under the handler’s control at all times. This means that all service dogs must be leashed, harnessed, or tethered, unless the handler’s disability prevents the use of these devices., or, if a leash or harness affects the service dog’s safety and its ability to perform specific tasks.

In this case, the handler must keep the dog under control by instead using voice or signal commands. 

The ADA also states that business owners and staff can’t ask about a person’s disability, require medical documentation or special identification card, or ask that a dog perform a specific work or task.

However, when it’s not obvious what type of service the dog provides, the staff is allowed to ask only two questions:

  1. Is the service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Persons with a disability can’t be charged extra money because of their service dogs or be treated less favorably than other customers or patrons.

Also, if an establishment such as a hotel charges a fee to customers with pets, it must forgo the charge for service dogs. 

Ultimately, disabled people who use service dogs can’t be charged more because of their dogs, nor can they be treated any differently than those without service animals.

However, people with disabilities who use service dogs can be asked to leave the premises if the dog is out of control or not properly house-trained

Keep in mind, if an establishment such as a hotel or restaurant usually charges guests for any damage they cause to the property, a person with a disability may also be charged for such damage. 

Different Types Of Service Dogs

While Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and golden retrievers are the most common breeds trained as service dogs, any breed of dog can be a service animal.

However, other animals such as cats, birds, and reptiles aren’t allowed to be trained or used as service animals. 

There are many different types of service dogs, and some are even trained to perform several different tasks for their handlers.

Potential service dogs, also known as prospects, go through rigorous training before they are paired with a handler and allowed to provide service for people with disabilities. 

Let’s take a look at the different types and meanings of service dogs:

Guide Dogs

Probably the best-known type of service dogs, guide dogs are trained to help blind and visually impaired people navigate their environment.

Guide dogs usually wear a special harness with a handle for the handler to hold, instead of a typical service dog vest. 

Breeds such as German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Labradors are often trained as guide dogs because of their high trainability and good temperaments.

However, other breeds such as poodles or the golden retriever–Lab mix are also easy to train and make excellent guide dogs.

Allergy Detection Dogs

Allergy detection dogs are specially trained to detect and alert to the presence of allergens such as eggs, wheat, gluten, or peanuts.

Unfortunately, more and more people are suffering from food allergies, and some can even go into anaphylactic shock from coming into contact with a tiny amount of their allergen. 

That’s where allergy detection dogs may come in handy since they can pick up a scent of the harmful allergen and alert their handler about it.

Allergy detection dogs are often paired with children since they are more likely than adults to experience a severe allergic reaction. 

These service dogs give children more independence and also help the parents feel more at ease knowing that their child is safe.

While they legally don’t have to, most allergy detection dogs wear special vests with pockets for medication and contact information. 

Hearing Dogs

As their name suggests, hearing dogs are specially trained to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

These dogs are trained to react when they hear particular cues and lead their handlers toward or away from the sound.

Hearing dogs are trained to react to fire and smoke alarms, phones, doorbells, door knocks, and even a handler’s name.

And like all other service dogs, hearing dogs help their handlers to be more independent on a daily basis, inside and outside their homes.

Poodles, Labrador retrievers, cocker spaniels, and golden retrievers are most commonly trained and used as hearing dogs.

And while they don’t have to wear any special outfit, many handlers equip their hearing dogs with service dog vests.

Diabetic Alert Dogs

A diabetic alert dog, also known as a DAD, is a type of service dog that is specially trained to alert their handler to chemical changes in blood sugar levels.

This dog is able to detect scent changes associated with hypoglycemic and hyperglycemic events and alert their handler before the blood sugar level becomes dangerous.

Once a dog alerts, the handler knows to test their blood sugar levels and inject insulin or take glucose.

Diabetic alert dogs are also trained to alert other people in the household or set off an alarm if their handler needs medical assistance.

Furthermore, some of these dogs are also trained to call 911 on a special alert phone, if their handler is at home alone. 

Mobility Assistance Dogs

Mobility assistance dogs perform a variety of tasks for people with a wide range of mobility issues.

These dogs are trained to perform everyday tasks such as opening doors, retrieving objects, turning on lights, or pressing automatic door buttons.

Additionally, some mobility assistance dogs can also pull wheelchairs and work as bracing partners for people with balance issues. 

Mobility assistance dogs are generally partnered with people who have spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, arthritis, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy.

Generally, mobility assistance dogs have to be large enough to support their handlers or have the strength to pull a wheelchair. 

Breeds like Saint Bernards, Great Danes, and Bernese mountain dogs have the strength and height needed to provide mobility assistance. They also often wear special harnesses that help them assist their handlers. 

Autism Service Dogs

An autism service dog is specially trained to assist a child with autism to perform everyday tasks and become more self-sufficient.

Autism assistance dogs are trained in a variety of tasks such as to disrupt repetitive behaviors, to protect and prevent a child from wandering off, and for search and rescue tracking to locate a child who has run away. 

Besides having help with everyday tasks, a child with autism can also experience additional benefits from being paired with an autism service dog.

A service dog improves the child’s quality of life by becoming the child’s best friend. Furthermore, children often sleep better at night because an autism service dog is sleeping with them, providing constant comfort.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to help people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

These dogs are trained to sense when their handlers will experience negative emotions and to help them stay calm.

Furthermore, these service dogs can also remind their handlers to take medication and can interrupt destructive behavior.

Besides being trained to perform various tasks for their handlers, psychiatric service dogs help their owners feel more confident and secure inside and outside their homes.

They can also serve as a physical barrier between their owner and other people, helping the handler to maintain their personal space. 

Seizure Alert Dogs

Seizure alert dogs are trained to react to a specific type of behavior and alert their handler about an upcoming seizure, so they can seek help or move to a safe place.

However, scientists and medical professionals can’t agree whether or not it is actually possible to train a seizure alert dog. 

Some people believe that it is possible to train a dog to alert about an upcoming seizure. But others believe that certain dogs can predict seizures naturally based on intuition and the bond they have with their handlers. 

Seizure Response Dogs

Seizure response dogs are specially trained to provide help to a person who is experiencing an epileptic seizure, and shouldn’t be confused with seizure alert dogs.

These dogs are trained to bark for help or call 911 with a special K-9 alert phone. A seizure response dog can also physically move their handler if they are having a seizure in an unsafe place. 

Some of these dogs are also trained to bring medicine to their handlers as they come out of a seizure and to use deep pressure stimulation to end the seizure early.

This type of service dog can be invaluable to people who suffer from epilepsy and might even save their handler’s life on more than one occasion. 

FAQs About Service Animal Definition

What Qualifies A Dog As A Service Dog?

If you are suffering from any type of disability, you might be wondering whether your current dog can become a service dog.

Essentially, any dog can become a service animal, but it first has to go through a rigorous training process.

To qualify as a service animal, a dog must go through obedience and public area training so it will obey your commands regardless of all distractions.

Furthermore, a service dog also has to possess proper socialization skills and demonstrate the ability to perform tasks that you are unable to do yourself.

Bear in mind, having a properly trained and accredited service dog takes time, so you should start with service dog training from puppyhood. 

What Is The Difference Between A Service Dog And An Emotional Support Dog?

Having a service dog means that the dog is specially trained to help people with disabilities such as vision and hearing impairment, seizure disorders, mental illness, mobility issues, diabetes, and more.

An emotional support dog, on the other hand, provides therapeutic benefits to his owner through companionship and support. 

Do Service Dogs Have To Pass A Test?

Legally, service dogs don’t have to pass a public access test. However, large service dog organizations and professional service dog trainers do a public access test to determine whether a dog can perform and assist a person with a disability at a high level in public.

The public access test evaluates a service dog’s obedience, manners, and readiness to work in public places. 

How Can You Tell If It’s A Service Dog? 

Even if a dog is not wearing a service dog vest, you can easily distinguish a “real” service dog from a “fake” service dog.

Real service animals are generally completely focused on their task, are well-behaved, and don’t react to distractions.

Service dogs also don’t drag their handlers, nor do they react aggressively toward other dogs or people, and they are always completely focused on assisting their handlers.


The official ADA service dog definition states that a service animal is individually trained to do specific tasks for people with mental or physical disabilities.

Service dogs are trained to perform various tasks and must be permitted to accompany their handlers in all areas where the general public is allowed to go. Any breed can be trained to become a service dog and work as a:

  • Guide dog for visually impaired and blind people
  • Hearing dog that provides assistance to people who are deaf or hard of hearing 
  • Psychiatric service dog for people with PTSD, depression, and anxiety

In the end, service dogs are more than pets—they are working canines that provide special services to people with disabilities and help them with everyday tasks.

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What Is A Service Dog? - Golden Retriever puppy walking towards camera wearing a puppy in training jacket.
Service Dog Definition – What Is A Service Dog?

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For a list of all the supplies we get for our new service dog puppies check out our New Puppy Checklist on the blog.

What Is A Service Dog? Everything You Need To Know was last modified: February 9th, 2021 by LTHQ

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