We have all heard the term “service dog,” or “assistance dog.” Although we may use the definition a bit more broadly, in the eyes of the law, a service animal is specifically trained to aid persons with disabilities. 

Service animals are NOT considered pets. They are meant to meet the needs of their disabled handler.

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

The ADA defines “disability” as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including people with history of such an impairment, and people perceived by others as having such impairment.”

So, what does this mean? Well, a few things. From a legal standpoint, an emotional support or therapy dog is NOT considered a service dog. Thus, will not be afforded the same treatment under the Act.


If your service dog falls under the definition provided by the ADA, the handler will be able to gain entry in facilities that may not be pet-friendly. 

The law is specific in that the service animal must be leashed and/or restrained. If restraining the service dog prohibits the animal from performing his duties, off-leash is only allowed if the handler has control. 

According to the Act, service animals must be allowed entry into:

  • Restaurants
  • Businesses
  • Governmental offices
  • Supermarkets
  • Places of employment (if applicable)
  • Transportation services


As mentioned earlier, service dogs perform acts that are directly related to their handler’s disability:

Guide dogs help visually impaired and blind handlers navigate.

Hearing dogs will alert a deaf individual to sounds, such as fire alarms, sirens, etc. 

Medical alert dogs are trained to sense the onset of their person’s medical issue(s). Examples include, an oncoming seizure and/or low blood sugar.

Mobility dogs assist handlers who may be wheelchair bound, use walking devices and/or have balance issues. 

Psychiatric dogs help assist individuals who suffer from mental disorders. These dogs are trained to recognize the individual behavior and interrupt, or cause a certain event. Alerting the handler to take medication is a great example. 


Size does matter depending on the type of service the dog will be called to perform. For example, a larger breed would be best suited for individuals with mobility issues. 

Although most any dog can be trained as a service dog, the more common breeds include:

  • Golden retrievers
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Poodles (all sizes)

The most important takeaway is that the dog, regardless of breed, is focused on the task(s) it was trained to perform. The dog should not be easily diverted, and must remain attentive despite the surroundings. 

Vests and Formal Training

The ADA does NOT require the use of a dog vest or other forms of identification. 

Surprisingly, the ADA does NOT require that service dogs receive training from a professional. The AKC Canine Good Citizen program is a great resource for teaching your service animal the proper foundation skills. 


Sadly, there are individuals who abuse Federal laws regarding service animals and fraudulently misrepresent their dog as one who is needed to perform a service. 

Fraudulently misrepresenting your dog as a service dog, can cause harm. Not only does it have a negative impact on the legitimacy of service dogs and their handlers, fake service dogs can be a danger to the public. Especially, if they are untrained, or poorly trained. 

As a result, many state and local governments have passed legislation that make it illegal to misrepresent a service dog.

So, how do you spot a “real” service dog? Here are a few attributes the service dog should possess:

  • Know how to behave in public
  • He should not be easily distracted
  • Should not bark at strangers
  • Be very obedient to his handler
  • Have a calm pace (no pulling or tugging on the leash)
  • Obeys commands by their person
  • Pose NO threat to the safety of people or pets


As mentioned earlier, one option for persons with disabilities is to train their own service dog. If this is not an option, there are many reputable, professional organizations located throughout the country. 

It is quite costly to train service dogs. However, you may be able to locate a non-profit who provides service dogs to the disabled for free, or one that can offer financial assistance. 


The work service dogs perform helps to afford persons with disabilities a chance to live a more independent life. Did you know that according to the American Kennel Club, “service dogs are valued by more than 80 million U.S. owners?”

Aside from what service animals are trained to do, there are also added benefits to the handler:

  • Increase activity
  • May lower stress
  • Improve lifestyle and increase happiness

We hope all of this helps you to understand the important role service animals play in society and how they help to improve the quality of life for Americans with Disabilities. 

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