Service Dog: What You Need to Know

service dog

As professional dog trainers, we often get calls from someone who wants their dog to become a service dog.  More often than not, however, these individuals are not at all sure what that involves.

There are different designations such as service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog. All of these designations have different requirements and regulations.

Let’s take a look at what each of these are and how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sees them.

Service Dogs

A Service Dog (sometimes referred to as an assistance dog) is a dog who is trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate the disability of his owner. These could be guide dogs for the blind. Hearing dogs for the hearing impaired, stability dogs and diabetic alert dogs to name a few. Training can take upwards of  two or three years.  When the training is complete a service dog can accompany an owner almost anywhere.

An Emotional Support Dog

An Emotional Support Dog belongs to a disabled person. The person’s doctor has determined that the presence of the animal is necessary for the disabled person’s mental health. This doctor has written a prescription stating the pet is necessary in the person’s home (despite any “no pets” regulation of the landlord), for the person’s health. There is little or no required training. The owner of an emotional support animal has no more rights than any other pet owner to take their emotional support animal with them.  This includes keeping the pet at home. They may not be allowed to accompany their owner in public places such as stores; restaurants, hotels etc. and airlines may or may not allow these dogs in the cabin of the plane. Check with the airline before heading to the airport.

A Therapy Dog

A Therapy Dog is a pet that has been trained, tested, registered, and insured by one of several national organizations to accompany his owner to visit patients and residents of facilities like hospitals and nursing homes to cheer people up. A well-behaved pet with no behavior issues can typically complete training in about 8 weeks. A therapy dog is legally a pet.  Registrations show adequate training has been provided. Additionally he is safe around people, and insured against liability. You must also have permission from the facility to enter with your therapy dog.

While it goes without saying for any of these dogs, training is very important.  But even more important is the dog’s basic temperament.  This is a dog who is comfortable with new people, places, sounds, smells – anything the dog might encounter.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to go to the internet and find all manner of vests and accessories that you can buy saying that a dog is a service dog.

A fake service dog in many states is a crime.

If your dog does fall into one of the categories, you are lying about your dog. above not Putting a vest on your dog just to get him on an airplane to take him on vacation with you does a great disservice to those who truly need the help of a dog and have worked long and hard to train not only the specific behaviors needed to help with a certain disability, but also the myriad of behaviors the dog needs to know to have public access.

For more information visit the Americans with Disabilities Act web site,

Brad Waggoner is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a KPA Certified Training Partner (CTP), a dogtec Certified Dog Walker, a Certified Fear-Free Professional, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior and Partner of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. He enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S.


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