Service Dog Basics. What Should You Know?

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The team has spent over 30 hours researching service dog basics and what you should know. We researched several internet sites, social media platforms and spoke with service dog trainers and service dog owners.

What We Cover in This Article…

What is a Service Dog?
Service Dog Training
Fake Service Dog Craze
Service Dog Etiquette Dos and Don’ts 
Service Dog Access and Travel
To Sum It All Up

Over the last decade, the use of service dogs (also referred to as assistance dogs) has increased rapidly. Over 61 million adults in the US live with disabilities and there are currently only 500,000 working service dogs.

What is a Service Dog?

A service dog helps disabled people live more independently. Service dogs are not therapy dogs, emotional support animals or facility/courtroom dogs. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is “a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”

  • Guide dogs help blind and visually impaired individuals navigate their environments. 
  • Hearing dogs alert deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to important sounds. 
  • Mobility dogs assist individuals  – in wheelchairs or use walking devices or have balance issues.  
  • Medical alert dogs signal the onset of a medical issue – seizure, low blood sugar, alert the presence of allergens, among other functions. 
  • Psychiatric service dogs assist individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. 

Service Dog Training

Any dog breed can be a service dog. Most important is the dog’s disposition, its ability to complete training, and its fit for the particular desired task.

Common traits of a good service dog are:

  • Calm, even in unfamiliar settings
  • Alert, but not reactive
  • Willing to please
  • Able to learn and retain information
  • Ability to socialize to many different situations and environments
  • Reliable in performing repetitive tasks 

Some common breeds known to work well as service dogs include:

  • Boxers
  • German Shepherds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Huskies
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Poodles

Cost estimates to professionally train a service dog can be $15,000 to up to $40,000. These dogs receive on average 600 hours of training.  As well they receive veterinary care, boarding and grooming. Dropout rates for service dogs can be as high as 70%.  Dogs fail mainly for health and behavioral reasons. But don’t worry, these dogs are typically adopted by caring dog lovers!

Some people choose to self-train their dog with the aid of a certified trainer. While less expensive, this option can still involve high costs. Some charitable organizations such as Little Angels Service Dogs help disabled people in need by fundraising to provide service dogs. When investing in this training it might be helpful to have a sense of dog lifespan by breed and factors that can affect dog lifespan.

Fake Service Dog Craze

Federal laws provide special accommodations to the disabled and limit disability-related questions. Sadly, many times these laws are abused by those fraudulently misrepresenting their dogs as service dogs. 

Although service dogs may wear vests, special harnesses, collars, or tags, to signal their dog is “on duty” the ADA does not require service dogs to wear vests or even display identification.  Contrary to this, many dogs that actually wear ID vests or tags are not service dogs.   

This fraud harms the disabled, confuses the public, and affects the reputation of legitimate service dog users and trainers.  Also, poorly-trained fake service dogs can be a danger to the public. Many state and local governments share this concern.   Many municipalities have introduced laws that make it an offense to misrepresent a service dog. In 2018 alone, 48 measures were introduced to address this fake service dog epidemic.

Organizations such as the American Service Dog Access Coalition (ASDAC) advocate for the disabled, service dog trainers and policymakers among other things, educating the public on service dog fraud. 

Service Dog Etiquette Dos and Don’ts 

As we know service dogs perform certain tasks for their disabled handler. Creating any sort of distraction can (and especially at the wrong time) be very harmful to their handler.  Here’s a few simple rules to be aware of when generally dealing with a service dog and its handler in public.

  • DO speak to the handler first rather than the dog. The service dog is working, and the handler’s life could depend on her staying focused on her job.
  • DON’T touch the dog without asking permission first. The dog may be completing a command or direction given by its handler. You don’t want to interfere.
  • DO keep any other dog a distance away from a working dog. Don’t allow your dog to approach them without first talking with the handler to see if it’s permissible. Other pets may be a bad idea too – obvious distraction. 
  • DON’T offer food to a service dog. Food is the ultimate distraction to the working dog and can jeopardize the handler/dog team relationship.
  • DO treat the handler with respect. It’s disrespectful to ask about the handler’s disability. Don’t take it personally if you offer to help and it is rejected. There’s usually a good reason.
  • DON’T assume a napping service dog is off duty. When the handler is sitting or standing for a while, it’s natural for a service dog to nap. The dog is technically at work.
  • DO inform the handler if a service dog approaches you. If a working dog approaches you, sniffs or nudges you, etc., let the handler know. The handler will deal with the situation.

If you’re working and have an encounter with a service dog/handler team by federal law you cannot ask for the documentation or certification for the service dog.  Also, you can’t ask about the nature of the handler’s disability or ask the dog to demonstrate its task.  However, you can ask if the dog is required for a disability. You can also ask what work/task the dog has been trained to perform.  

Service Dog Access and Travel

Generally, service animals are allowed to be with their handler, even in places that don’t allow pets including restaurants, shops, hospitals, schools, and hotels. The ADA also applies to certain types of housing such as housing at public and private universities, public housing programs run by state, county and city governments and emergency shelters.  There are reasons service dogs can be restricted (mainly if the dog fundamentally alters the goods, services, programs offered to the public) but this is very rare.

Recently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) overhauled the rules for assistance animals on planes.  These new rules benefit service dogs but emotional support animals are no longer allowed on planes. 

Also, the ASDAC is creating an “opt-in” service dog credential system, Service Dog Pass (SDP), to simplify the air travel process for service dog teams.  SDP will also reduce the challenges faced by gatekeepers when working with service dog teams.

Although the DOT doesn’t set a weight limit for service dogs the airlines can (and often do) require the service dog(s) fit in your foot space or lap.  That’s right, you can travel with more than one service dog!  You can travel with a maximum of two service dogs.  Also, if your service dog(s) are larger than can be accommodated the airline can move you to a new seat within the same class.  They could also move the service dog to the cargo hold for free or make the dog travel on a later flight.  

There are reasons airlines can ban or deny boarding for a service dog:

  • Service dog violates safety requirements
  • Service dog poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others
  • Service dog causes a significant disruption in the cabin or at airport gate areas
  • Transport would violate health requirements
  • Service dog user has not completed/submitted necessary documentation
    • U.S. DOT Service Animal Air Transportation Form (submit 48 hours before flight or bring form if flight booked within 48 hours)

For more detailed information on traveling with service dogs check out this guide from UPGRADEDPOINTS

To Sum It All Up

Service dogs are well trained and their handlers are dependent upon their ability to perform important tasks.  Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes.  A vest or identification isn’t always visible (or even necessary) for service dogs. Please be respectful of the special team relationship between a service dog and its handler.  This unique relationship enables the service dog to have privileged access to generally all places, with some rare exceptions. 

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Mother of three children and avid dog lover. I've had several dogs over the years including Border Collies, Pomeranians and Shih Tzus. We absolutely love our current Shih Tzu Fiona and I'm consumed with learning about all dog breeds, dog fitness and discovering new dog wellness tips!

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