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How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog

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A german shephered wearing a black vest sitting on a paved road
Dr. Erica Irish author of How to make your dog a service dog
Veterinarian approved seal

Service dogs have provided a tremendous benefit for people with various disabilities for over two hundred years. Life-important tasks that were previously not possible are now achievable with a properly trained service dog.

Most service dogs go through training programs before they are paired with their handlers, but it is permitted for owners to train their own dogs for service. In recent years, the distinction between service dogs (SDs) and emotional support Animals (ESAs) has been hotly debated because service dogs are permitted in public places whereas ESAs are not. If you have a disability, how can you make your dog into a service dog?


Determine whether you need a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal

From a legal standpoint, and in accordance with the rules put forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you must have a qualifying disability in order to need a service dog. These disabilities include but are not limited to deafness, blindness, diabetes, epilepsy, autism, missing limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and muscular dystrophy.

Service dogs are defined by the ADA as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” This means that your dog needs to perform a definitive task. This includes tasks like detecting low blood sugar in diabetic people or predicting a seizure before it happens.

According to the ADA’s frequently-asked-questions page, dogs that simply provide comfort to you in public or comfort you during an anxiety attack do not meet the criteria for being a service dog. Your dog would be considered an emotional support animal and is not granted access to public places. However, if your dog can signal you in some manner before the onset of an attack, this is considered a specific task.

When you bring your service dog to a public place, people may only ask you two questions: 1) is your service dog required because of a disability, and 2) what work or task has your dog been trained to do? People are not allowed to ask your exact disability and they cannot ask you to have your dog demonstrate the task. Your service dog is also not required to wear identification, and there is no official registry for service dogs.

If your dog does not perform a specific task or job, he can be considered an emotional support animal. Under this distinction, your dog is permitted to live with you in housing that is otherwise pet-restricted, and he may be allowed to fly with you on an airplane. Otherwise, he is not allowed in public places like restaurants and grocery stores.


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Making your dog a Service Dog

All dogs are capable of being trained as service dogs as long as they are healthy and can perform the appropriate task or tasks. Breeds are not restricted, though certain dog breeds may be better suited to the task at hand. Hyperactive and aggressive dogs are not recommended because they need to stay focused when they are working in public.

If an aggressive dog is triggered by people or another animal, he cannot effectively work. Similarly, if a hyperactive dog is too sociable with others, he cannot focus on his work. This is also the reason why service dog advocates argue that people try to bend the rules when bringing their emotional support animalsout in public. In the past few years, certain states have passed legislation that makes bringing ESAs to public places illegal, so be sure to check your state’s laws.

Owners can choose to have their dog go through a training program with a professional or can choose to train their dog themselves. The former is highly recommended because they are best equipped to facilitate your dog’s learning. However, some of the biggest successes are when the owner is asked to participate in the final phases of training so that they can learn about each other and how to work with one another.

In the United States, there is no set standard for how long your service dog needs to undergo training. The international standard is 120 hours over a period of six months with at least 30 of those hours being in public places in order to acclimate your dog to his working environment. The ADA also does not specify a particular test or checklist of criteria.

Legally, people are not required to register their service dogs. However, certain governmental offices and colleges have voluntary registration programs that can help to identify service dogs in the event of an emergency evacuation. Identifying harnesses and leashes, while optional, are extremely helpful in public places. This way, people will know that your dog is hard at work and will know not to distract him with petting, etc. so that he can stay focused. You can find some excellent products here at SitStay.com

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It is important to know the difference between service dogs and emotional support animals. Service dogs perform specific tasks for their owners and are granted access to public places whereas emotional support animals provide comfort and are not granted the same public access unless it is on an airplane or in living quarters where animals would otherwise not be allowed.

Almost any dog can be a service dog and not all of them need to go through professional training programs though it is highly recommended. Be sure to check what your local laws might be with regards to service dogs and emotional support animals. Identification is not required but it can be very helpful to let others know not to distract your dog while he is hard at work!


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Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine



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