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Service Dogs Guide: Can Any Dog Be A Service Dog?

SitStay Blog Service Dogs: What You Need To Know

There are hundreds, if not thousands of places that you can go online for information about getting a service dog, which is both a blessing and a curse.

It's great to have the plethora of information at your fingertips but it can also make it challenging to go to so many different websites to find what you need.

So we at SitStay wanted to make it easier, faster and more convenient for people to have ONE place where you can get all the information you need about service dogs.

This guide is divided up into several sections of the information that we find most helpful for owners or potential service dog owners.

In addition to providing the highest quality information, we have also added some links and resources where you can find more in-depth information regarding that section’s topic.

Section List:

  1. What Is A Service Dog
  2. How Do I Get A Service Dog
  3. Service Dog Training
  4. Types of Service Dogs
  5. Service Dog Certification - Beware of Scams
  6. Service Dog Laws
  7. Service Dog Supplies
  8. Additional Resources

Section 1: What Is a Service Dog?

Who Are They Best For?

 A service dog is a type of dog that is specifically trained to help people who have disabilities.

These disabilities can vary widely, but can include those who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, suffering from a mental illness (such as PSTD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), having a seizure disorder, mobility problems, diabetes, etc.

Service dogs are not pets.

Service dogs are specially trained for their specific job and specific tasks that they perform. Which is why when you see one, you should not pet them.

On September 15, 2010, the DOJ (The U.S. Department of Justice), Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, issued "ADA 2010 Revised Requirements; Service Animals." This is an updated definition.

It defines a service dog as:

"Service animals are defined as dogs, or miniature horses, that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person's disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA."

Plainly stated without the legal speak...a service dog is a dog that has to actively do something that the owner could not do for themselves and/or lessens the effects of their disability and heightens their ability to function in other major life areas.

Because of this updated definition, it is important to note that this revised definition of a service dog now excludes all comfort animals. A "comfort animal” is a pet that an owner has with them solely for the purpose of emotional support.

Additional Valuable Resources:

Section 2: I Think I Need A Service Dog

How Do I Go About Getting One?

Step 1: Find Out If You Qualify

Wanting and needing are two different things.

So the first place to start is to ask yourself a few basic questions to see if you qualify.

  1. Do you possess a major, life-limiting condition and/or disability? Does your medical provider agree that you are legally disabled (under the ADA)?
  2. Does your medical provider agree that you need a service dog? 
  3. Do you have the facilities to care for a service dog?
  4. Do you have the budget and financial resources to care for a service dog?
  5. Are you able to care for a service dog yourself or will you need assistance?
Step 2: Decide What Work Your Service Dog Will DoIf the answer to the previous questions was "yes" then it is time to start thinking about what work or tasks a service dog might be trained to do to assist you with.If you are unsure what work a service dog can help you with then you should chat with other service dog owners. It is important to learn about both the positives and negatives of living with a service dog.A great place to begin is to make up a list of all the tasks you cannot do for yourself. This is good information to have before approaching an agency because it will help you be prepared to answer the agency's questions.Note: the following do NOT count as trained tasks:
  • Providing Protection
  • Proving Emotional Support
  • Providing Companionship (even in the case of agoraphobia or anxiety)

List of Potential Service Dog Tasks:

  • Opening up cupboards and drawers 
  • Alerting someone to a ringing telephone
  • Assisting someone during a disorienting seizure
  • Helping someone keep their balance or get back up after a fall
  • Sniff allergens in the air
  • Identify low blood sugar on someone 
  • Bringing medication to help alleviate owner's symptoms
  • Reminding the owner to take their medication at specific times throughout the day
  • Bringing a drink so that the owner can swallow his or her medication
  • Providing a phone during an emergency situation
  • Helping an owner with their balance and going up and down stairs
  • Assisting an owner with rising and steadying him or herself
  • Responding to a smoke alarm if the owner is unresponsive
  • Carrying medical related supplies or information
  • Providing tactile stimulation to disrupt an emotional overload
  • Giving exterior stimulation to help combat neurological damages
  • Waking up the owner for work or school
  • Lighting up dark spaces and rooms
  • Alerting to a Migraine

Step 3: Find a Service Dog Trainer
After you have your list of tasks that you need the service dog to do, find a trainer.

Have your potential dog’s temperament-tested to make sure they are likely to make it as a service dog. You need to be aware that if there have been any previous signs of aggression, whether it has been towards people or aggression towards other animals, both are unacceptable in a service dog prospect.

You need to speak with your trainer and/or your veterinarian to make sure that your dog can safely do the work and tasks that are needed to assist you.

It is important to also have your dog examined by a veterinarianto make sure they are healthy enough to work.

It is also acceptable to self-train a service dog, rather than using a trainer. We recommend speaking to a trainer so that you know what the best practices are for a trained service dog.

Step 4: Master Basic Obedience
Mastering basic obedience at home, in local parks, in pet stores, and in other dog-friendly stores is your next step.

It is critical during this time to also work on socialization and other exposures. Your dog needs to be used to and comfortable with all people of every color, shape, and size, and other animals, etc.

Tip: Keep a training log of exactly what you are doing. Record how your dog is doing in regards to obedience, public access, and assistance behaviors that mitigate your disability.

Step 5: Service Dog In Training
Once your dog can pass the Canine Good Citizen test you can start training tasks/work. Using an In Training patchhelps to let people know that your dog is busy and should not be disturbed.

Step 6: Public Access Test
Once your dog has mastered public access and disability work or tasks, it's time to take a public access test. Have someone video tape it if possible.

If you do not have a trainer who can give you the test, have a friend do it for you. If you ever find yourself involved in a court case, video proof (or at the very least a letter from a trainer) of evidence that you did the public access test will come in handy.

Additional Links & Resources:

Section 3: Service Dog Training:

How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog

The good news is that any breed of dog can be a service dog. There is no special service dog "breed," they can come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds.

The ADA does not limit by breed or size.

However, some breeds have shown to be good at certain types of work.

German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Border Collies are the most common for a variety of services because of their temperaments, they are a good size for the tasks they have to do, and they have an instinct to retrieve, which comes in handy for picking things up off the floor.

Large Service Dogs:Large dogs can be useful for bracing those with balance problems, mobility issues, and for physical assistance.

Small Service Dogs: Smaller dog breeds are suited for Hearing Dogs or Medical Alert Dogs.

When a service dog is working they are completely undistracted by loud or unexpected noises, other animals or people.

To qualify as a service dog, the animal must be "individually trained" to perform one or more tasks that mitigate the disability.

Here is a breakdown of some of those steps.

Step 1. Assessing Health for Service Dogs
Overall, your dog’s temperament and health are the most important factor for determining a service dog.

Adding service animal responsibilities to a dog who has health conditions or is aged puts an undue strain and an added amount of stress, so a visit to the veterinarianis very important. 

It is recommended that dogs be:

  • Past the puppy phase - at least 6 months old
  • Neutered/Spayed so that males are less aggressive and females don’t face working when in heat. 

Step 2: Personality Tests
Having the right temperament is imperative for a service animal. It's not as simple as "my dog is not aggressive." If your dog is calm under stress, but also alert and responsive, there is a good chance that they are a good fit for service work.

Step 3: Finding a Reputable Service Dog Trainer
Anyone can call themselves a trainer. There is also a wide variety of dog training techniques, styles, schools, and online courses. Because of this, the U.S. has no legally required certification and no universally recognized standard.

The service dog training community has been good about coming up with sets of self-regulated, minimum standards for training. It is important to search and find a reputable and experienced trainer.

Step 4: Time to Train Your Service Dog
Putting in the proper amount of time is crucial.

International standards are a minimum of 120 hours over six months or more — up to 24 months in some cases.

At least 30 of those training hours should be time spent in public with your service dog dealing with the distractions and potential surprises that come up from being out around other people and at new places.

While the U.S. does not have a set of defined requirements for service dog training, self-regulation is critical and these hours and guidelines are wise to follow.

Service Dog Training breaks down into three phases:

1. Heeling 
Heeling is the most difficult to teach a pet. It’s more than “come here” or “sit.” Heeling is about maintaining a relative position to the human partner regardless of how the handler moves.

2. Proofing
Proofing is the most time-consuming phase. It requires training the dog to completely tune out all distractions and to be on command at all times.

3. Tasking
Tasking, or learning the specific task the service dog will be performing, is what most people think will be most difficult. But after understanding the other two concepts, this is often the easiest. Tasks include providing guidance or sensing a medical alert.

Step 5: Public Access Test
What is a public access test?

Note: Video documentation of the public access test is always helpful when it’s time to put all that training to the test.

Basic expectations for a service dog includes:

  • No aggressive behavior (biting, barking, growling, etc.)
  • Only urinating or defecating on command
  • Surcease of sniffing behaviors
  • No solicitations for food or affection
  • Curbed excitement and hyperactivity

Step 6: Equipping
Documenting your dog's training process and video tapping your public access test will help ensure canine competency and any future situation where your dog (or you) might be questioned.

The ADA has put in several safeguards to help protect humans that are in need of service dogs and their pet partners, but having specific answers and evidence in a case of a misunderstanding or altercation is never going to hurt.

Additional Links & Resources:

  • The ADI provides a public access test that you can download. Click HERE:

Section 4: Types of Service Dogs

As we've mentioned earlier there are many different types of service dogs.

Below is a list of some of the most common. 

  • Guide Dogs/Hearing Dogs
  • Seizure Response Dogs
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs
  • Autism Support Dogs
  • Allergy Detection Dogs
  • Physical Assistance Dogs

Section 5: Service Dog Certification

Service Dog Registration

Beware of Scams

This is a touchy subject. Both on the side of fake "requirements" and also from people trying to pass their animal as a service dog that is not. 

First The Required Certifications:

There is no such thing as a universally or legally-recognized service dog certification, registration, or training standards for service dogs or trainers.

While some trainers and organizations may say that they do “certify” their graduates, understand that the certification is something given by them or their organization and is not legally recognized under the law.

The certificates offered by some programs are the only certifications that actually mean anything, and they only hold value if you have to go to court and prove that you have had your service dog trained.

Again, a certification does not mean that an individual dog is a service dog. Neither does a vest or an ID card.

You do not need a service dog ID card or certification for public access housing, or to enter stores and restaurants. ID cards and vests are excellent in helping to mitigate confrontation.

Because this is a self-regulated community and not regulated under the law, there are some businesses that take advantage of the situation by selling fake service dog certification, registration, and "required" ID cards.

At SitStay, we sell a popular line of Service Dog ID Cards, but this is strictly a personal choice for those teams who wish to carry them.

If you question whether a service dog ID card or service dog certification is legitimate, just do a quick internet search of the name of the organization. That should help determine whether it is an agency that actually trains servicedogs, or one that merely offers certifications and/or to register a dog for a fee.

Passing Your Dog As A Service Dog Who Is Not:

On all of our products we state clearly that:

It is fraudulent to represent your dog as a service animal if it is not. For more information visit the ADA's website or call the ADA 1-800-514-0301.

We hope that this discourages anyone from unsavory and fraudulent practices.

But with so many internet scams out there saying they offer "official certification" this creates an important question....

How can you tell a REAL service dog from one that just paid for an "official" certificate or "required" ID card?

Answer: The U.S. Department of Justice permits businesses to ask two important questions:

  1. Is this a service dog required because of a disability? (It is best practice to not ask this question if the disability is visible such as a wheelchair for example.)
  2. What work or tasks has the dog been trained to do to mitigate the disability?

Also, note that most people with legitimate service dogs tend to be familiar with laws and know that certification is not required so long as the dog meets the legal definition.

Additional Links & Resources:

Section 6: Service Dog Laws

What Are My Rights

It is illegal under Federal Law for anyone to require documentation of a service dog and their owner.

Research your state laws (link below) to determine your public access rights with trainingyour service dog.

There are however a few cases where the law does not apply:

However, please note that those animals whose only function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or to promote emotional well-being are not protected under the same federal laws.

Additionally, if the animal is behaving inappropriately, such as disrupting business, acting aggressive toward people, interfering with other patrons or toileting inappropriately, then it doesn't matter whether it is a service dog because you can still exclude it on the basis of "fundamental alteration" or "direct threat" and you can be asked to exit. The business is required to allow you to purchase items or services without the dog present.

Identification Laws:
Many disabled individuals choose to provide a vest for their service dog and/or carry identification, but this is not required by the law to do so.

You may encounter a disabled individual who chooses to keep their disability private. Their service dog may not be wearing a vest and they may not be carrying any documentation on their person.

Other disabled individuals choose to make their own identification materials at home.

Additional Links & Resources:

Section 7: Service Dog Supplies and Gear

As we stated earlier, service dog vests, ID cards or other identifying gear are not required by Federal Law, but many teams like to be clearly identified so others know to leave them alone to perform their tasks and that they are not pets.

For those individuals here are some fantastic options for you.

Section 8: Other Important Resources & Info


This should give you most, to all, the information you need if you are wondering about if you qualify for a service dog, how to get one and any other general questions you may have had about service dogs. 

Did we miss anything? Leave a comment and let us know what else we can add.

Meet The Author 

Grant Withers

Canine Specialist & Writer

Grant is an award-winning writer for SitStay with a passion for pets and especially dogs! Grant loves writing about furry little goofballs and aims to educate pet parents about anything and everything regarding their dogs.

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