How to Get a Service Dog: The Complete Guide

Pet Training


April 9, 2020

A well-trained service dog can greatly improve the quality of life and the health of its owner. And in certain critical situations, it could even save their life. However, if you are thinking of investing in a service animal, you should first learn the rules on how to get a service dog, including the training and registration requirements. That could save you a lot of trouble with your local authorities, landlord, or airline carrier later on. To help you get a better grasp of things, here is all you need to know about service dogs.

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What Is a Service Dog?

Before learning how to get a service dog, you need to know what it is and how it differs from an emotional support, a courthouse, or a therapy dog. These animals have different skill sets, and each performs a highly distinct task or service. Due to a lack of awareness, however, people often use the terms interchangeably in both daily life and the media. That often leads to misunderstanding and unpleasant situations, such as animals and their handlers being denied access to housing or public areas.

Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support animals, which can include dogs but also any other animal, are companion animals that comfort their owners. They help people cope with the challenges of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. What’s key here is that emotional support dogs provide comfort with their mere presence. Unlike therapy or service dogs, they are not trained to perform a specific task or set of tasks related to their owner’s health or disability. Emotional support dogs also do not have to meet any formal training or behavior standards.

It is important to note that, under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), emotional support dogs and other animals do not have the right to access public places. These include restaurants, bars, shopping centers, schools, and public institutions. You can, however, take your emotional support animal on board an airplane if you have the necessary documentation. What’s more, the Fair Housing Act requires most housing units to give access to emotional support animals if their owners have the appropriate paperwork.

Some states and local governments now allow emotional support animals to enter public places. However, you should check your local city, county, and state rules before taking your dog to any public areas.

Therapy Dogs

Unlike service or emotional support dogs, therapy dogs are trained to assist people other than their owners. By providing comfort and support, as well as promoting relaxation and social interaction, therapy dogs complement other, more traditional forms of therapy.

Registered or certified therapy dogs and their handlers are allowed access in many public spaces. These include schools, airports, hospitals, treatment centers, residential and long-term care facilities, and other health and social care settings. Most therapy dog handlers are volunteers. However, an increasing number of professionals such as mental health and social workers are starting to include therapy dogs and other animals in their practice too.

While therapy dogs learn basic obedience skills, they do not perform any specific or essential task for the people they assist. They also do not have to specialize in serving a particular disability. Much like emotional support animals, therapy dogs do not have the right to access public areas. They can only enter facilities upon consent or by invitation. Therapy dogs often wear special vests, collars, or ID tags for visibility purposes, but that still does not make them service dogs.

Courthouse Dogs

You may have seen dogs in or around courthouses wearing vests or special ID tags or badges. While they also do important work, courthouse dogs are not service dogs. Many states across the country allow children or vulnerable people to bring specially trained courthouse or therapy dogs during trial proceedings. The presence of the dog often helps reduce the stress of the situation. It also helps the person calm down and take a meaningful part in the proceedings to the best of their abilities.

The rules for the use and certification of courthouse dogs vary by state. As a general rule, however, they do not have special rights under the ADA. That means they cannot access housing units and planes without consent.

Service Dogs

According to the ADA, a service dog is a dog that has been specially trained to support disabled people by carrying out a specific task or tasks. The ADA further defines “disability” as any mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities. The dog’s training typically focuses on one disability type, which could be sensory, physical, psychiatric, or developmental.

Under the ADA, service dogs classify as working animals and not pets or comfort animals. As such, they are legally entitled to accompany disabled people in most public spaces. These include government agencies, hotels, shopping areas, schools, restaurants, theaters, and more. As per the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), people with disabilities may also bring their service dogs on airplanes. Furthermore, under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, housing units with “no pets” policies have to make an exception for service dogs.

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What Types of Service Dogs Are There?

Before you start researching how to get a service dog, you have to be very clear on what kind of work you would need it to do. Service dogs can be trained to assist people with a wide variety of health conditions.

Guide dogs are perhaps the most well known variety; they help blind and visually impaired people navigate their surroundings safely.

Hearing dogs alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing to important sounds. Examples include sirens, alarm clocks, doorbells, smoke detectors, ringing telephones, or people calling the handler’s name.

Mobility dogs help users of wheelchairs and walking devices and people with balance issues. They can:

  • Carry and pick up objects
  • Provide extra balance and stability
  • Open and close doors
  • Turn light switches on and off, and more

Medical alert dogs are specially trained to monitor and signal the onset of serious and potentially fatal conditions. These include extreme blood sugar levels or seizures. They can also alert their handlers to the presence of specific allergens.

Psychiatric service dogs serve people with conditions such as:

Psychiatric service dogs can be taught stress- or anxiety-inducing tasks, such as turning on the light in dark rooms. They can also recognize and stop repetitive or compulsive behaviors and remind their handlers to take their medication.

Autism service dogs can help both children and adults with autism perform a wide range of daily tasks and lead more independent lives. These dogs can also:

  • Signal or stop dangerous or self-harming behaviors
  • Reduce spatial disorientation
  • Alert to sounds
  • Help navigate physical obstacles
  • Apply deep pressure to mitigate sensory overstimulation, meltdowns, or shutdowns

Why Are Service Dogs Important?

Under the ADA, any form of discrimination on the basis of disability is unlawful. By allowing people with disabilities to lead more independent lives, service dogs can help reduce discrimination and improve their handlers’ access to essential services.

More importantly, service dogs can improve the health and even save the lives of their handlers. A service dog could also make its owner more confident to leave their home, engage in social interaction, travel, access education, and even enter or reenter the job market. Last but not least, a service dog can be a great friend and companion. They can be a source of emotional connection and interaction for people who are lonely or socially isolated.

Which Breeds Make Good Service Dogs?

Many people are under the false impression that only Labs and Golden Retrievers can be service dogs. It is true that Lab Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds are the most common guide dog breeds. That being said, any dog, regardless of its breed, can become a service dog. It simply needs to have the required temperament, intelligence, and training.

There’s one key thing you should keep in mind when doing your research on how to get a service dog. While the dog’s breed is immaterial, its size can be an issue. Both small and large dogs can become service dogs. Tinier dogs, however, may not be able to do certain tasks, such as pull a wheelchair or support people with mobility or balance issues. Due to their strength and height, massive breeds such as Saint Bernard’s, Great Danes, or Bernese Mountain Dogs make the best mobility dogs. Smaller breeds such as Papillons or Poodles, however, can still make excellent psychiatric service, medical alert, or hearing dogs.

How to Get a Service Dog: A Step-by-Step Guide

Currently, there are no national regulations on service animal training. What’s more, the ADA does not even require service animals to be professionally trained. Therefore, when it comes to getting a service dog, you have two options: training it yourself or opting for a professionally trained dog. Both alternatives are acceptable and perfectly legitimate.


Option 1: Training Your Dog Yourself

Step 1: House Training

If you decide to do it alone, make sure to start with basic obedience and house training, as you would with any other dog. You want to have a solid foundation on which to build the more advanced training required for a service dog. For starters, your dog should be able to:

  • Walk comfortably on a lead
  • Eliminate on command in various locations
  • Reliably perform a number of simple tasks

To learn more about early obedience training, check out this video:

Step 2: Socialization

Again, just as with any other dog, the second step in your dog’s basic training involves socializing outside of your home. Take your dog to public areas. Spending as much time outside as possible is a great way to desensitize the animal to distractions. It also teaches it to remain under control in the outer world. Start with less crowded spaces. Then, gradually work your way up to areas teeming with people, animals, and traffic.

Your end goal is to ensure that your dog is comfortable with new places, people, animals, sounds, smells, and sights. The dog should be able to remain alert but calm and non-reactive in novel surroundings. It should also stay focused on its handler and the tasks at hand. A service dog must be able to ignore any distractions, no matter how tempting.

Step 3: Disability Training

Once your dog’s basic obedience and socialization training are complete, it must learn to carry out specific tasks to assist its handler. The precise tasks will vary depending on the handler’s disability. Certain key skills, though, are always a must.

First, the dog must be willing to please, which is critical for any type of advanced animal training. The dog must also be able to easily learn and retain information and perform a wide range of repetitive and often complex tasks reliably. Finally, the dog must always be focused on its handler.

Some Words of Caution

Training a service dog yourself is a serious endeavor. It requires a great deal of patience, knowledge, and experience. The American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program is an excellent resource for amateur service dog trainers. There, you can find many great tips on how to get a service dog or train one yourself.

However, if you are not a pro dog trainer, you are strongly advised to get expert help. A service dog may need to save your or your family member’s life. You want it to have received the best training possible.

To learn more about the pros and cons of owner-training your service dog, check this video out:

Option 2: Getting a Professionally Trained Service Dog

If training your dog seems like too big of a challenge for you, don’t worry. The good news is that there are many reputable organizations and professionals across the country that you can turn to for help. They can tell you how to get a service dog and even provide you with one, either free of charge or for a fee.

Unlike amateurs, expert dog trainers have both the knowledge and experience needed to produce quality service dogs. Some handlers even specialize in training dogs for specific tasks or disabilities only. What’s more, all service dogs go through a rigorous training process that involves:

  • House training
  • Public access skills
  • Socialization and desensitization
  • Remaining under control in any situation

Professional organizations have strict standards for their dogs, and the dropout rates often reach 50 or even 70 percent. Don’t worry, though — puppies that do not make the cut have a long list of adoptive families to choose from.

In addition to training dogs, most organizations work with the dogs’ owners as well. It is vital that they know how to handle and prompt the animals. Many organizations also offer periodic follow-up training for the animals. This ensures that the dogs retain their skills reliably during their entire working life as service animals.

The cost of training a single service dog can be up to $25,000 and more. However, if you are on a tight budget, there are non-profit service-dog training organizations. What’s more, many organizations offer service dogs to people with disabilities for free or via fundraising campaigns. Others have financial aid programs for those who cannot afford the full price of a service dog.

Reputable Service Dog Training Organizations

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Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) runs a service-dog breeding program for Golden Retrievers and Lab Retrievers. CCI carefully gauges each candidate dog’s health, physical traits, temperament, trainability, and littermate trends. It even goes as far as examining the production history of each puppy’s dam and sire. The strict assessment means that only the best of the best get to train as service dogs.

Another excellent option is NEADS World Class Service Dogs. The organization operates a breeding program using only puppies that have been sold or donated by reputable purebred breeders. NEADS mainly trains Lab Retrievers. Its experts check each puppy’s health, temperament, and behavioral history, as well as those of the dam and sire.

In addition to purebreds, NEADS also screens alert and high-energy candidates from shelters and rescue organizations to train as hearing dogs.

You may also want to check the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans. In 2016, the Association introduced “CGC Plus” — a set of minimum training and behavior requirements for service dogs for veterans. Each dog must pass the following tests:

Eligible dogs must also show proficiency in three random specific services for disabled people. The AKC Canine Good Citizen test was also incorporated into the 2016 PAWS Bill, which set out the requirements for service dogs funded by the Veterans Administration.

Registration and Certification Requirements

We mentioned earlier that, at present, there are no national or legal standards on how to get a service dog or how to train one. Likewise, there are no national requirements when it comes to service dog certification, registration, or ID papers.

That means your dog does not have to pass an exam, meet certain standards, or go through any certification or registration process to qualify as a service dog. Most dog training organizations, however, have their own in-house criteria for selecting and testing service animals. This ensures that their dogs are fit for the task and can adequately support people with disabilities.

Identification Requirements

You may choose to have your dog wear a special vest, tag, or other form of ID from your training provider, as that can make both your lives easier when out and about. However, as a service dog owner, you do not have to provide any documents or ID as proof that your dog is a service animal. The privileges granted to service animals by the ADA operate on an honor system. As per the ADA, where it is not immediately clear that a dog is a service dog, the dog’s handler may be asked only two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal, which you require due to a disability?
  2. What specific task or work is the animal trained to carry out for the purposes of assisting people with a disability?

The answers to these questions are sufficient proof that the dog is a service animal and that it is entitled to public access and the other protections under the ADA.

Furthermore, no one may ask the dog’s handler to make the dog demonstrate the task or tasks it specializes in.

With this in mind, please note that anyone asking for money in exchange for “registering” or “certifying” your service dog is either ill-informed or a fraud.

How to Get a Service Dog: The Bottom Line

There are many great service-dog organizations and trainers out there. However, you still need to do your due diligence before investing what could be a lot of money in a service dog. Learn the basics of dog training. Read up as much as you can on how to get a service dog. Research customer reviews and carefully inspect the websites of training service providers. Pay special attention to certification, registration, and membership of professional organizations.

Service Dog Fraud

As mentioned above, not every dog that wears a vest or a special collar, harness, or ID tag is a service dog. In fact, the ADA does not even require service dogs to wear any visible ID or other visibility markers. Unfortunately, that means that the liberal provisions of the ADA make it very easy for anyone to fraudulently misrepresent a service dog.

Sadly, many people take advantage of the special protections and the relaxed rules for service dog identification under the ADA. They intentionally try to mislead others into thinking that their dogs are service animals by putting vests, collars, tags, and various fake IDs on their pets.

This only results in misinformation and harms the truly disabled and their service dogs. It also reflects poorly on the reputation of genuine service dog users and makes it harder for service dogs to do their job. What’s more, a dog that has been poorly trained — or not trained at all — could even be a real danger to other animals or the public.

New Measures to Fight Service Dog Fraud

To address the growing problem of service dog fraud, in 2015, the American Kennel Club published a policy position statement on the Misuse of Service Dogs. In addition, a number of state and local governments have made it a criminal offense to misrepresent a service dog. In 2018 alone, legislators across the country adopted 48 new measures on fake service animals.

The American Kennel Club and the American Service Dog Access Coalition also work together to raise the public’s awareness and improve access to public spaces of real service dogs and their owners. What’s more, these organizations work hard to set high-quality training and behavior standards for service dogs across the nation.

How to Get a Service Dog: Final Words

Anyone with a disability, regardless of its type and scope, should know how to get a service dog. Well-trained dogs make great companions and excellent friends. They can also be first-rate helpers to people who face difficulties in certain aspects of their daily lives.

Before investing a lot of time, money, and effort in sourcing and possibly training a dog, however, it is crucial that you have all the information you need to make the best decision for you or your family member. Read up as much as you can on how to get a service dog. Get to know the legal requirements and financial side of things. In addition, make sure to only work with highly qualified experts and reputable organizations.