Service Dogs
A Definitive Guide

Service Dogs: A Definitive Guide

Seeing a person with a service dog in a restaurant, mall, grocery store, or other public place is becoming increasingly common. Despite routinely seeing service dogs in public, most people know little about service dogs or the federal protections for a person with a service dog. This is a definitive guide for everything you need to know about service dogs.

Service Dog Vest on small dog

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What is a Service Animal?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), service animals are dogs (and in rare cases, miniature horses) individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Disabilities may be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental-related. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic – trained or untrained – are not considered service animals. The work or tasks performed by a service dog must be directly related to its handler’s disability.

Service dogs are sometimes referred to as assistance animals, assist animals, support animals, or helper animals depending on the country and the animal’s function. Therapy dogs, emotional support animals, and other types of working K9s are not service dogs.

Service dogs are considered working animals and a member of a necessary team of two: the service dog and its disabled handler. Because of the potential life-saving tasks the service dog provides, the dog may legally accompany its disabled handler wherever the handler may go.

Service dog and wheelchair

Service Dogs and Disabilities

Because there are many kinds of disabilities, service dogs must be specifically trained to assist a person, based on the specific disability and the needs that result from it. For example, a blind person has different assistance needs than someone who has seizures. Mobility assistance dogs are used by those in wheelchairs or with other mobility limitations, providing stability when walking, picking up dropped items, turning off lights, and even opening doors, and the tasks are different than for someone who is hearing impaired.

One interesting type of service dog is the diabetic alert dog. These dogs are trained to alert the service dog’s handler when his or her insulin levels are dangerously low. The dog must be trained to identify this condition by detecting the special scent released when the insulin level become too low. Service dogs provide a wide variety of tasks — all dependent on the disability and the specific needs of the handler.

Here are a few examples of tasks service dogs may be trained to perform for their disabled handler:

  • Assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks
  • Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Assisting an individual during a seizure
  • Alerting individuals to the presence of allergens
  • Retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone
  • Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities
  • Helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.

The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and/or the emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship DO NOT constitute work or tasks.

How to Get a Service Dog

For many people with disabilities, service dogs are absolutely essential. These animals make everyday life more manageable and enjoyable. However, because of their high costs, getting a service dog can be a daunting and stressful task. With adoption costs, training, vet trips, and more, obtaining and caring for a service animal can cost thousands every year.

Service Dogs Can Be Very Expensive

According to National Service Animal Registry in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the cost of obtaining a trained service dog ranges between $15,000 and $30,000 upfront. Some service dogs can cost as much as $50,000. Along with these initial costs, many pet owners spend between $500 and $10,000 every year caring for their dog. These yearly expenses cover things like food, veterinary checkups, vaccinations, toys, and additional training.

There are many national and local organizations and businesses who train and even provide the dogs for purchase. These nonprofit and for-profit enterprises work closely with the buyer/handler to deliver the ideal breed, specifically trained for the individual needs of the buyer.

Why Are the Initial Costs so High?

Service dogs require much more training than other dogs do. This extensive training and additional care usually take place during the first few months of their lives. The amount a person pays goes toward adoption costs, puppy vaccinations, spaying or neutering, and trainer’s fees. The initial costs can be decreased significantly by a person training his or her own dog with or without assistance from a certified dog trainer. Though it costs less in the short-term, this method usually takes longer and may actually end up costing more in the long-term.

Costs to Train Your Dog to Be a Service Animal

If a person already has a dog that that is able to be trained to become a service animal, there is obvious savings, in terms of time and initial cost. The amount this route will cost depends on the dog, how much it already knows, the specific tasks it must learn, any trainer’s fees, and how much time the trainer can dedicate to the dog. If the dog has already received some obedience training, it can take between four and six months to train them for a task service. The precise amount of time it will take depends on the task the pup must learn and the pup’s aptitude.

Additionally, service dogs are expected to be able to perform these tasks in different environments. It can take up to two years to become fully trained for public access. The hourly fees professional dog trainers charge varies greatly from region to region, although you can expect to pay around $150-250 per hour. These expenses can also add up very quickly.

Service dog gives high five

Myths About Service Dogs

  1. Service dogs are required to wear a special vest or harness
    The ADA states that a service dog is not required to wear a vest or harness, nor is a specific color designated for service dogs. No patches or other identifying regalia are required. It is highly recommended that service dogs wear a vest with service dog patches to minimize confrontations and for the public to quickly and easily identify the animal as a service dog.
  2. Service dogs must be certified and/or registered
    The ADA does not require service dogs to be certified or registered. Although this may help minimize confrontation, there is no government sanction registration agency.
  3. Service dogs must be trained by a service dog organization
    Service dogs are not required to be trained by service dog organizations. The dog may be trained by its disabled handler, a local animal trainer, or anyone who can effectively train the dog to perform the tasks necessary to aid the disabled handler.
  4. Service dogs must have an identification card
    No identification card is necessary, according to the ADA. This is another accoutrement that may minimize confrontation and identify the dog as a trained service dog, but it is not required.
Service dog ID card

How Does a Person Qualify for a Service Dog?

To qualify for a working service dog, a person must have physical, mental, or sensory challenges severe enough to meet the ADA definition of a mental or physical disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 define disability as (1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) a record of such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment. There are no limitations with respect to the kinds of impairments/disabilities this applies to.

What is a Major Life Activity or Task?

The ADA defines “a major life activity” as nearly anything a person might (or might not) do in a day. These activities consist of functions such as caring for yourself, (including, but certainly not limited to bathing, dressing, shaving, preparing a meal, and going to the restroom), performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, standing, walking, lifting, reaching, bending, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.

Service dog and disabled handler

As a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, major life activities now also include the operation of any major bodily function, including, but not limited to functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive (procreation) functions.

There are two nonexhaustive lists of major life activities. The first list expands the examples established in the original ADA regulation and the second list provides examples of “major bodily functions” that are considered major life activities. The list of major life activities in the ADA now includes, but is not limited to the following:

Major Life Activities
Caring for oneself
Performing manual tasks

Major life activities do NOT include the following:

  • Caring for others
  • Driving
  • Ability to have a relationship
  • Grocery shopping

Physical Impairments

Physical impairments include any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological, musculoskeletal, special sense organs, respiratory (including speech organs), cardiovascular, reproductive, digestive, genitourinary, hemic and lymphatic, skin, and endocrine.

Although the ADA does not list all conditions or diseases that comprise physical, mental, and emotional impairments (it would be difficult to provide a comprehensive list, given the variety of possible impairments), mental impairments include mental or psychological disorders, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.

List of Qualifying Disabilities

There are many physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory conditions or impairments that, without special assistance, makes everyday life a great challenge for some people. Remember that having an impairment doesn’t necessarily qualify a person to have a service dog. The physical or mental impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities.

Service dog on escalator
Physical Disabilities:
  • AIDS
  • Allergies
  • ALS
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma (or other breathing problems)
  • Autism
  • Blindness (partial and complete)
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Chronic Pain
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Deafness (partial and complete)
  • Diabetes
  • Dizziness/Balance problems
  • Emphysema/Lung disease
  • Epilepsy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • General Hearing Difficulty
  • Headaches/Migraines
  • Heart Disease
  • Lupus and other auto-immune diseases
  • Mobility Problems
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Neurological Problems
  • Osteoporosis
  • Paralysis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Physical Weakness
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy
  • Scoliosis
  • Seizures
  • Speech Problems
  • Spinal Cord Injury
  • Stroke
  • Vertigo
Mental & Intellectual Disabilities:
  • Affective disorders
    • Depression
    • Bipolar disorder
  • Age-Related Cognitive Decline
  • Anxiety Disorders
    • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
    • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
    • Panic Disorder
    • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
    • Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder)
  • Autism and related disorders
  • Mental retardation
  • Neurocognitive Disorders
    • Disturbances caused by
      • Injury
      • Disease
      • Chemical & hormonal abnormalities
      • Toxic exposure
      • Aging
  • Personality disorders
    • Paranoid personality disorder
    • Schizoid personality disorder
    • Schizotypal personality disorder
    • Antisocial personality disorder
    • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
    • Histrionic personality disorder
    • Narcissistic personality disorder
    • Avoidant personality disorder
    • Dependent personality disorder
    • Obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)
  • Schizophrenia, paranoia, and psychotic disorders
  • Somatic disorders
    • Somatization disorder
    • Hypochondriasis
    • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Substance addiction

Is a Physician’s Letter Necessary to Qualify?

Although it is not legally required for physiological disabilities, it is advisable to have documentation from a licensed medical professional that states the disability could be improved or supported in some way by a service dog. One of the qualifying criteria is that the person has a record of such an impairment or who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. For a mental or psychiatric disability, documentation from a licensed medical or mental health professional is required.

Physician signing service dog form

If a person wants to document his or her disability and if documentation has not already obtained, it means contacting a medical or mental health professional. The medical/mental health professional must then assess the needs and ways in which a service dog can aid a disabled person.

Legal Rights and Protections for the Disabled and their Service Dogs

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), 42 U.S.C. 12101, prohibits discrimination on the basis of a “disability” in several critical areas. Those areas include:

  • State and local government services
  • Places of public accommodation
  • Employment
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation

That means a disabled person is entitled by federal law to be accompanied by his or her service dog anywhere a non-disabled person could go, even when pets are NOT allowed.

Service dog in hospital

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that individuals with disabilities are entitled to broad public access for their service dogs. Unless there is a legitimate safety concern, the dogs can accompany their handlers to stores, restaurants, public beaches, buses, malls, the doctor’s office – any place open to the public. Private transportation providers face similar requirements under other legislation. Airlines must allow service dogs and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the plane’s cabin.

A disabled handler must, however, ensure the animal is under control with a leash. The dog should also be well groomed. Despite all the legal rights afforded to the disabled and their service dogs, they are responsible for any damage or mess created by the animal.

Except for airlines, who may request written confirmations, no documentation is needed, nor is prior notification required. In addition, a disabled handler and their dog may not be required to sit in special sections or be charged additional fees.

Flying with Your Service Dog

The bottom line is, it’s a breeze for you to fly the friendly skies with your service dog! If you have your dogs in a row, that is. By that we mean you’ll just need a few things to enjoy smooth sailing, based on the Air Carrier Access Act and recommendations of USA-based airline companies.

Service dog in crate

The Air Carrier Access Act requires airline companies to allow for physically/emotionally impaired persons to be accompanied in the cabin of the aircraft with a service dog and not be charged a fee. The disabled passenger will need to contact the airline in advance to eliminate any last-minute problems or denials.

Service Dog on airplane

Here’s What You Need to Know

You’ll need to be able to explain how your service dog assists you (that is, what task your dog is trained to perform for you) to the airline and/or Homeland Security personnel. Although it’s not required by law, airlines recommend that you have identifying patches, a vest on your dog (or its cage, if it’s kept in one), and a service leash.

Living with Your Service Dog in No-Pet Housing

The Fair Housing Act requires that service dogs must be allowed to live with their disabled handlers, regardless of pet policies. The dogs should be able to accompany them to all general access areas of a residential complex, unless that would impose “undue financial and administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s services.” Moreover, the disabled tenant cannot be charged pet fees or deposits.

Service Dog waits at home

The handler must request accommodation from the housing provider, and if their disability is not apparent, they must submit appropriate documentation about the disability-related needs that the service dog performs. No limitations regarding breed, size, or weight may be applied by the housing provider.


Service dogs must be allowed in K-12 public schools.

Colleges and universities are also required to permit attendees to bring their service dogs to all areas open to either the public or students, including classrooms. Service dogs are also permitted to live in the dorm room of a disabled student, according to the Fair Housing Act.

Colleges and universities may ask disabled students to register with an on-campus disability services coordinator, but the school is not allowed to require documentation regarding the dog’s training.


Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities and that typically includes allowing a service dog to accompany them in the workplace. Applicants may be required to provide documentation about how the dog would assist them in performing their work and how it’s trained to behave in such surroundings. A request for accommodation may be denied if the employer determines that the presence of the service dog would create undue hardship or a direct threat.


In hospitals and other medical facilities, service dogs must be permitted wherever the public is allowed. Exceptions include areas where there are concerns regarding sterility, such as surgical rooms. It’s not acceptable to exclude service dogs by asserting that hospital staff can offer similar services as the service dog.


ADA specifically exempts private clubs and places of worship, such as churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques from all regulations regarding service dogs.

Rights of Public Entities (stores, restaurants, other places of business)

By law, public entities are allowed to question a disabled handler to verify that they qualify to enter with a service dog. Although the questions may take a wide variety of forms, they are limited to the following:

Service dog served fancy meal

The disabled handler may be asked to verbally confirm that he or she is disabled and that the dog is his/her service dog. The public entity may NOT ask about the person’s disability, however.

The disabled handler may also be asked what major life activity the service dog is trained to perform for the handler. The disabled handler should be able to provide credible verbal evidence to this question. If he or she hasn’t rehearsed the answer so it flows smoothly or the answer isn’t credible, then they may be denied. For example, if the handler explains that his dog carries his insulin or candy for him because he is diabetic, that isn’t a credible (major life) task. Why? Because the handler has pockets, can wear a fanny pack, or carry a bag to hold the insulin, etc. The answer must support the need for the service dog, based on the criteria of the ADA.

A public entity MAY NOT ask for registration or certification documents, ID cards, a letter from a physician, and may not require that a service dog wear a harness or vest with service animal insignia (although most wise handlers will make sure their dog is appropriately attired and easily identified as a service animal).

If a service dog is misbehaving or is disruptive and the disabled handler is unable or unwilling to control or effectively manage it, the handler may be asked to remove the dog. Misbehaviors might include barking, urinating, defecating, unruliness, etc.

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