Service dogs help their disabled owners by performing tasks related to the owner's specific needs. The history of assistance to disabled people by dogs and other animals is long, but the first formal school in the United States to train dogs to assist disabled owners was The Seeing Eye, founded in the 1920s. While the use of dogs to guide blind owners grew, it was not until the 1970s that training of dogs to assist people with hearing loss and other disabilities began. Today, many service dogs receive training molded to individual owner needs, from opening doors and pulling wheelchairs to alerting an owner to an impending seizure or a dangerous drop in blood sugar. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects service dogs and their owners from discrimination.
Certification and Identification
Various states and private groups offer certification for service dogs, but it’s strictly optional. To prevent discrimination, the ADA prohibits businesses from requiring certification before permitting a service dog to enter the premises with its owner. The ADA allows a business owner to ask the person accompanied by a service dog if the dog is “a service animal required because of a disability,” and “what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.” Some service-dog owners choose to use special harnesses, tags, bandanas or leashes that clearly identify their dogs as service animals.
Self-regulatory associations such as Assistance Dogs International (ADI) accredit training facilities that follow specific guidelines. To qualify for ADI accreditation, a training facility must demonstrate ethical animal-care standards, facility cleanliness standards and humane training methods. The facility must also show that it carefully screens dogs for inclusion in its program and uses suitable criteria for matching trained dogs with disabled clients.
Minimum Training Guidelines
While the Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” it does not regulate training standards. Groups like the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) advocate minimum training guidelines, including the recommendation that service dogs receive a minimum of 120 hours of training, 30 hours of which should be in the public arena. Depending on the complexity of the tasks the dog is expected to perform, training can last a few months, or longer.
Public Behavior and Appropriateness
A well-trained service dog should not exhibit aggression, approach strangers, beg for food, or display unruly or disruptive behavior, according to Assistance Dogs International. The dog should ignore distractions and should be able to perform at least three specific tasks that assist its owner. In most cases, the service dog should stay within two feet of its owner, unless the dog is trained to perform a task that requires it to leave its owner's side, such as pulling a wheelchair, opening a door or retrieving objects.
Choosing a Trainer
Pet Partners, formerly known as The Delta Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to education and service-dog advocacy, recommends researching trainers before choosing a dog. Factors the group recommends when evaluating a trainer include where the trainer obtains the dogs and the criteria the trainer applies when accepting a dog into the training program. People seeking a service dog should inquire about the trainer’s professional background, training philosophies and dog-evaluation methods. A reputable trainer should offer a list of past clients and should be able to estimate how long the wait for a suitably trained dog will be.
Pet Partners also recommends you check with your state’s attorney general's office and the Better Business Bureau to find out if previous clients have registered complaints against the trainer or the training facility.
When the dog is ready, a reputable trainer will work with the new owner and the dog together to ensure that the new owner understands how to work with and care for the dog. Ask an attorney to look over the dog-purchasing contract before you sign it, and find out what your options are if your dog does not perform as expected.
Service dogs can come from a variety of breeds and backgrounds, but they have some attributes in common. They’re highly trainable, personable, and ready at a moment’s notice to help their disabled owners. To increase the likelihood of success, some trainers breed their own puppy stock and “foster families” care for and socialize the puppies in accordance with the trainer’s guidelines. When the puppies reach adulthood, they return to the trainer, who trains each dog individually. While this process offers a high rate of success, dog owners may train their own family pets as service dogs, if desired.
- U.S. Department of Justice – Civil Rights Division: Commonly Asked Question about Service Animals in Places of Business
- Assistance Dogs International: What is ADI Accreditation?
- IIADP: IIADP Minimum Training Standards for Public Access
- Assistance Dogs International: Minimum Standards for Assistance Dogs in Public
- Delta Society: Training Programs Overview for Service Animals
- Shore Service Dogs: How Service Dogs Help Lives
- german shepherd seeing eye dog image by Stephen Orsillo from Fotolia.com