How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog

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Dogs are a man’s best friend in more ways than one; apart from being our faithful companions, they also do all kinds of service work while following all of our commands. Because dogs have filled many roles in the workforce, they are used by over 80 million owners in the United States today. In this guide, we share how to make your dog a service dog, along with other details you need to know during this process. 

What is a Service Dog?

A trained service dog can do more than just open doors; they can assist people with disabilities to lead more independent lives. As described in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are “trained individually to perform a variety of tasks that assist with a person’s disability.” The ADA defines “disability” as a mental impairment or physical impairment that considerably limits major life activities, and includes people with a history of such impairments. 

The ADA condemns the discrimination of disabled people in employment, public transportation, public accommodations, commercial facilities, telecommunications, and state and local government. There are different types of service dogs that are trained to help with an individual’s specific disability. All the tasks that these dogs perform will be related directly to their owner’s disability.   

For instance, guide dogs can help visually impaired and blind individuals move around in their environment. A mobility assistance dog can assist individuals using walking devices or wheelchairs or those that have mobility issues. Medical alert dogs can also help to signal the onset of medical issues such as low blood sugar, seizures, or allergens that may be present, along with many other functions.     

Other examples include psychiatric service dogs that can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and more. A few things that a psychiatric service dog can do include stopping repetitive behaviors, turning on the light in a dark room, and reminding their human to take medication. According to the ADA, service dogs should be considered primarily as working animals rather than pets.  

Why You Need Service Dogs

There are plenty of studies that have supported the health benefits of having a service dog, which include lower stress, improved happiness, and increased fitness. These great abilities, when combined with extensive training can result in dogs that can do specific tasks for people with physical disabilities and mental disabilities. Because of this, the use of a service animal for a disabled person has expanded rapidly just in the last decade.  

However, as service dogs became more and more common, so have the problems that result from the lack of proper service dog training, access to public facilities, and working functions. Fortunately, AKC Government Relations has worked with Congress members, service dog trainers, transportation/hospitality industry groups, and regulatory agencies to address these issues. During the 1920s, guide dogs were the most used kind of service dog; German Shepherds were the most common breed for this line of work, but today many different breeds can be used to assist disabled people.

Common Dog Breeds for Service Work

A service dog can range from small to large breeds, but the dog needs to be the right size to effectively and comfortably serve their human and perform tasks that will make their life easier. For instance, a Papillon can be a great hearing dog, but won’t be able to pull a wheelchair, so they won’t be the best choice to do that. Breeds such as Bernese Mountain Dogs, Saint Bernards, and Great Danes have the strength and height to become a mobility assistance animal. 

On the other hand, Poodles can be highly versatile since they can come in Standard, Toy, and Miniature variants. For example, a Toy Poodle can start scent training an at early age to prepare for blood sugar alerts, while a Standard Poodle which can grow bigger can be taught to carry things and turn on light switches. However, the most commonly used breeds used for work as guide dogs are German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers.     

Where to Look for Service Dogs

There are many different individuals and organizations offering their own training programs located throughout the country. They train dogs to perform specific skills to match their owner’s disability. Their training will include public access skills, such as sitting quietly with their handler, house training, and staying under control in public areas.  

A professional trainer will have high standards for every dog they train; drop-out rates for service dog certification can be as high as 50% to 70%. Fortunately, there are many homes that will welcome the pups that aren’t able to graduate as service dogs. Both for-profit and nonprofit organizations can train service dogs — the training process can cost over $25,000. 

The process may also include training for the individual in need of a service dog, as well as follow-up training to ensure that the dog is always reliable. There are also organizations that provide service dogs to individuals with physical and mental illness at no cost while others will provide financial aid who need service dogs but can’t afford them. People with disabilities are encouraged to look for a reputable trainer or service dog organization, so be sure to do research first before getting a service dog. 

How to Make Your Dog a Service Dog

If you’re thinking about how you can train your dog to be a service animal, you will need to consider a few factors, including your ability to teach, as well as your dog’s capabilities. A service dog will need to do the following:

  • Undergo a public access test (PAT) 
  • Have a high level of obedience training 
  • Be trained specifically for your disability(ies)
  • Have a demeanor, temperament, and personality that’s just right
  • Come with impeccable manners and behavior at all times and environments

But when it comes to you, the owner, you will need to:

  • Have a qualifying disability under the definition of the ADA.
  • Be highly knowledgeable on dog behavior, training, laws, nutrition, psychology, evolution, neurobiology, ethology, cognitive ethology, sociology, animal husbandry, learning theory, and everything related to service dogs. 
  • Be a humane and responsible service dog handler and pet parent who has passed the Canine Good Citizen test. 

Therapy dogs and emotional support animals as well as comfort animals and companion animals will all share the traits of obedience and good manners and behavior along with foundational training. Unfortunately, there is a high failure rate, and this may discourage you from trying to train your dog to become a service dog, but you still should. Even if a pup fails to become a service animal, both the pet and owner can win by getting the best behavior and education at the same time.  

Training Guide

The ADA doesn’t require professional training for service dogs; those with disabilities can train their own service dog and aren’t required to use a training program or a professional trainer. However, the ideal candidate will be able to do the following:

  • Be calm even in unfamiliar, public places
  • Must be willing to please their owners
  • Should be alert without being reactive
  • Be able to retain information and learn
  • Be able to perform repetitive tasks
  • Able to socialize and adapt to different environments and situations

Those who want to train their own dog will first need to work on their dog’s foundation skills. It’s best to start their dog with house training — this needs to include being able to eliminate waste on command in various locations. They should also be socialized and trained to focus on their task while ignoring distractions even if they sense unfamiliar people, sights, scents, places, and animal species.   

Apart from basic obedience training and socialization, your service dog should be trained to perform specific tasks or work that can assist with your physical or mental disability. In cases when it’s not obvious whether a dog is a service animal, only two questions can be asked:

  • Is your service animal needed due to a disability?
  • What tasks or work has it been trained to do? 

The response to the latter question must confirm that your dog has been trained for a specific action when it needs to assist with your disability. 

Training Manual

If you’re looking for a dog manual to help you with how to train your pooch, you’ll need to work with a guide that details all the behaviors and skills your dog needs to know. Your service dog will need to reach the highest level of behavior and obedience, regardless of the kind of service dog you need. Below is a guide that you can use as a quick training manual for the very basic things your dog needs to know about. 

It won’t matter if you need a PTSD service dog or a mobility service dog since their foundation training, behavior, characteristics, temperament, and criteria will be the same across all categories of service dogs and working animals. The tasks taught to help with your specific disability-related need will help you at a later stage during the training process. 

While it can be very tempting to start with task training, you shouldn’t start by training them on tasks. Even if your puppy can help to calm you during an episode of PTSD, or get your medication, if your pooch isn’t able to pass their public access test then they won’t be able to enter places of public accommodation. Here are some things that your dog will need to know before it can become a service dog; if your pup isn’t able to master these basic behaviors, it won’t be able to move ahead with task training.  

  • Stand
  • Down (Sphynx and Lateral)
  • Sit
  • Stay (needed for each of these obedience positions)
  • Heel

All of these poses need to be performed and practiced over a long period of time, in all positions and in different proximity to you. Be sure to practice at 180 degrees, from a distance, parallel to you, with different distractions (dogs, cats, kids, squirrels, and others), while you and your service dog are still and in motion. Furthermore, they need to master the following skills:    

  • Drop it
  • Leave it
  • Loose leash walking

Your dog needs to be able to perform these tasks reliably with some stimuli around them, as well as many distractions for a while, as well as from a distance. In addition, it must also possess the following traits:

  • Perfect cue discrimination: Your dog should know and understand behaviors through gestural and verbal cues. When you ask your pup to sit down, it should do so at the first command and shouldn’t cycle through the behaviors it learned or perform something else. 
  • Good manners in all situations and environments such as playgrounds, hospitals, airplanes, dog parks, vehicles, public buses, food stores, shopping centers, and more. Your service dog must be confident, calm, and friendly at all times. 
  • Trained specifically to mitigate your disability: A service dog needs to be attuned to you and your needs. This will allow your dog to help you in all kinds of environments and scenarios.  
  • Potty trained: This will seem obvious but there are many specific goals behind having your dog potty trained. Your pup should be able to do these things over several months before they can be considered potty trained.
    • Expel waste while they’re leashed
    • Expel on cue when and where it’s time to go
    • Expel while wearing a harness, dog collar, or backpack attached
    • Defecate and urinate in front of you and close to other people rather than hiding
    • Expel even in distracting environments
    • Any of the above at the same time or in combination

Above are just a few things that a service dog will need to know but it’s just as important for you to have an even greater knowledge and understanding of everything about dogs. This includes knowing how to take proper care of your dog and making sure that your future service animal is in good health nutritionally, medically, emotionally, cognitively, and physically. All of the points above need to be done in various ways and in different environments. 

During a public access test, a Certified Service Dog Trainer will greatly elaborate on them once your dog starts its trainer program. 

Registering Your Dog as a Service Animal

Under U.S. federal law, there is currently no standard procedure in place for the certification of service animals. However, the person in need of an animal will need to meet the definition of “disability” according to the ADA. Moreover, the dog must be trained individually to do tasks that can make the lives of their owners easier. 

Your service dog should also have sufficient training for behaving in public; this means that it can’t disrupt businesses, engage in unwelcome contact with people, or make unwanted sounds. Service animals that growl, lunge, or pose a direct threat to others will be banned from public spaces. There are also many resources that provide fake certifications in exchange for money but you must remember that real service animals don’t need certification.       

You’ll be able to catch these fake registrations or certifications because they sell these products to everyone without even evaluating or training the dogs themselves. These so-called “certifications” are often used as a free pass to take their pet on planes, to motels, or to get access to public areas. Unfortunately, these schemes only damage the reputation of real service dogs. 

Apart from taking the money of disabled individuals, the fake certification, or service dog registration will only result in a dog that behaves like a regular pet. This means that instead of being able to provide the trained services that can help with a panic attack or an anxiety attack, it won’t be able to help in any way or guarantee the safety of others.      

What is Needed to Register Your Dog with the Town? 

When you want to register your service animal, the preliminary application will require the following: 

  • The owner needs to provide a letter from their healthcare provider stating that they require a service animal that can perform actions related to their disability. 
  • The trainer or owner must provide an identification card that was issued by a recognized training agency for dogs. If your dog was trained by someone who doesn’t have an ID card issued by the right dog training school or agency, the service dog will need to meet the minimal training standards set by the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners for public access rights.  

Service Dogs Are Truly a Man’s Best Friend

No matter the type of service dog you have, it can serve a wide range of purposes and can branch into a wide range of purposes, including therapy animals, emotional support dogs, and more. However, service dog owners must show their pet dog the same dedication to their training, and provide reasonable accommodation for their partner. While dogs aren’t required to have a service dog vest or a certification, it’s best to let the general public know the purpose of your pet.