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Service Dog: A Quick, Tell-All Guide

You have likely seen people with physical impairments or disabilities accompanied by a service dog. Although you never want to stare, it’s pretty amazing to watch service animals at work!

service dog animal

Service animals are little, furry miracles. After all, what better support could a person ask for than the love, care, and compassion from human’s best friend?

Today, there is more social awareness surrounding the acceptance of Service Animals (SAs) in public places, housing developments, airports and even the workplace.

If you or someone you love thinks they would benefit from a Service Animal, then continue reading to learn more! This article will cover the definition of a service animal and what a service animal is responsible for. Additionally, it covers the laws protecting these animals, best dog breeds, and how one would qualify for a service animal.

What is the Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals?

difference between service animal and emotional support animals

Let’s start at the beginning. Many people confuse what SAs and ESAs are and what they do. As a result, you may find the laws which protect these animals confusing. Many often confuse where SAs and ESAs can go and what they are permitted to do. Not only is there a distinct difference in roles between a service animal and ESA, there is also a legal difference.

There are three federal laws in the United States that protect service dogs. They fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Service dogs as well as their disabled owners are also protected by case law, which means that cases can appear and be tried before a judge.

What is a Service Animal?

service animal

Most service animals are dogs that have learned to serve as a guide dog. Service dogs provide support and assist people with physical, mental, and/ or emotional disabilities. For example, a person who is physically disabled and requires a wheelchair, deaf and/or blind, or who suffers from PTSD or seizures would be a qualified candidate for a service dog. Some service animals can also be miniature horses!

Service animals are trained by an official dog trainer or dog handler to perform specific tasks to aid disabled individuals. Some tasks include getting medication, provide people assistance with stability and mobility, and even performing basic household tasks.

Furthermore, service dogs are trained and equipped to help dog owners/handlers in emergencies. For example, service dogs are trained to perform the following tasks:

  • Bark or alert another person when the disabled individual needs help
  • Bring a disabled individual the phone to call a family member or 9-1-1
  • Answer the door when someone knocks or rings the doorbell
  • Provide support when an individual is having a psychiatric or physical episode, such as a seizure
  • Recognize when an individual is in distress
  • Alert the dog owner or dog handler when there is an emergency, such as a fire or break-in attempt
  • Fetch medications or even mail
  • Aid a disabled person when he or she needs to get up or climb stairs
  • Provide stability and support when performing physical activities

Service dogs require extensive training and are permitted to go in just about any public place, including restaurants. Furthermore, service dog owners must be able to prove that they have a physical need or disability that can be aided and supported by a service dog. Service dogs also carry a special backpack that holds a person’s medications.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs, also provide excellent support to people with physical or mental disorders and emotional needs, but they are not specifically trained to perform physical tasks to aid a person. ESAs provide emotional assistance rather than physical assistance. Furthermore, there is no training requirement for an emotional assistance dog or emotional therapy dog to become an official ESA.

According to guidelines put into practice by the ADA, individuals or pet owners must be able to prove that he or she has a psychological disability or mental condition that has been officially verified and diagnosed by a psychiatrist, psychologist or other medical professional. Some common disorders include depression, anxiety, personality disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The pet owner must be able to provide documentation related to their conditions in order to qualify for an ESA.

ESAs Do Not Require Training

Unlike official service dogs or assistance dogs, ESAs do not require any training. They are simply there to provide emotional support to individuals, and help relieve individuals’ symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress (PTSD).

Additionally, unlike service dogs, ESAs cannot go into restaurants or public places. However, they can enter airports, airplanes, and live in housing complexes that otherwise do not permit pets.

Where Can a Service Dog Go?

Many service dogs can be seen wearing service animal vests. According to the ADA, service dogs are typically allowed in any place that services the public, including hospitals and physicians’ offices. The point of a service animal is to accompany a physically disabled person to wherever he or she needs to go.

Businesses, organizations, and non-profits are required under federal allow to allow public access to every individual, regardless of his or her disabilities. This also includes a disabled individual’s workplace. Although service animals are allowed public access, they must be leashed or harnessed by their owners or handlers.

Dog owners and handlers are responsible for and must also be in control of their service dogs at all times. Business owners, managers or other patrons are not permitted to refuse service to or ask a disabled individual to remove his or her service dog from the premises. Furthermore, allergies or a fear of dogs are not viable reasons to ask a disabled person accompanied by a service animal to leave or remove the animal.

However, businesses and organizations are well within their rights to ask a disabled individual with a service animal to leave if the dog handler does not have control over the animal, or if the service dog is not housebroken. Businesses may also question a disabled individual whether a service dog is required, and what task(s) can the dog perform to aid the disabled person.

Like emotional support animals, service dogs are allowed in airports and in the cabin of airplane with the proper documentation and service dog certification.

Finding Housing With a Service Animal

Many disabled people and dog owners are concerned that they won’t be able to secure housing with a service animal. This is because many housing complexes and developments do not permit pets. However, because a service animal is not a pet, finding housing with a service animal falls under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This law applies to most housing developments and complexes, including rental housing and condos.

In fact, in 2010, the Department of Justice put forth the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to provide additional legal protection and support for people with disabilities and their service animals. These updates have increased awareness and acceptance surrounding disabled people and service animals. This means that landlords and property owners must allow a disabled individual with a service dog to live in housing, even if they do not permit animals. Failure to adhere to these laws can result in legal consequences under federal law and even case law. Furthermore, landlords and property owners cannot deny housing to a disabled individual who requires a service animal.

As a result, more and more landlords and property owners are permitting disabled individuals with service animals to secure housing without question.

What You Should Know About Service Animal Laws in the United States

There was once a time when there was little legal recognition, support, and protection for individuals with medical and physical disabilities. However, with the establishment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was put into force more than 20 years ago in the United States, changed everything. This Act provides legal protection for individuals who require animals for medical and emotional support.

Since then, the federal government has put more emphasis on providing support for individuals with disabilities, which includes expanding the scope of service animals, ESAs, and the individuals who rely on service animals for physical, medical, and emotional support.

In order to determine whether an animal is fit to act as a service dog, the Department of Justice permits individuals and businesses to ask whether or not the service dog is required for a disability, and how the animal can provide support for the disability.

Under federal law, qualified service dogs must be trained to perform tasks that assist an individual with a disability. However, ESAs do not have the same basic legal protections as service animals.

Service Animal Rights

service dog rights

Service animals have full public access. They can


nter pl

aces like restaurants and grocery stores whereas ESAs are not. ESAs are permitted in airports and on airplanes, and in housing accommodations, particularly those housing areas that otherwise do not allow pets.

As mentioned above, service animals are permitted anywhere a severely disabled individual needs to go that requires accompaniment of his or her service animal. This also includes hospitals, airports, classrooms, and hotels. Some public places may require an individual to supply proper, official documentation confirming the service dog’s status. Additionally, public locations that charge pet fees or deposits must waive these charges for individuals with service animals. However, hotels are well within their rights to charge for property damage done by an individual and/ or a service animal.

The National Service Animal Registry

If an individual qualifies for a service dog, then he or she does not legally have to register the animal as a service dog. Although there is no official service dog or service animal registry in the United States, one of the most well-known organizations is the National Service Animal Registry.

The National Service Animal Registry is a non-profit organization that offers ID cards, service dog vests, and other documentation regarding the validity and status of the service dog. However, there isn’t any one official service dog registry in the United States.

The National Service Animal Registry has been a resource for families for years. It is easy and free to register a service animal with the National Service Animal Registry. Individuals who qualify for a service animal can easily apply via the online form.

Upon completion and submission of an application, an ID number will be emailed, which can be used to access the National Service Animal Registry at any time. Individuals will also be emailed a copy of their registration to serve as official documentation, if needed.

What Dog Breeds Make the Best Service Animals?

Much like people, every dog breed is unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some dogs are better at playing fetch, being guard dogs, or pulling sleds. Therefore, not every dog breed will make a good SA or ESA.

We have identified the top dog breeds that have proven to be great SAs and ESAs. So, if you are trying to determine which dog breed is best for you and your disabilities, here are the top 11 best dog breeds.

Labrador Retriever

Labrador Retrievers aren’t just great dog breeds for playing fetch, or retrieving stray sticks or toy balls to your front door. Labs have also proven to be great therapy dogs. This is because Labs are social, friendly, highly intelligent and incredibly versatile. Therefore, they can learn how to serve as a service dog or as a therapy dog.

German Shepherd

German Shepherds aren’t police dogs for no reason! This particular dog breed is extremely loyal and obedient. They also make great guard dogs. Although their size and stamina might be intimidating, these dogs are incredibly gentle and social when trained properly.


The fact that the Greyhound is on the list often surprises people. Although you may associate this breed with dog racing, the Greyhound is a loving, quiet animal that make great service dogs or therapy dogs.


Beagles are gentle, friendly, active and social dog breeds, which makes them an excellent service dogs and therapy dogs. Beagles are also small dogs, making them easy to travel with and take on the go.


Most people would never associate a Rottweiler as a service dog. Much like German Shepherds, Rottweilers look incredibly intimidating and aggressive. However, with sufficient training, a Rottweiler can be an excellent service dog.

Saint Bernard

People often misunderstand Saint Bernards due to their size. Often referred to as “gentle giants”, the Saint Bernard is an extremely calm and patient dog breed. They are also loyal and obedient, and are great with small children and families. Because of their patience, Saint Bernards make great therapy dogs or service dogs after long-term training.


If size is important to you, then the Pomeranian is a great choice for a therapy dog. Pomeranians are small, social, and friendly. In fact, more and more elderly individuals are relying on Pomeranians for emotional support due to their high levels of affection and love. However, the Pomeranian likely makes a better emotional therapy dog rather than a service dog.


The Pug is a great therapy dog, especially for apartment-dwelling individuals with emotional support or physical needs. Pugs have also been effective therapy dogs for children with Autism as well as other mental development disorders.

French Bulldog

French Bulldogs make great companions. They are quiet, friendly, loyal and often demand immediate attention. They are also calm and even-tempered. This is actually why they make great therapy dogs. In fact, the French Bulldog makes a better ESA or therapy dog rather than a service animal.

Pembroke Welsh Corgi

Pembroke Welsh Corgis have proven to provide excellent emotional support and therapy for individuals who are ill or suffering with anxiety or depression. Even with their small size and short legs—the Corgi makes a reliable watchdog!

Bernese Mountain Dog

The Bernese Mountain Dog is a highly intelligent, strong, and work dog. This particular dog breed generally performs tasks, works on farms, and participates in backyard sports with families. Therefore, you can train this particular dog breed rather easily. Additionally, a Bernese therapy dog will often visit ill or physically injured patients in rehabilitation hospitals.

The Different Types of Service Dogs

different types of service dogs

Depending on the individual’s disability, his or her needs can vary. In addition to working with different types of dog breeds, service dogs can also receive training on how perform different tasks and serve specific needs.

Here is a list of the different types of service dogs:

  • Guide dogs
  • Hearing dogs
  • Guide dogs
  • Mobile assistance dogs
  • Diabetic alert dogs
  • Seizure alert dogs
  • Seizure response dogs
  • Psychiatric service dogs
  • Autism support dogs
  • FASD service dogs
  • Allergy detection dogs

… And the list of service dog jobs continues to grow! Additionally, as the list of jobs for service dogs continues to grow, so does the list of dog breeds that help disabled people.

What Limitations Qualify You for a Service Animal?

So, how do you know if you qualify for a service animal? According to the ADA, individuals must have at least one of the following physical limitations in order to qualify for a service dog:

  • Blindness or severe visual impairment
  • Deafness
  • Require a wheelchair
  • Seizures
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Severe mental illnesses that require medications

It’s important to remember that service animals are working dogs, not pets. Service dogs are trained to perform tasks, such as alerting individuals who are deaf and/ or blind, provide mobility assistance for the blind, pull a wheelchair or retrieve medications.

Service Dog Certification: How Do You Get a Certified Service Dog?

Now that you understand the definition of a service animal, how does one certify for a service dog? Again, as we mentioned above, the National Service Animal Registry is a non-profit organization that aids families and individuals in getting a service dog.

As mentioned earlier, individuals who have a severe physical disability, such as blindness, deafness, or require a wheelchair will likely qualify for a certified service dog. The ADA does require that you certify the service dog before they can work with a disabled person. Disabled individuals must supply an official letter or documentation from a licensed medical professional detailing or diagnosing an individual’s physical condition or disability.

Although you don’t need a service dog certifications, many disabled individuals and dog handlers feel more comfortable when they have an official certificate that proves the support status of their dog when they enter public places that otherwise do not permit animals. This also prevents a disabled individual with having to disclose personal or private information about their disability to strangers.

Furthermore, service dogs must undergo sufficient training in order to become an actual service animal, such as a guide dog, hearing dog, mobility assistance dog, and so on. There are some organizations that train service animals, such Assistance Dogs International. It is one of the most well-known not-for-profit dog assistance training organizations.

An official service dog works with a dog trainer to receive training and learn how to provide physical support for people with disabilities. Service dogs must pass a rigorous program and meet high standards and expectations before the animal “graduates” from the program to work as a real service dog.

Once a dog passes ADI’s training service program, individuals with disabilities will choose a dog breed that provides the best support for their specific needs.

Getting a Service Dog

All in all, a service dog can make the best canine companion to provide you with the love, support, and aid that you need to go about your daily activities. As detailed above, disabled individuals are well within their rights and protected under several federal laws to have a service animal by their side—anywhere they need to go.

However, if you or a loved one clearly has a physical disability, severe illness or a physical medical condition, then you will likely qualify for a service animal.


Service Dog FAQs:

What different types of service dogs are there?

Are there laws that protect service animals?

Where can I take my service dog?

How do I get a service dog?


Illustrations inspired by our furry friend Benny! If you want to see your dog turned into an illustration, email wendy@simplewag.com!









About the author 

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for Honestpaws.com.

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