Service Dogs 101

service dogs May 09, 2024
Trainer walking with labrador retriever service dog on shaded sidewalk among trees

Service dogs are a hot topic these days! Here at KeenDog, we are passionate about education regarding service dogs because, when used appropriately, they are critically important resources for their handlers, and when used inappropriately, they can be very problematic.

We will be covering a couple different service dog-related topics over the next few weeks, so let’s start by discussing the basics - what is a service dog, how do they differ from other types of dogs, and how you should interact (or rather not interact) with service dogs when you come across them in your daily life!

What is a Service Dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are dogs of any breed or size who have been trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability. Service dogs are not required to be certified or go through a professional training program and they are not required to wear a vest or ID that indicates that they’re a service dog. There is no registry for service dogs in the US.

It’s important to note that, in the US, miniature horses can also be considered service animals, but we will focus on dogs since they’re our area of expertise! 

Service dogs have special protections that allow them to go most places where the public can go, even if the establishments or housing providers in question have a “no pets” policy. This is because service dogs are not the same as companion dogs; they are considered medical equipment.

Businesses are allowed to ask handlers two questions to determine if a dog is a service dog per the ADA - 

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

These two questions perfectly encapsulate what sets service dogs apart - they are essential to the handler just like a piece of medical equipment would be, and they have been trained to perform specific tasks that help mitigate the handler’s disability. 

Some examples of tasks that service dogs can be trained to perform are medical alerts, deep pressure therapy, medicine or medical equipment retrievals, counter-balance, guiding around obstacles, etc. While it is possible for dogs to instinctively perform some disability-mitigating behaviors, such as medical alerts, task-specific training sets service dogs apart from other types of dogs. 

Different Classifications of Dogs and How They Differ From Service Dogs

When we think of dogs, we often think of pet or companion dogs. Dogs serve many roles, though, including different types of working dogs. 

Here are some of the different classifications that can be used to categorize non-service dogs and some traits that define each:

  • Therapy Dogs - Dogs who provide therapeutic emotional support to people other than their owners. They may volunteer in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, etc., but they are not granted the same public access rights as service dogs. While basic training is required for certification, therapy dogs are defined by their stable, social temperament, not their ability to perform specific tasks. 
  • Emotional Support Dogs - Dogs who provide emotional support or comfort to their owners. Emotional support dogs are granted some exceptions in regards to housing and airplane travel, but otherwise are not granted public access rights to non-dog friendly environments.
  • Police, Military, Detection, and Search-and-Rescue Working Dogs - Dogs can be trained in various working roles used by police, military, and civilian organizations including apprehension, detection, tracking, search and rescue, etc. These dogs are sometimes granted access to non-pet friendly environments while actively working, but they are not granted general public access rights like a service dog would be.
  • Farm Working Dogs - Dogs play various working roles on farms, but they generally fall into two categories - herding and protection. Herding dogs aid in moving livestock and guardian dogs aid in protecting livestock from predators. Farm working dogs do not have any public access rights.
  • Hunting Dogs - Dogs of various breeds are used by hunters to perform diverse roles including retrieving, flushing, pointing, treeing, etc. Hunting dogs do not have any public access rights.
  • Personal Protection and Guard Dogs - Highly trained dogs used to provide protection to their handlers and personal property. Protection dogs often accompany their handlers anywhere pet dogs are allowed, but they are not granted public access rights to non-dog friendly environments.
  • Companion Dogs - Pet dogs! Companion dogs do not serve any specific role beyond being part of the family. They do not have a job and are not granted any public access rights.

How to Interact with Service Dogs

If you cross paths with a working service dog, it’s very important that you do not distract them from their work! If you are a dog lover, it can be tempting to ask to pet, offer a compliment, or ask the handler questions, but the best thing you can do for both a dog and handler is admire respectfully from a distance. It is never appropriate to touch a service dog, try to get their attention, or ask their handler questions about their disability. 

A Note On Appropriate Use of Service Dogs

As an organization that supports the appropriate use of service dogs, we feel it is important to call out the epidemic plaguing our country of people falsely identifying their companion dogs as service dogs. It is detrimental to true service dogs and their handlers to misuse the service dog label and misrepresent a dog as such. If you are not disabled and your dog is not trained to perform tasks that specifically help mitigate your disability, you should not refer to your dog as a service dog. They should not wear gear that says “Service Dog,” and you should not bring them to environments where companion dogs are not allowed. As responsible dog owners, we all need to do our part in preserving the appropriate use of service dogs for those who truly need a service dog to function at their highest level within society.


Check back next week as we’ll be breaking down the process of selecting a service dog prospect, what to look for in a breeder, how much to expect to spend, and more!


Want to learn more about service dog puppy raising? Check out our YouTube series Raising a Service Dog Puppy with Tidal Retrievers! As part of this series, we check in with service dog prospect Cove at 2 weeks, 6 weeks, 12 weeks, and 21 weeks of age.

Interested in a service dog of your own? Schedule a virtual consult with us (free of charge)! We'd love to discuss your needs and help you along this journey!



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