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A service dog wearing a colorful Service Dog ID vest and a waterproof coat with reflective markings.

A service dog is a type of assistance dog, specifically trained to help people who have disabilities other than visual or hearing impairment. Desirable character traits include good temperament or psychological make-up, good health including physical structure, biddability and trainability. Service dogs are sometimes trained and bred by service dog organizations. Some dogs are donated by private breeders, and some are selected from shelters. Any breed or mixture of breeds of dog might produce a representative capable of service work, though few dogs have all of the qualities in health, temperament, biddability, trainability and physical ability needed. Such a dog may be called a "service dog" or an "assistance dog," depending largely on country. Other common names include "helper dog," "aide dog," and "support dog."

The Codes of Federal Regulation for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 define a service animal as "any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair [sic], or fetching dropped items." [1]


Service Dog Etiquette

Service dogs are working animals, not pets. The health and safety of their owner may depend on the dog's ability to focus and resist distraction. It is important for members of the public to remember not to speak to the service dog or touch him without first receiving permission from the owner. Even if the dog doesn't appear to be working, he probably is. Many service dogs are trained to avoid distraction when wearing their gear, but relax and be friendly when the gear is removed. When asked about interacting with the dog, the owner may decide to remove the gear and allow it, or may decide it is necessary for the dog to concentrate at that time. It is important to honor the owner's decision without taking offense.

Many people with disabilities experience a sense of isolation from society. Members of the public may avoid eye contact with people who are obviously disabled, or they may speak to the person or service dog with them instead of speaking to the person him- or herself. This increases the person's sense of isolation. Casual conversation about the dog, such as about his breed or age may be welcome interaction for some owners. However, asking personal questions about the nature of the person's disability is generally considered rude and invasive, even if the intent is simple curiosity. [2]



Puppy Training

Service dog puppies are often fostered by their programs to private families to be reared until they are old enough for advanced training. During this time, the puppies are socialized through extensive interactions with people of all kinds (with variations in age, gender, ethnicity, mode of dress, disability, etc.) as well as with other common domestic animals, especially other dogs. Puppies are also habituated by their foster families so that they become comfortable in a wide variety of situations.[3] The foster families, called puppy raisers or puppy walkers, take responsibility for teaching the pup basic life skills common to any well behaved dog including basic obedience and manners, including toilet training, not begging or jumping up on people, waiting at doors, riding in cars, coming when called, sit, down, stay and walking politely on a leash.

Also, there is OWNER training, in which the disabled person does ALL the training. from start to finish without the help of a program. NOT all SDs are program dogs.

Advanced Training

A service dog handing keys to his owner.

Puppies are periodically tested during the fostering period but are more thoroughly evaluated once they are returned to the training center, usually between twelve and eighteen months of age. They are evaluated for temperament, health, biddability, and trainability. Those not up to the standard are offered up for adoption or are transferred to different programs such as police dog or customs dog training programs. Generally the family that fostered the puppy is given the first option to keep any pup that does not continue in the program.

Next the serious training begins. Core skills shared by all public access service dogs include proofing to work in spite of distractions and generalization to work in a variety of venues. All service dogs need to learn a working position, usually the heel position, which the dog is responsible for maintaining regardless of how the owner moves and whether or not a leash is dropped. They are taught to toilet only on command when working.

By definition a service dog is a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate the disability of the dog's owner. Since each person is an individual, each experiences their disability uniquely. Therefore each dog must be custom trained for the individual it will be helping. For example, a dog meant to assist a person in a wheel chair might be taught to pick up dropped items, open and close doors, and turn on and off lights.

Core skills [4] and tasks are generally taught during the same period when the dog is kept at the training center to work with professional service dog trainers. The last phase, called public access training, is proofing and generalization or teaching the dog to perform his duties without regard for distraction and in any environment. [5] This period typically lasts six months to one year.

Program-trained dogs vs owner-trained dogs

A growing number of people choose to train their own service dogs, because existing service dog training programs do not answer their needs. This is permitted in some countries, such as the U.S., but not in all. Handlers with experience training advanced dogs may choose to train the dogs themselves, while others may employ a professional trainer or organization that accepts an owner's existing dog.

Program trained dogs are matched with their future handler near the end of the training process. By this point it is nearly certain the candidate will complete training and be able to become a service dog. Owner-trainers usually start working with their puppies while they are very young, too young to be thoroughly evaluated. Owner-trainers whose puppies fail to measure up must deal with the emotional conflict of whether to rehome the dog to start again or keep him as a pet.

Because programs for the most part are breeding their own puppies and raising them according to very carefully researched and planned guidelines, their success rate with a given puppy is usually about 85%. Owner-trainers, lacking the experience of the program trainers and not being able to manipulate the genetics or early neurological stimulation of the puppies experience a much lower success rate.

However, for a person with the skill to train their own service dog, this option can make dogs of specific breeds available that would not be available through a program, and allows for greater customization of training. For a handler used to a certain set of command words or needing a cross-disability dog, this can be a very useful option.


Public access rights of owners of service dogs varies according to country and region.

In the United States, disabled owners of service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990[6] , which generally gives them the right to be accompanied by their service animal anywhere the general public is allowed, such as restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, and taxis. There are some exceptions, including churches, private clubs, federal courts, military bases, and Native American tribal council offices. Additional federal laws protect people with disabilities partnered with service animals from discrimination in housing (the Fair Housing Amendments Act [7]) and on aircraft (the Air Carrier Access Act [8]).

Under the ADA, businesses are permitted to deny access to service dogs that are not behaving properly or if the owner is not willing to explain what the dog is trained to do. They may also be excluded if the presence of the animal constitutes a fundamental alteration of the business or poses a direct threat. Persons with service dogs generally should not be required to pay any additional fees on account of the service dog, though the owner is responsible for any damages caused by the dog. [9]

Life of a Service Dog

The typical working life of a service dog is eight years, though some dogs may choose to work past 10. Throughout their lives and especially during their working years it is essential that these dogs receive physical exercise and mental stimulation outside of their work duties. One of the most often asked questions of service dog owners is, "Does he ever get a chance to just be a dog?" The answer is, "yes." At home when the gear is removed he becomes a member of the family, just like any other dog. Service dogs enjoy playing, lounging, tummy rubs and all the other things pet dogs enjoy. [10]

Service dogs are taught to behave one way when working and to just be themselves when they aren't. Typically they are taught to know work versus relaxation by whether or not they are wearing their gear. This is why most service dog owners will not permit people to pet their dogs in gear, and why they are reluctant to remove gear for security inspections. The gear itself becomes a cue to the dog on how to behave. Even when off duty many service dogs remain "on call." A seizure alert dog, for example, will not miss an impending seizure just because he isn't wearing his cape. However, between the alerts he is free to do as he pleases or enjoy affectionate interaction with his owner.

When a service dog retires he may remain with his owner or a family member as a pet. If the owner is unable to care for him and a successor dog at the same time, he may be returned to the program for re-homing. Typically the family that raised him as a puppy is given the first opportunity to keep him as a pet. Others are adopted out to carefully screened homes. These dogs are highly desirable pets because of their excellent manners and obedience training. The waiting list for most such placements averages three years.

See also


  1. ^ 28 C.F.R. 36.104 Definitions Retrieved on November 2, 2009.
  2. ^ Service Dog Etiquette Retrieved on November 3, 2009.
  3. ^ Puppy Socialization Guidelines Retrieved on November 1, 2009.
  4. ^ The Delta Society's Minimum Standards for Service Dogs Retrieved on November 1, 2009.
  5. ^ IAADP's Minimum Training Standards for Public Access Retrieved on November 1, 2009.
  6. ^ Codes of Federal Regulation implementing the ADA Retrieved on November 2, 2009.
  7. ^ Fair Housing Amendments Act Retrieved on November 2, 2009.
  8. ^ Air Carrier Access Act Retrieved on November 2, 2009.
  9. ^ ADA Business Brief: Service Animals Retrieved on November 2, 2009.
  10. ^ Frequently Asked Questions About Service Dogs Retrieved on November 3, 2009.

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