What You Need to Know About Service Dogs

Service dogs – how to have good manners around them, what they do, what rights disabled people have when using service dogs.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
Episode #104

I wrote this week’s article partly in reaction to all the signs I see on the doors of shops, restaurants, and even the US Postal Service office in my neighborhood—the signs that say “No Dogs Allowed,” or “Only Guide Dogs for the Blind Allowed.” People, you’re breaking federal law. Well-behaved service dogs are always allowed. That means more than just dogs who guide blind people. This week: what service dogs do, what the law is about service dogs, and how humans can be as well-behaved as service dogs.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

First, a moment with the dictionary, for anyone who’s not sure about the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are calm, friendly, well-trained dogs who don’t spook at the sights and sounds of hospitals and nursing homes. They also don’t get alarmed by odd human behavior, or get upset by occasional clumsy handling. After being certified by a group such as the Delta Society or the Good Dog Foundation, therapy dogs can visit hospital and nursing home patients. For people who are mentally or physically ill, and who may be lonely and upset, therapy dogs provide comfort and sometimes a bridge to the world. There are accounts of autistic children speaking their first words to a therapy dog, for instance. Therapy dogs are usually pet or companion dogs. Apart from their therapy work, they don’t have special access to public places but are subject to local law just like other pet dogs.

How Is a Service Dog Different from a Therapy Dog?

Service dogs, on the other hand, are working dogs. They’re trained to provide specific kinds of help for people with disabilities of one sort or another. We’ve all seen guide dogs working with blind people. Hearing or signal dogs assist deaf persons by alerting them to doorbells, the sound of their name being called on the street, even the noise of a break-in. (I once played the burglar in a training session.)

What Do Service Dogs Do?

The Puppies Behind Bars program trains dogs to assist military veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder.

A service dog can remind the vet to take his medication and can help ease the PTSD symptoms by alerting her handler to someone approaching from behind and blocking the person’s approach if need be. Seizure alert dogs can warn their handlers when a seizure is imminent, brace them while they position themselves safely, and bring the phone so the person can call 911.

Service Dogs Can Do Housework for People with Limited Mobility

People whose mobility is limited may have service dogs who turn lights on and off or even do the laundry. Debi Davis is a famous clicker trainer who lost both legs to a vascular disorder. Her famous article “From Lap to Laundry” describes how her Papillon Peek hits the snooze button on her alarm, makes the bed, fetches the phone, and takes clean laundry out of the dryer and puts it in the basket.

What Dogs Can Be Service Dogs?

It’s true that the service dogs we see most commonly are Labs, but any dog who’s behaviorally healthy and physically able to perform the needed tasks may be a service dog. And the service dog’s handler is not required to carry any formal certifying documents. In fact, it’s entirely possible that she has no such papers. Many people who need specialized assistance have learned to select and train their own dogs rather than wait for a dog from an agency.

Where Can Service Dogs Go?

If you’re a business owner and a customer enters with a service dog, your legal responsibility is to treat that customer just the way you would anyone else.

If you’re a business owner and a customer enters with a service dog, your legal responsibility is to treat that customer just the way you would anyone else. You are allowed to ask whether the dog is a service dog. You can also remove a customer whose service animal is threatening or out of control, though you probably ought to cut the working team some slack if, say, the dog barks once. Even the steadiest animal gets startled sometimes.

If you’re afraid of dogs, you can ask the customer to position the dog away from you, or have someone else wait on the person. What you can’t do is shunt a disabled customer and his polite service dog off to a distant corner, or charge them special fees, or, you know, generally make a rude jerk of yourself. By the way, it doesn’t matter if your local health department bans dogs, because the right of access is granted by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is a federal civil rights law and it preempts state laws and local ordinances.  (States and localities are free to provide for greater access rights, though.)

How Should You Behave Around Service Dogs?

[[AdMiddle]As for us non-business-owning, non-service-dog-using types, everybody pay attention, because  here’s the great big top-of-the-list rule for how to act when you spot a service dog. Assume the dog is working unless the human tells you otherwise, and don’t glom on. No handling the at-work service dog, no making kissy noises at the doggie, no giving the nice doggie a biscuit, no sending your Pet Zippy to visit Service Dogalini, no matter how well you think they’d get along.

Also, please remember that the service dog has a human attached to her leash. The human is much more likely to be able to converse with you than the dog is, and talking to the dog before you talk to the person, or instead of talking to the person, not only interferes with the dog’s work but is pretty darn offensive. Disabled people get quite enough invisibility, thank you. Odds are also good that they have plenty of conversational topics at their fingertips besides their service dog, what their service dog does for them, and what exactly is their disability anyway and how did it happen.

There is so much more to say and learn about the work of service animals. For instance, an important topic I don’t even have time to touch on is the ethics of using service animals. While service dogs are busy meeting our needs, are we meeting theirs? I have certainly seen enough stressed-looking service dogs to be sure that this subject merits plenty of attention. As for the short take I can give here, doesn’t it amaze you how clever and adaptable our beloved familiar dogs can be?

Thanks to Adam Freedman, QDT’s Legal Lad, for his help clarifying the relationship between state and federal law. You can post comments and questions on my Facebook page, or email me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I read all my mail, and I may use it as the basis for future articles. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini. Thanks for reading!


Animal Legal and Historical Center, Table of State Assistance Animal Laws (updated 2010).

Delta Society, “Articles and Resources Related to Service Animals.” This page also has links to a wealth of information about traveling with a service dog, housing, what to do if you’re denied access, and on and on. I cribbed much of my etiquette advice from the Delta Society’s fact sheet, “Service Dog Etiquette.”

Furlong, Roxanne. “Training Your Own Service Dog,” New Mobility, Dec. 2006.

Handelman, Barbara. “Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog.” 2004. Video download here; DVDs here.

OC-Assist-Dogs. Yahoo! group for service dog handlers, primarily clicker training.

Psychiatric Service Dog Society FAQ; I have no expertise on the subject of PSDs. The training advice here is not up to speed with modern methods, however.

U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. “Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Places of Business.” Jan. 14, 2008.

U.S. Department of Justice, “Fact Sheet: Highlights of the Final Rule to Amend the Department of Justice's Regulation Implementing Title II of the ADA.” Last updated October 7, 2010.

Traditionally, guide dogs have been trained with choke-collar corrections, with the usual dispiriting effects on the animal’s demeanor. Guide Dogs for the Blind is pioneering clicker training and other non-aversive methods of training guide dogs.

Guide Dog image courtesy of Shutterstock

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