Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.

One Size Does Not Fit All: SMALL Breeds That Serve

Oh, how cute, look at that face! Sooo adooorable. For disabled individuals who use small breed service dogs, those kind of endearments are unfortunately not met with the appreciative responses one might expect from a small breed Service Dog owner.

Lack of public education hurts disabled individuals who use small breed Service Dogs

“A 9-pound Papillion,” you may say with reserve and incredulity, “is not a breed that can handle the job of a traditional Assistance or Service Dog.” Hold on – that’s exactly where the public’s lack of knowledge can hurt disabled individuals who rely on small breed Service Dogs to perform tasks and work in ways and places large breeds prove awkward.

Any Service Dog’s job is more than ‘just a job’ it’s breaking that job down into tasks that the dog can perform. Many tasks are layered by giving consecutive cues to complete the task.

SD Peek assisting with laundry.

For retrieval it may involve several steps to complete the task and can go as follows:

1)    Look

2)    Get It

3)    Hold

4)    Bring

5)    Give (or) Drop

As was a prior experience for Debi Davis, a double leg amputee who uses a power wheelchair for mobility and lives in Las Vegas with her husband and current small breed Service Dog, Cooper.

“Rolling through the front door, I spotted the manager heading toward us, to let me know we were not welcomed in his restaurant. I smiled as he approached me and my Papillion, Peek, in a sit position next to my wheel chair.”

In no mood for a confrontation, Davis waited until the manager was almost to her, and then noisily dropped her keys. “Oops!” Debi said, using one of her secret cue words for her dog to get the object. Her dog immediately responded, picked up the keys, assumed a “paws up” position with his front paws on the edge of her wheel chair, and held the keys in his mouth until she was ready to take them.

Davis often has to stop and take time out of her day to educate the public. “This little dog makes my bed and does the laundry. I don’t know what I’d do without him.” It was worth the two years of training, Davis explains, to get her former Service Dog Peek, to his skill level.

The manager remained mute and a bit stunned to learn this fluff ball was a service dog, capable of performing a task in spite of his non-traditional appearance. Like many business owners, this man had never seen a legitimate Service Dog so small.

Small breed Service Dogs are often seen as the exception rather than the rule.
But that isn’t the truth.

SD Peeks helping pull off a jacket.

Many small breed Service Dogs and their owners tend to stay away from the public spotlight, unlike Debi Davis, who makes it her mission to educate the public rather than go on the defensive, or even worse, into isolation, as some small Service Dog owners tend to do for fear of altercations and out-right rejection.

The media fuels small breed Service Dog discrimination

With the media coverage of “fake,” poorly-trained or insufficiently-trained Service Dogs it has made it even more difficult for the small breed Service Dog owners. Often, they have to work twice as hard to get an accepting audience and admission into restaurants and on public transit.

The public is used to seeing large breeds doing service dog work, but a small breed dog is almost immediately thought of as a charlatan, a fake, a toy masquerading as a Service Dog.

Even Service Dog programs can sometimes overlook the abilities of small breed working dogs. The Golden Retrievers, Labs, and Shepherds tend to take over the spotlight. They are known for their even temperaments, size, and strength for pulling wheelchairs, opening heavy doors, and bracing, for maintaining a person’s balance, or for help with getting up and down.

However, not all disabilities require assistance with tasks involving heavy doors and a person’s dead weight. If it is an issue of mobility, the Service Dog may be needed only for the following tasks:

• retrieving objects

• sound alerting

• seizure alert

Small breed Service Dogs are often the better option for many disabled individuals

In many cases a small dog may be a better option, as a Service Dog, especially in large cities where most city apartments tend to be small dens – rather than grand mansions.

Many disabled seniors prefer a small breed Service Dog. Travel by car, cab, or plane is easier, the amount of food consumed is considerably less, and living quarters less crowded.

ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations define Service Animal’ as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability and perform many disability-related functions, including but not limited to:

  • guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision
  • alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds
  • providing protection or rescue assistance
  • pulling a wheelchair
  • fetching items
  • alerting persons to impending seizures

Small breed Service Dogs are just as capable of performing a specific task as a large Service Dog and must be taken just as seriously.

So please don’t judge people — or dogs — solely on their appearance.  And remember, great Service Dogs can come in SMALL packages.




Learn more about voluntary, community-defined training and behavior standards for handlers and their Service Dogs at


Bev Thompson is a Feature Writer covering stories about Service and Working Dogs for online and magazine publications and is the recipient of Excellence in Writing Nominations from The Dog Writer’s Association of America (DWAA). She lives in New York City with her Sealyham Terrier, Pip, who is Full of The Dickens, stirring the pot competing and titling in companion and performance events and currently ‘getting nosey’ in her Scent Work Classes.


  • mperuo December 2, 2014

    Great article. I learned a lot. I enjoy reading your articles.

    • Bev Thompson December 2, 2014

      Thank you so much, Marsha.

  • Cathy December 2, 2014

    Great article! My Hearing Dog is a cocker spaniel, terrier something mix. He is a short, but solid guy at 35 lbs. I have gotten looks when we go in places because of his smaller size. Even family and friends were skeptical when I first got teamed with him. Everyone does expect a lab or Shepard. My guy is perfect because I live alone in a small apartment. He is a bit heavy for me to carry, but if I ever need to I can. He does not need to help me with any physical things, but he does awesome with alerting me to my world. On days my balance is a mess (wonderful side effect from my messed up ears) he knows and takes care of me. He has turned out to be my best buddy and my ears. I no longer feel afraid, and my kids feel a lot better knowing he is watching over me.
    I admit I was one of the people who did not think a service dog could be small, but now I know better. 🙂

    • Bev Thompson December 3, 2014

      Thank You, Cathy. So glad you have a Hearing Service Dog – and sounds like your Cocker/Terrier mix is a perfect fit for you and – embraced by your entire family. I’m partial to terriers myself, however picking mine up at 25 pounds is a bit much; I cannot imagine 35 pounds! Good hearing from you and thank you for coming to know, and love, your SMALL buddy. Very Best.

  • Carolyn Angiolillo December 5, 2014


    Great article highlighting these characteristics that small dogs have that many do not know about. Excellent!


    • Bev Thompson December 11, 2014

      Thank you, Carolyn. “Our Little-Big Service Dogs – doing great work!”

  • Darlene December 9, 2014

    We have a little chicquaqua? here in our park. He jumps in our cart for a pet and he has been seen running across the road barking and this is my question, if a hearing service dog supposed to be alert to its hearing impaired person, shouldn’t he be with him at all times? It upsets me that there are “service dogs” who are wonderful angels to their person, then there are “service dogs” (companions) that are ruining it for the legitimate “service animals”. And they say we can’t do anything about them, don’t get me wrong, we love all animals and have had many.
    We are supposed to be a pet free park (because of the alligators) now we have so called (companion or therapy dogs) and they flaunt it. I have seen service dogs at WORK and this does not appear to be one. Again, my question is-shouldn’t a service dog be with its owner at all times? Thank you

    • Bev Thompson December 11, 2014

      Thank you, Darlene, for raising this question. A Service Dog’s job/task/primary focus is the owner; a working ‘angel’ on a leash.

    • Janet December 19, 2014

      Darlene, small dogs are great for people with ptsd, chronic depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, socialization disorders, and many other illnesses that are just as real and debilitating as physical limitations. Companion and therapy dogs are very much needed. These dogs need more socialization with people than larger working service dogs since calming and socialization is a large part of their work. Please become more informed and less judgemental. These kind of comments can be harmful to those in need of this type of therapy and defeats the purpose of this type of therapy for many. Also just like in anything in life there are and always will be those cheaters but the innocent should not have to suffer for it.

      • Deborah April 29, 2015

        I am just starting my training with my first service dog. My angel is for multiple reasons and she is the 70 lbs usual golden people are used to seeing. I am unable to run with her, and give her the exercise she genuinely needs so you would likely see her running when off leash so she can stay healthy. you might also see her run to get help if I needed it, as she is trained to do so. we oft times do not understand the shoes others must walk in so before you judge this animal, please think that it may be just her healthy daily run. just a thought. God Bless.

        • Tony cota August 25, 2017

          My only problem is that there is a difference between a service dog and a therapy dog. How do we as a company look at this

  • Jennifer December 9, 2014

    Great article. My SD is small as well and though she isn’t able to do mobility work she is able to stay extremely close or on my lap due to size. She can also perform every task needed and it’s easier for me to provide daily care for her as opposed to a large breed.

    • Bev Thompson December 11, 2014

      Thank you, Jennifer. I am so happy your Service Dog is performing specific tasks for your needs; I find small breeds are easier for daily care, too.

  • lynda December 30, 2014

    These smaller assistance dogs are without a doubt amazing- I’m currently a raiser/sitter for a small rescue dog (mix terrier) he will graduate in about one month to become a hearing dog and will change someone’s life. He is beyond smart and extremely bright. Although I will miss him once he’s placed I know he is going to do someone a great service don’t overlook the smaller dogs and the work they do for people who have impaired challenges in their life.

    • Cathy January 1, 2015

      As a recipient of a Hearing Dog I know how awesome and life changing they are!! I thank you Lynda for all the work you do to help another person get a set of “ears”! I got my guy 4 years ago and within the first week he opened up my world like it had not been open in years! He is a small dog in height but a medium in body. And is a huge dog in personality!
      It is awesome people like you who make a difference one dog at a time. 🙂

      • Bev Thompson January 6, 2015

        The “little, BIG dogs are awesome!” So happy your world has ‘opened up’ because of your Hearing Dog.

    • Bev Thompson January 6, 2015

      Thank You for All you do for Service Dogs and their eventual placements.

  • Elizweinert February 4, 2015

    Was ejected from training at well known (and well government funded agency). Was told my service dog (less than 20lbs, kept on leash at all times, still not fully trained though – how do I familiarize/socialize without exposure to all situations I anticipate being in) made someone uncomfortable. I was refused responses to my inquiries as to who these people were. No written policy either.

    The director at this well funded agcy hovered over me until I left.

    Disabled individual intimidated so that I no longer feel worthy of starting my own business. Through these trainings I could have learned to be independent and support myself doing something I love. Once again forced back into system of dependency

    Sad. Disappointed. Hope everyone is satisfied there and getting what they want. It is going to be a cold

    • Bev Thompson March 17, 2017

      So sorry you encountered a negative experience. It is sad and disappointing when others may not understand our circumstances. My heart goes out to you.

  • Patti August 3, 2015

    I admire the way Debi Davis educates others with her actions. Clever approach.
    A little patience goes a long way, on both sides. ?

  • Karen Mino February 22, 2016

    God day Miss Bev, Karen here, Rising Hope Ranch could you please let me know of any s.d. trainers in the So Calif, Wittier area. We rescue & it seems that God has blessed me with 5 puppies that would be wonderful. Rescued their brindle chi. Momma after a week persuit & 2wks.later she delivered. We are celebrating their birthday tomorrow 🙂 I know that God has plans for them to be a blessing so we are on this journey & would greatly appreciate any help. God’s richest blessings to you and please know that He loves you O:-)

  • Sarah V. April 1, 2016

    This article was so informative! I’d never seen a small service dog before tonight and was curious about the idea. A woman walked into the restaurant I was in, holding her dog wearing a “service dog” vest, and was seated. This is definitely something that the public should be more aware of, especially if most owners avoid public places to avoid confrontation!

    • Bev Thompson March 17, 2017

      Sorry to have just seen your message. Yes, education is our best tool for informing others about Service Dogs. No need for confrontation or avoidance. Thanks for responding, Sarah.

  • Wayne W April 7, 2016

    First of all, I applaud “real” service animals, their owners and especially, the trainers. I am in management at a prominent franchised hotel, and as I see it, the ADA has done a great job in helping those in need. On the other hand, here it comes… The owners of FAKE service animals should be hung out to dry. They, and their untrained dogs make it so that ALL dogs entering an establishment are immediately thought of as fakes. Their owners buy fake “service dog” vests and parade them everywhere. They act obviously different than real service dog owners in that they are cocky about their “right” to have the dog with them. They feed the dog from their plates in the breakfast area, and the dogs sniff at other people and try to get to other folk’s tables. The little dogs are hyper and at times bark. Other guests glare at them and hotel employees try to hold their temper.
    The ADA has enabled this fiasco by not requiring the registration of service animals. Rabies shots and the metal I.D. tag for proof of inoculation are an example of what the ADA could implement. The ADA has no qualms about requiring businesses to spend thousands upon thousands in restrooms, doorways, ramps, parking spaces, pool lifts, etc. to be in compliance with their regulations, or face lawsuits. A collar tag proving the dog is a real service animal would help allay SO many issues. As it is, businesses can only ask two questions to verify the truthfulness of a service dog’s legitimacy-
    Copied from the ADA website: Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. Beginning on March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA.
    As it stands, the ADA has left this issue WIDE open to any who feel they have the right to do as they wish, regardless of what rules the rest of the world must abide by.
    In summation, my heart goes out to those in need of a real service animal, but, to those who fake it so that they can have their pets with them by abusing the rules, may the fleas of a thousand camels invade your armpits!!!

  • Brittany April 29, 2017

    You forgot diabetes my small service dog before she was stolen helped me with tasks cuz of my back at home and out and about but also at home she would alert my husband when his blood sugar was too high or too low… Her being a Maltese it was hard for people to believe but she was wonderful and she was also the only dog I wasn’t allergic to


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.