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What is a Service Dog?

Service Dog Access Questions

In today’s culture, many people understand that a Service Dog “helps people.” It’s all too common, though, for people outside of the Service Dog community to have no idea what Service Dogs do for their people, how to recognize a Service Dog, or how to answer the question, “What is a Service Dog?”

The following conversation (or one similar) is one Service Dog handlers, trainers, users and owners overhear all the time:

Child: “Mommy, look, it’s a dog! Why does that person have a dog in the store?”

Mother: “Well, that’s a, um, a service dog. That dog helps its person.”

Child: “But what’s a service dog?”

Mother: “It’s a, uh, well . . . . It just helps its person with whatever he or she may need help with.”

That exchange unfortunately contains all of the knowledge most people outside of the Service Dog community know about Service Dogs and it’s woefully inadequate. How, then, should the question, “What is a Service Dog?” be answered? Quite simply, with the facts.

A Service Dog is a highly trained working animal purposefully selected and trained to assist an individual with a disability gain independence.

What is a Service Dog: The Simple Definition
A Service Dog is a highly specialized working animal purposefully selected for his or her temperament, stability, biddability (desire and willingness to respond to cues and commands), and health and specifically trained to assist an individual with a disability of any kind, visible or invisible, gain independence.

What is a Service Dog: The Definition for Kids
Many parents would love to answer their child’s questions concerning Service Dogs but don’t know how to make the Service Dog definition child-friendly. To solve their quandary, they resort to using phrases like “helper dogs” or other, supposedly easier, synonyms. However, using a term other than “Service Dog” or “Assistance Dog” doesn’t help a child learn to recognize working teams in the future or allow them learn to educate others as they grow older. Try the following Service Dog definition on for size the next time a child asks, “What is a Service Dog?”:

A Service Dog is a special kind of working dog who has learned how to help someone who has a disability. A disability means a person who has one isn’t able to do everything a person without one can do by themselves, and so their Service Dog helps them with the things they’re not able to do because of their disability.

What is a Service Dog: The Legal Definition 
In America, the definition of a “Service Dog” is provided by United States federal law as part of the March 15, 2011 revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

While the ADA specifically uses the phrasing “Service Animal” in their definition, the definition not only includes dogs, but also excludes other species. So, the term “Service Dog” is adapted from the ADA definition and it’s a species-specific term that means, “Any dog performing the work of a Service Animal.”

The law goes on to note, “Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the laws supporting the Service Dog community, here’s a complete breakdown of U.S. federal Service Dog law in plain English.

A Service Dog Can Be Defined By His or Her Job
It’s incredibly common for a Service Dog to be defined by the job or function he or she performs. While there are more specialized Service Dog jobs with every passing day, here’s a list of some of the more common types of Service Dogs:

  • Visual Assistance Dogs (Commonly called “guide dogs,” “seeing eye dogs,” or “leader dogs,” but those terms refer to Visual Assistance Dogs placed by specific organizations)
  • Hearing Dogs
  • Medical Assistance Dogs
  • Medical Alert Dogs
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs
  • Seizure Assistance Dogs
  • Wheelchair Assistance Dogs
  • Brace Support Dogs
  • Mobility Support Dogs
  • Autism Dogs
  • Sensory Processing Disorder Dogs
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs

To learn more about what each type of Service Dog actually does, check out this fact sheet.

How to Recognize a Service DogService Dog Questions
A Service Dog can be hard to recognize just by looking at it. She may or may not be wearing a vest, harness, identifying gear, or jacket, she may or may not have a handler that “looks” disabled, and she could be any breed, size, or color. The easiest way to identify a legitimate Service Dog is by its behavior. A Service Dog is well-trained, well-behaved, quiet (unless performing a specific task that requires it to make noise), respectful and keeps to his or herself. If you’re not sure if a Service Dog is “real” or not and it isn’t readily apparent the dog is working for its handler, federal law allows you to ask the following two questions:

1.) Is that a Service Dog?

2.)What work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform?

Always be respectful of a handler’s privacy and never inquire about their disability or medical information.

Talk to my handler. Service Dog Etiquette 
When you see a Service Dog in public, there’s a simple rule that always works and that you should always abide by: ignore it. Don’t talk to the Service Dog, try to pet or touch the Service Dog, gawk at or stare at the Service Dog, make noises or bark at the Service Dog, offer the Service Dog food or distract it in any way. If you must ask questions, talk to the handler, not the dog.

While those rules may seem overbearing or harsh, it’s important to understand that the handler’s safety, health or life can depend on the work their Service Dog is doing. If you’re distracting their partner in any fashion, then their Service Dog isn’t doing his job to the best of his ability. Even if a Service Dog doesn’t “look like” its working, if he’s out in public with his handler, he is. Period. Ignore him.

More Service Dog Information
Hopefully, this short guide has helped increase your understanding of Service Dogs and how to better answer the question, “What is a Service Dog” the next time you hear it. Check out our homepage at any time for up-to-date Service Dog news, training advice, information, resources and guides, and feel free to join us on Facebook.

For even more information on what Service Dogs are and what they do, check out this excellent guide by Pawsitive Service Dog Solutions.


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