All about the incredible dogs that are trained as service dogs, companion dogs and therapy dogs for the disabled. All about the breeds, the types of service and companion dogs and more...

All About Service Dogs, Companion Dogs and Therapy Dogs
by S. L. Hill

For Americans with disabilities, currently estimated to be approximately 53 million, a service dog has become more than the name implies; they have become constant and caring companions. As defined by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990), they are a dog that "is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability." They are not considered pets.

However, there are other dogs (companion dogs, therapy dogs, social/therapy dogs), which the ADA considers to be pets, not a a dog in service. Even though they are owned by people with disabilities, they are not trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability as defined by the ADA; they provide comfort and companionship. As such, these dogs are not allowed access to public places.

A Brief History of the Service Dog:

The history of dogs being used to aid people who were blind goes back to 1929. Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a woman from Philadelphia who was living in Switzerland around World War II was training German Shepherds for use by the Swiss Army and other metropolitan police units in Europe. It wasn't until she noticed how the Germans were training the dogs for use by blinded veterans of World War I that she realized how valuable the trained dogs could be for disabled persons. She wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post (November 5, 1927) entitled, "The Seeing Eye."

Morris Frank, a blind man living in Tennessee, heard about her article and wrote to her requesting that she show him how to train a dog to be of service to help him and other blind people become more independent. He was flown to Switzerland and Ms. Eustis trained a dog named Buddy to work with Mr. Frank, which he then took back with him to the United States. Mr. Frank and Buddy traveled across the United States successfully showing everyone how Buddy could help him maneuver through all kinds of traffic situations.

Ms. Eustis returned to the United States and in February of 1929, the first training classes to train these dogs were held in Nashville, Tennessee. Ms. Eustis subsequently established The Seeing Eye in 1931 in Morristown, New Jersey, which is the current location of their only campus. There are no other branches. The breeding programs began in 1941, using German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. It wasn't until 1990, when the final version of the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law that a definition was given for a service animal together with the federal rights afforded a disabled person who owned one.

Rights of the Disabled Person:

Contrary to what many people think, a dog trained for such service is not a pet and their owners have the following rights:

  1. are allowed in all public places, including, but not limitd to, stores, restaurants, theaters, public transportation, public schools, hotels, etc.
  2. is not allowed in a sterile surgical setting.
  3. is not required to wear any vest or identification tag and the owner is not required to carry any identification papers. In instances where a dog is not easily recognizable as a service dog, an owner may be asked to provide certification, but they are not required by law to do so.
  4. owners are required by law to abide by all leash and vaccine laws.
  5. a person may ask if the dog is a dog trained for service, but cannot ask any questions pertaining to the disabled person's type of disability.
  6. a disabled person with a service dog cannot be asked to leave an establishment because a patron or employee feels uncomfortable around dogs.
  7. in the rare instances where a dog trained for service may become disruptive or destructive, the proprietor has the right to ask them to leave and the disabled person is responsible for any physical damage caused by the dog.
  8. some state laws may have access restrictions, requiring certain equipment to be used, certification, trainers, etc, but when federal law allows you more rights, federal law prevails over state law.
  9. currently, the ADA does not include dogs that are in training, only those that are fully trained. Some states restrict dogs that are in training, and in that event, state law prevails.

Breeds of Service Dogs:

The most commonly used breeds for dogs to be in service in the United States are those with high recognition potential, such as Labrador Retrievers (yellow and black), Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. Approximately 60-70% of all guide dogs in the U. S. are Labrador Retrievers. They are considered the best breed for this type of work because of their temperament, intelligence, versatility, size and availability. There are many other breeds of dogs, such as Boxers, Flat and Curly Coated Retrievers, Border Collies, Huskies, Doberman Pinchers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Australian Shepherds, German Short-Haired Pointers, Dalmatians, Standard Poodles and some mixed breeds, which are also used, but currently, the most popular is the Labrador Retriever.

Some organizations are shying away from German Shepherds for two reasons. Even though German Shepherds fit all the requirements, some people still view (fear) them as "police dogs" or "guard dogs." In addition, German Shepherds tend to bond strongly with their owners more than other breeds. This can cause a problem for training if it was raised as a puppy by one family, then trained by a different person and then given to the new owner.

The average working life of a service dog is eight years, but some have been in service for 11-12 years or longer. Upon retirement from service, an owner may choose to keep their dog as a pet and acquire a new dog as their working dog.

Types of Service Dogs:

Guide Dogs
Most widely known for helping people who are visually impaired by being their eyes and guiding the owner safely through obstacles such as climbing stairs, walking through crowds on sidewalks, maneuvering through traffic intersections, etc. These guide dogs will usually wear some type of harness.

Hearing Dogs
Also known as "signal dogs," assist hearing impaired persons by alerting them to sounds such as bells, whistles, phones, babies crying, smoke alarms, etc. Breeds such as Border Collies and Corgis are sometimes used because the size of the dog is not important; they are only alerting the owner to a sound and the dogs can be carried by the owner.

Mobility Assistant Dog
Assists persons who have spinal cord injuries, arthritis, pulmonary conditions or any other condition which may confine them to a bed or wheelchair by helping the owner to get dressed or undressed, carrying items on backpacks, pulling wheelchairs, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, picking up dropped items, putting clothes in the washer and drier, picking up the phone, etc.

Walker Dog
Performs many of the tasks of a Mobility Assistant Dog, but also acts as a balancer or counter balancer for a person having difficulty walking but not necessarily confined to a wheelchair.

Seizure/Alert Response Dog
Assists persons who are prone to seizures (e.g., epilepsy) by either lying on the owner to make sure they do not smother themselves with pillows or get up and injure themselves, or by leaving to get help. Some owners have prearranged a 911 button that the dog is trained to push and when answered, bark into the phone to alert emergency personnel. These seizure/alert response dogs can only be trained to react when the seizure happens; however, some dogs have been known to alert their owner before a seizure occurs. This is not something that can be trained and is not found in all dogs; however, some dogs have been able to sense chemical imbalances and will alert the owner in various ways before the seizure occurs.

Psychiatric Service Dog
Assists a person with a mental disorder, such as autism or agoraphobia, to keep them focused and safe. They are trained to NEVER leave the person's side, thus giving the person with agoraphobia a sense of security.

Ssig Dog
Assists an autistic person basically the same as they assist visually, hearing or mentally impaired people. But since autistic persons are known for repetitive behavior, the Ssig dogs are trained to alert them to such repetitive movements by gently placing its paw on the owner signaling that they should stop the disruptive behavior. With autistic children, the service dog becomes a friend that the child will often speak to when they won't speak to adults. These dogs can be fit with two leashes - one for the autistic child to hold and one for the parents to hold - and will accept commands from the parents, thus providing a small sense of freedom for the child and the parent. Some autistic children have been known to give verbal commands to the dog even when they won't speak to anyone else.

Combo Dog
Assists persons with multiple disabilities, such as a guide/mobility dog for someone who is visually impaired and confined to a wheelchair, or any other combination of disabilities.


Dogs are not trained to be in service until they are about 18 months old. Before that time, puppies undergo normal training for basic dog obedience, focusing on socialization and good manners. For some unknown reason, puppies that are raised by young teenage children more easily adapt to professional guide dog training, so many trainers work with 4-H clubs. The children are encouraged to expose the puppies to new environments, such as crowds, traffic and other animals to see how they react and to reward them for good behavior. The children are instructed to teach them basic obedience commands, such as "sit," "down," etc., but the actual guide training is done by the professionals.

Formal training takes about four to six months, depending on the type of service a dog is being trained for. In addition to basic obedience taught by the puppy raiser, advanced obedience and "intelligent obedience" is taught at the training school.

Intelligent obedience trains the dog to disregard a command if it would lead their owner to danger. For example, dogs are color blind so they can't determine if a traffic light is red or green. The owner will learn in training how to judge the movement of traffic by sound before giving the forward command, but if the dog senses danger, it will not move forward until it is safe to do so.

Not all dogs will pass the training to become a dog in service. Some dogs have a difficult time transitioning from their puppy home to a kennel and some just get stressed out. In addition, before training is started a dog will be screened for health problems. If a hip problem is discovered, the dog will immediately be retired. If a dog fails training for any reason, the puppy raiser has the option of taking the dog back. If for some reason they decline, the dog is placed in a home, where the waiting list is long for people desiring these dogs.

Prospective owners of the trained dogs must also undergo several weeks of training with their dog. Most of the time, the owner will attend residential training classes; however, there are some schools which will visit a person's home for the training.

During the training, owners will learn how to effectively communicate with their dog through commands and how to care for their dog.

To avoid the long wait for a service trained dog (up to six years), some people have trained their own dog; however, if the owner is not a professional trainer, it is suggested that the dog be trained by a professional. A dog is considered a service dog by the ADA if the owner has a disability that substantially limits a life function as defined by the ADA and the dog has been trained to respond to a command to assist the owner.

Cost for Service Dogs:

The average cost for breeding, raising and training a dog for service is about $20,000; however, the majority of these dogs are acquired through non-profit organizations. As a result, disabled persons will only pay between $100-200, which covers the cost of the dog, the training and the application fee. The remaining cost is covered by donations, endowments, or other sources including volunteers. Some programs cost considerably more and some charge fees for subsequent visits, but you may get your dog sooner.

Public Awareness:

Service dogs are working dogs for the disabled and as such, there are certain things that the public should consider when meeting a service dog:

  • Do not pet or call the service dog by its name. This can distract the dog and may cause harm to the owner. Ask the owner for permission.
  • Do not feed the service dog. These dogs are usually on a special diet and giving them morsels of food may distract them and may cause harm to the owner.
  • If you think that a disabled person requires your help, please ask them. Do not try to give aid if they are with a service dog. Your intent may be misleading.
Most service dogs are instantly recognizable by the general public, either by the breed of the dog, or because the dog is wearing a harness or backpack, or because the dog is with a visibly disabled person. But there are times when the dog is not recognized as a service dog and is with someone who does not have a visible disability. If an owner would like the general public to know that the dog is a service dog, he/she can purchase various items for identification purposes, such as vests or tags. But for privacy rights, the law does not require any identification. If a disabled person enters a public place with the service dog, there are only two questions the general public can ask: Are you disabled? and "Is your dog a service dog?

The answer must be Yes to both questions because a person who is not disabled cannot take a service dog into a public place, unless it is being delivered to the disabled person (e.g., an owner who is hospitalized, etc.).

There are numerous non-profit organizations and related resources for disabled persons searching for a service dog. You can access the information via the Internet by typing "service dog" in the search engine and you will receive all the information you need to find a program and a service dog to fit your needs.

Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990 (ADA, 1990)