Many people want to make their dogs Service Dogs (SD) so that the dog can go to public places with them. It is actually illegal for someone who does not have a diagnosed disability (physical or mental) to have and use service dogs. There are many people with a true need who would benefit from a service dog and want to train their current companion dog to perform their needed service. But, is every companion dog suited to the job of performing a service?
The short answer is a resounding…No. In fact, most dogs are not well suited for Service Dog work.
It takes a special dog to be a good Service Dog. This doesn’t mean your dog isn’t wonderful and perfect for you. It doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t provide great comfort to you. But to be a quality Service Dog, a dog not only has to learn to perform specific tasks, but they must also be skilled at public access (PA) tasks. This is where most dogs fail the Service Dog requirements.
Now, I should be clear, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that anyone can train a dog to be an Service Dog. Further, there is no official certification or licensing required – and this is where the trouble occurs. In recent years, many people have taken advantage of the ADA’s efforts to avoid restrictions for those who truly need a Service Dog. This has created an influx of untrained and ill-mannered dogs who are not suited to the task of service being in public and labeled “Service Dog”. My aim here is to clarify what it takes to make a quality Service Dog.
Service Dog Requirements
Along with performing at least one specific task, on cue, which allows the human to live more independently, a Service Dog must demonstrate certain public skills. These skills include heeling in crowds, ignoring people and dogs, not being frightened by the sudden appearance of people, animals, or objects near them, and not bothered by noises. Service Dogs should be what trainers call “bomb proof”. This means they take in stride all sorts of distractions and startling events while remaining focused on their handler and ready to do their job.
While Service Dogs are allowed full access to all public spaces, business owners can ask a Service Dog/handler team to leave if the dog doesn’t display good public skills. If the dog is in any way disruptive, the business owner can insist the dog leave the space. Disruptions include: going to the bathroom inside, barking or whining, lunging, snapping or biting, wandering away from the handler, climbing on furniture or blocking the flow of traffic by not sitting close to or under the handler.
If your dog wants to say hello to every person and dog she sees, she is not well suited to Service Dog work. If she is easily startled by noises or movements or proximity to strangers, she is not suited to Service Dog work. If she’s not potty trained, she is not suited to Service Dog work. If she must ‘talk’ about everything she sees, or she believes she must sit in the middle of the aisle at the end of her leash, she is not suited to Service Dog work.
Of course, some of these things can be worked on and improved through training. But some of these things may be the personality of the dog you own. It’s not a failure of you or your dog if she is not suited to Service Dog work (neither of my dogs are suited for it). If you have a dog and have a real need for a Service Dog, I encourage you to speak with a reputable trainer who trains Service Dogs for a living and have them assess your pet dog to determine if she is suited to service work. If the answer is no, that’s OK. You can have the trainer help you find an appropriate addition to your family who can fill the role of Service Dog for you.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.