Dogs are deeply compassionate animals and are always eager to please their owners. And it’s this compassion in our four-legged friends that gives them an inherent ability to recognize when owners are in distress and require aid. This magic combination of empathy and alertness is often why certain breeds make stellar candidates for service dogs.
A service dog is defined by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) as a working dog that has been specially trained to perform tasks for an individual or group with disabilities or specific needs. These needs can range from assistance with mobility and medical care to owners requiring support with mental health conditions such as PTSD and autism.
Service dogs are not to be confused with emotional support dogs and they cannot be considered pets to others while on-duty, as they are trained to assist their handler only. In this guide, we’ll answer many of the common queries relating to service dogs, as well as explore the greatest breeds associated with service dogs.
What Qualifies a Dog to be a Service Dog?
A qualified service dog must be trained to provide specific assistance to owners living with a particular disability or condition. They must also possess the social and behavioral skills to grant them public access.
Service dogs are typically trained in the following categories:
Work tasks – Performing abilities that the owner needs help with, such as fetching medication, opening doors/cupboards or alerting their owner to an oncoming seizure or heart attack.
Socialization – Dogs must not have an excitable temperament around strangers. They must be trained always to be alert and focused. They are on-duty, after all, not to pet and cuddle.
Obedience – All service dogs must master the basic commands of sit, stay, drop, heel etc. and this may take months to achieve depending on the breed.
Public access training – Service dogs should be desensitized to the noises, smells and sensations of public areas and it can require months of training to ensure they follow rules such as:
- No begging for food
- No sniffing/lunging/barking at other people or animals
- No sniffing merchandise/objects
- Relieving themselves on command, not in an inappropriate area
Types of Service Dogs
Service dogs fulfill different roles depending on their handler’s physical, medical and emotional needs and these include:
- Guide dogs – assisting the blind and visually-impaired at home and in public.
- Hearing dogs – alerting owners to doorbells, food timers and other alarms.
- Mobility assistance dogs – aiding handlers with chores, providing balance support and fetching medication and other objects.
- Psychiatric support dogs – recognizing panic attacks and emotional pain to provide comfort and support
- Medical alert dogs – these service dogs support owners with severe and life-threatening medical conditions and fall into the following sub-categories:
- Diabetic alert dogs
- Seizure alert & response dogs
- Cardiac alert dogs
- Allergy detection dogs
Difference Between Service Dog and Emotional Support Dog
As the ADA explains it, a service dog is trained to perform a specific task/job, whereas emotional support dogs (ESAs) simply provide comfort to their owner.
An ESA can overlap into a service dog role if they have legitimate training in a medical capacity i.e. the ability to recognize and prevent an oncoming panic attack or psychotic episode in relation to PTSD or similar disorder that may prevent harm to their owner.
How Much Does a Service Dog Cost?
A service dog can cost around $15,000-$30,000, according to non-profit organization Service Dog Certifications. This not only covers the costs of their training, breeding and ongoing vet bills but also the follow-up support you will need from your selected service dog agency.
How Do Service Dogs Help Humans?
Service dogs help their human owners with multiple needs, including:
- Help owners balance or walk
- Pull wheelchairs up ramps
- Press door buzzers/buttons
- Fetch objects and medication
- Alert to smoke alarms/oven timers/doorbells etc
- Provide stress relief
- Detect oncoming panic/PTSD attacks
- Provide affection and comfort
- Encourage socialization
- Herd and protect vulnerable adults and children
- Sniff out harmful smells
- Detect changes in blood pressure
- Recognize blood sugar/insulin changes
- Anticipate oncoming seizures/heart attacks
- Recognize emergencies and retrieve phone
12 Best Service Dog Breeds
Under ADA guidelines, service dogs can be of any breed. However the following breeds are known to make the most exceptional service dogs in temperament and suitability.
Labrador retrievers are highly intelligent and enjoy forming close bonds with their owners, so they are well-suited to many service dog roles, though they are commonly used to provide mobility assistance to handlers. This is because Lab retrievers are known for having soft mouths – allowing them to pick up objects for their owners without damaging them.
They are also extremely patient and loving, so staying by their owners side in one spot for hours at a time – at the office desk/by their owner’s bedside – is no problem. Labradors are even quick to learn new tasks, so as health needs change, they can adapt.
Golden retrievers are super friendly and easy to train, making them ideal in many service dog roles. Their size and strength makes them ideal for physical work tasks, such as guiding owners with visual impairment and retrieving medication and other items for the mobility-impaired.
Since Goldies are famously sweet and gentle, they also make great service dogs for easing PTSD and anxiety symptoms. In fact, the United Kennel Club classes Golden retrievers as being ‘calm, compatible and compliant – a perfect breed for providing emotional and physical support.
German Shepherds are a powerful, hard-working breed, making them very well-suited to owners with mobility issues, as well as aiding handlers with visual and hearing impairments. Their sheer physical strength means owners can lean on them for support in emergencies.
Despite their intimidating appearance, German shepherds are sensitive enough to recognize when owners are anxious, and they also have a strong sense of smell which can help them detect drops in blood sugar levels – making them a great service dog for diabetic owners.
While Poodles can seem like an odd choice for a service dog, they’re much smarter than people give them credit for. As well as being friendly and easy to train, Poodles come in larger (standard) and smaller (toy and miniature) sizes to suit different service needs.
The larger Poodles, for instance, can perform physical tasks of fetching and guiding visually-impaired owners or aid those with mobility issues, whilst the smaller varieties can provide stress relief and autism therapy, especially in children. Their smaller size means they are easier to take out in public and help to calm anxiety sufferers with comforting licks and light pressure.
Border Collies are considered to be the most intelligent dog breed on the planet so it’s no wonder they’re such fantastic service dogs. Their boundless energy and affection make them ideal for owners with social anxiety, autism, diabetes and ADHD, as these owners benefit from extra physical activity and companionship.
The natural alertness of this breed also means they are a great match with patients with epilepsy and sleep disorders such as narcolepsy since Border Collies can detect subtle changes in sounds and smells – a trait that could prevent fatal accidents and medical emergencies.
Great Danes are gentle giants and excel at the physically demanding work of a service dog as much as the emotional side of owner support. This colossal, lovable breed is particularly well-suited to handlers who need help standing up and keeping their balance, as well as all the daily tasks that aid mobility-impaired owners such as fetching items and medication.
Great Danes are even-tempered and great at keeping a watchful eye on their owner when out in public without losing focus. When they’re not retrieving things and providing mobility care, their warm, calm disposition makes them the perfect cuddle companion for handlers living with PTSD and anxiety.
Bernese Mountain Dogs
This breed was originally reared to pull cattle in the Swiss mountains, so they are more than capable of learning and performing complex physical tasks for their handlers. The strong work ethic of Bernese Mountain dogs, plus their aptitude for working in cold climates, makes them ideal as guide dogs and for aiding owners with mobility limitations all year round.
This big friendly breed also has a very sweet and gentle demeanor, which is why they’re often used to comfort children with autism spectrum disorders and provide comfort and therapy to patients in hospices and nursing homes.
Bloodhounds make an excellent service dog due to their smarts, calm nature and unwavering loyalty. But it’s their famously keen sense of smell (1,000 times stronger than humans!) that puts them ahead of the pack when it comes to monitoring and warning diabetic owners of their blood sugar and insulin levels.
As for their physical strength, Bloodhounds can provide great support and balance for those with mobility limitations. While perfectly capable of fulfilling a service dog role, Bloodhounds tend to be slightly lazy, so they won’t be the best for people with a highly active lifestyle.
Boxers are a sweet-natured and friendly dog breed, and can be a calming influence on children and adults living with autism and anxiety disorders. Their laid-back disposition can provide patients with stable emotional support, but these psychiatric service dogs are equally at home performing physical work tasks for house-bound and mobility-impaired handlers.
The Boxer breed is also quite versatile in that they are large enough to provide sturdy, physical support for owners yet small enough to be suited to small apartments and for trips to crowded public spaces.
While this pocket rocket breed can’t help out with the physical tasks like most service dogs, they love having a job to do and will be perfectly capable of carrying out low-intensity duties for owners with diabetes and mobility issues such as retrieving medication and fetching the phone in case of medical emergencies.
Pomeranians are high-energy dogs too which can put a spring in the step of handlers with mild mental health conditions and make them great companions for owners living alone or perhaps in need of a little extra help in their daily chores.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
One look at their big, round eyes and fluffy ears and you can see why this breed is the favorite of many service dog organizations that specialize in therapy. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel’s are commonly categorized as ‘comfort and companion’ dogs, making this the ideal breed for owners in need of support living with PTSD, anxiety and depression.
Their small stature also makes Cavalier KC Spaniel’s ideal for owners who are house-bound or confined to a wheelchair since they provide care and love without obstructing small and cramped home environments. This breed even has the nickname ‘Velcro dog’ meaning they’re unlikely to leave their owner’s side.
The compact size and energetic personality of Miniature Schnauzers make them an amazing psychiatric service dog for kids and adults alike who may need support with the symptoms of autism, PTSD and anxiety disorders. This breed are also naturally responsive and obedient, making them easy to train, even for owners with little experience in dog training.
While they might lack the physical strength of other service dogs, a Miniature Schnauzer’s real strength lies in providing comfort and well-being to owners with recurring mental health conditions, and their love of exercise and the outdoors can help reduce stress for handlers with social anxiety.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Service Dog Certified?
Depending on the specific tasks and training required of each service dog, the wait for certification can take between 6 months and 3 years. If you train your dog yourself instead of obtaining your service dog through a specialized training agency, you will need to commit to a minimum of 120 training hours for 6 months with a minimum of 30 hours public training.
Can Anyone Buy a Service Dog?
To be eligible for a service dog, you must be disabled under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and this must be determined by your doctor in writing before a service dog is assigned to you.
Can You Be Asked to Prove That Your Service Dog is Qualified?
Under ADA ruling, a disabled dog owner cannot be challenged about their disability, but business owners and employees may ask the following questions if it falls under their pet policy to do so:
- Is your dog a service animal? (business owners and staff are prohibited from asking for documented proof of a service dog’s certification).
- What tasks has your dog been trained to perform in service to you?
A good way to prevent questions when out in public is to obtain a service badge or vest for your dog. These identification tags are not legally required, but they can take the hassle out of navigating security at airports, malls and train stations etc.
How Much Does It Cost to Make Your Dog a Service Dog?
Initial ‘character tests’ (around $400) can be taken to see if your dog has what it takes. After this, attending professional training courses as well as devoting months of your free time to building their skills (on top of paying for their usual care and vet bills) can mean self-training a service dog may set you back between $10,000-$20,000. Your needs and financial situation will ultimately decide upon the best option.
Where Can Service Dogs Not Go?
The official government policy by the ADA states that service dogs can be prohibited from an area if they are likely to “fundamentally alter the nature of goods, services or programs.” Additionally, service dogs may be excluded from certain public areas if they are “out of control and their handler does not take effective action to control them.”
At What Age Do You Start Training a Service Dog?
If possible, it is recommended that you begin training your dog as a puppy (around 18 weeks) so they can begin reacting to commands after the first year or so of training. Training an older dog is possible, but advanced age can make the physical training aspects significantly tougher.
Can Service Dogs Help with Asthma?
Yes, medical alert service dogs can be trained with tasks such as fetching inhalers, providing comfort during mild attacks or retrieving the phone in emergencies. They are trained to recognize when asthma sufferers are in genuine distress, and in the same way a guide dog directs their owner to safety, medical alert dogs can keep asthmatic owners away from environmental triggers.
Dust and pollen are common triggers for asthma attacks and service dogs can detect these pollutants in the air more sensitively then we can, so they will be able to change their owner’s route and pick out a safer path to their destination.
Can You Get a Service Dog for a Heart Condition?
If you’re considered high risk for a heart attack, then a cardiac alert service dog could be invaluable to you. Cardiac alert dogs can offer peace of mind for those living alone with heart disease since they are trained to detect drops in blood pressure, fetch medication and prevent owners from hurting themselves during a fall from loss of consciousness.
For owners living with heart disease, service dogs grant greater independence at home, as well as improving their overall well-being from the companionship they bring.
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