Can you train my dog to be a Service Dog?
This article has been written many times recently and I could just link to any of them and save myself some time. However, as a training professional, ethically, I think it is my duty to be as informed as possible in order to give my clients the correct advice, so I decided to do some research and digging myself. Seems that in the past few months every other call we receive is: “I just adopted a dog and I want to make him/her my service dog. Can you help me?” - or “Do you train service dogs?”
Upon further investigation, we usually discover that really what they want is a dog that helps them with some anxiety issues and/or specifically PTSD. Then you have the people who moved in somewhere and they don’t allow pets and they have “heard” or somebody told them that Emotional Support Animals can’t be kicked out. And last but not least are the people who “want to take my dog to the hospital to help the kids.”
And this is the crux of the problem - those are literally 3 different things. But the general public either loops them all together or uses the terms interchangeably.
So here is my attempt to clarify and to explain the differences:
©2016 Astrid Tryon, CPDT-KSA
1 - The Service Dog
A service dog is not a pet. Often times a Service Dog is a lifeline for a disabled person, who wouldn’t be able to function without said Service Dog. In that respect you could view a Service Dog as an “assistive device” for that person (some examples are seeing eye dogs, seizure alert dogs and also psychiatric service dogs that alert to an oncoming panic attack). Service dogs are covered by the American with Disabilities Act, which requires a Service Dog to:
belong to a person with a life-limiting disablity
be trained to recognizing said disability by doing work or tasks
not cause a disruption in public
Through the ADA a Service Dog has access wherever the public is allowed. If a dog is an obvious Service Dog (such as a seeing eye dog), their presence in public may not be challenged. If it is not so obvious that they are Service Dogs, a business owner may ask 2 questions of the handler:
Is this dog a service animal because of a disability? and
What work or task has this animal been trained to perform?
So here it is - a Service Dog needs to be trained to perform a certain task for ONE person. The training does not have to be done by a professional, but can be self-taught. As a minimum they need to always be “under control” of their handler and be house trained. A Service Dog is generally trained to ignore other people (as opposed to a therapy dog), because they need to be focused on their handler and their job. That is also the reason why you should not pet a service dog, because a distraction could literally mean life or death for the handler.
Service Dogs “in training” generally are not protected under the ADA, but certain states may have different rules. Because of them having to be housebroken and well-behaved in public, generally, I would only consider a Service Dog to be “in training” when they could pass the Canine Good Citizen test. It is also good to remember that it can take 1-2 years to fully train a Service Dog. That is provided that they have the temperament for it. So adopting a rescue dog and expecting them to become your Service Dog with a couple of training classes is not as easy as that sounds. That is not to say that rescue dogs can’t be Service Dogs.
Contrary to popular belief there is no need for special vests, patches, harnesses, or special id tags. There is also no certification needed. The following statement is taken directly from the ADA website: “There are individuals and organizations that sell service dog animal certifications or registration documents online. These documents do not cover any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”
There is no breed restriction or exemption on a Service Dog and even if you live in an area with Breed Specific Legislation, or in housing that doesn’t allow pets or restricts breeds and/or sizes, your service dog must be allowed!
2 - The Emotional Support Animal
An ESA is a pet that provides disability relieving emotional support to an individual, but is not necessarily trained to do so. An ESA therefore has no public access rights, but is covered under the Air Carrier Act to be able to fly with their person in the cabin without extra fees, and under the Fair Housing Act to be able to live in housing that normally wouldn’t allow pets. Even in housing that allows pets but charges extra pet deposits and/or rent for animals, you are not required to pay those fees for an ESA.
Contrary to a Service Animal an airline employee or landlord can ask you for documentation for an ESA. They can NOT ask you what your condition is. Documentation usually consists of a letter on a doctor’s or therapist’s/counselor’s letterhead, stating that this animal is providing disability relieving emotional support and that it is necessary for your well-being and being able to function, that this animal is with you.
Again, no registration, special vests or patches are needed. But the animal needs to be well behaved and potty trained. By the way - an emotional support animal is not restricted to dogs; it could be a cat, a pig or even a miniature horse! There is also no breed restriction or exemption on an ESA and even if you live in an area with Breed Specific Legislation or your housing has breed/size/weight restrictions, your ESA must be allowed.
3 - The Therapy Dog
A Therapy Dog is a pet that is trained to interact with many people other than their handler to make those people feel better. Examples are dogs that visit nursing homes and hospitals; dogs that go to court to sit with minors or other traumatized witnesses while they give testimony; dogs that go to the library, so that kids can read to them.
A Therapy Dog does not have public access rights and is only allowed in certain places by prior arrangement.
There is no required registration or certification for Therapy Dogs, however, most places you will want to visit with your Therapy Dog will want you and your dog to be registered or certified by one organization or another, mainly for insurance purposes. At minimum they will require you to have a Canine Good Citizen Test. There are several Therapy Dog Registries with different requirements. (Examples for those are Therapy Dogs International, Pet Partners or Assistance Dogs International).
There is also no breed restriction on a Therapy Dog, however, since they don’t enjoy public access rights, you are not protected in areas of Breed-Specific-Legislation and if the institution you want to visit decides to put breed restrictions in place, you have to follow the rules.
You can see that, with no registration or even identifying requirements, it would be relatively easy to pass your dog off as a Service Dog, just so he can go with you everywhere or also as an ESA to get around housing requirements or Breed Specific Legislation. But please, resist that urge! “Fake Service Dogs” is a current trend that makes it a lot harder for people who legitimately need their dogs to navigate this world. It is not cool! We all would love to have our dogs by our sides - always. Make up for it by picking up a sport or taking them to fun classes during your time off!
The other trend of “can you just train my adopted rescue dog to be my Service Dog” is a little more acceptable, but not always possible. There is a reason that trained Service Dogs cost a lot of money. They are selectively bred for temperament, and they are trained for 1 - 2 years before they are even paired with an individual. That is not to say that a rescue dog cannot become a Service Dog, ESA or Therapy Animal. I know of many rescue dogs that do just that! At least two alumni of Lucky Dog Rescue are registered and certified Therapy Dogs today. And their stories are amazing; but it took time and dedication of their adopters, as well as a lot of training to make it happen. That being said - if you are looking to adopt a dog with the intention of making him/her a Service Dog or Therapy Dog, please hire a trainer before the adoption. Many trainers will go with you and temperament test the dog for you and let you know if they have the potential to fulfill those tasks. And keep in mind that you will still have to put in a lot of time, effort and yes, some money, to get them trained. Either way it will be immensely rewarding. For an ESA, since they don’t have to be trained, it is still a good idea to have a trainer temperament test, but the most important part is the emotional connection you have with the animal.
Here are some great websites that I used for my research for this article, and they go in much more detail than I did in this article:
If after reading all this you are certain you want to train for Service Dog, Therapy Dog or ESA, please give us a call (719) 646-1422.