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What do I need to know about getting a service dog?

For thousands of years, dogs have provided us with love, companionship, and security. Records show that as far back as the 16th century, dogs served as guide animals for the blind. Today, the scope of the service dog in human society has broadened to help address many physical and mental challenges that people face. If your someone you know has a disability that may benefit from the use of a service dog, there are a few factors to consider.

Types of Service Dogs

Most of us are probably accustomed to encountering service dogs assisting the visually impaired, but today’s service animals perform a far more diverse array of duties. For example, some dogs are able to detect seizures in humans even before they occur. These specially trained animals can warn their owners of an impending seizure to reduce injuries related to rapid seizure onset. Other service dogs assist those with severe physical impairments, while others help patients with Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes management or provide emotional support to those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Who Qualifies for a Service Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as animals that “are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The physical and emotional services provided by dogs are diverse, as are the organizations that train and provide the animals. Rules for service dog eligibility also vary from one organization to the next, but there are some common factors.

Generally, there is a minimum age (usually between 12 and 14 years old) one must attain before applying for a service animal. Applicants typically have a documented diagnosis of a physical or emotional disability that could benefit from a trained service animal, and they are usually required to have a stable home environment and to be able to participate in the training and handling of the animal. Service dogs have also proven themselves valuable aids for children with disabilities, and here again, the application process and eligibility requirements are determined largely by the organization providing the animal.

What to Consider When Getting a Service Dog

If you are looking to acquire a service animal, here are a few things to consider:

Get the right dog for the job. Understanding the type of work your service dog will need to perform can help you choose the best animal (and breed) for the job. While almost any dog breed can be trained for service work, the most common service breeds are Golden and Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Huskies, Poodles, and bully breeds. It’s also important to understand the medical status of your animal, to ensure it can handle its service tasks without putting its own health at risk.

Find a reliable trainer. Most people in search of a service dog prefer to use an authorized trainer in their area. A trainer will need to come to the home and work with the owner to help the dog master the core tasks it will need to perform.

Educate your animal. There are many specific tasks that service dogs perform—from helping retrieve household items for the physically impaired, to providing emotional stability to those with anxiety. International standards suggest a training regimen of 120 hours over 6 months. In the US, however, there is no set minimum training period, but it is recommended that at least 30 hours of a service dog’s training be spent in public to ensure the animal will be able to preform its tasks in a real world environment.  

Pass the PAT. Service dogs may be required to take a public access test (PAT) before they are eligible to begin their work. The test assesses basic obedience behaviors as well as unacceptable behaviors to ensure that your animal is ready to work in the often crowded or challenging environments of daily life. To pass the PAT, a dog must display no aggressiveness, must stop sniffing manners unless told to do so, must not beg for food or attention, and must be able to remain calm in public.

Certification. While certification of a service animal is not required in the US, many owners prefer to go ahead with the process in order to document their dog’s training. While a disabled person is not required by law to present certification for their service animal, there are still some places where you may be asked to present documentation of your animal’s role as a service dog.

We hope this quick review helps you better understand the roles and eligibility requirements of service dogs. If you are seeking a service animal, check online for resources in your area, and review the text of the ADA’s requirements for service dogs here.


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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