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The Essentials

  • Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks — Such as detecting low blood sugar levels for someone with diabetes or guiding a person who is visually impaired. 
  • They are different from emotional support animals —  One is professionally trained to do tasks while the other offers support with no training. 
  • These are not your average pet — According to the ADA, service dogs are classed as working dogs, not pets.

Service dogs are more than just pets — they’re trained to complete specific tasks to assist people with disabilities and improve their quality of life. 

From guiding individuals with visual impairments to detecting medical emergencies, service dogs provide invaluable support in addition to companionship.

If you’re considering getting a service dog, it’s vital that you understand what all is involved.

What is a service dog?

Service dogs have an essential role to play. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), these working dogs are trained to support people with specific disabilities in their everyday lives.

For example, you may have seen a person with a vision impairment walking with a service dog. “Seeing-eye dogs,” as they’re called, are trained to navigate their owners through public spaces, making sure they avoid obstacles and other hazards. 

Canine companions can be trained to work with people who have other types of disabilities, too. For example, they can be there for those with hearing impairments, mobility issues, epilepsy, diabetes, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

From bringing medication to their owner to making sure their best friend remains safe during a seizure, service animals are trained to provide crucial — sometimes life-saving — tasks. 

For a person with a disability, having access to one of these working dogs can be life-changing. Dogs that have been through intensive service dog training can give their owners more independence and confidence.

But what about emotional support animals?

It’s important to note that service dogs and support animals aren’t the same thing.

Emotional support animals offer companionship and, unlike service dogs, they can be any type of animal. For example, some people have cats, birds, or rabbits as emotional support pets. While emotional support animals are still beneficial, they don’t have the training that a service dog has — and even if they did have the training, they need to perform a physical task. The ADA does not count “keeping someone calm” as a physical task.

And while service dogs have access to all buildings and can fly for free with their owner, emotional support pets don’t have the same privileges aside from being immune from housing discrimination.

Understanding the different types of service dogs

There are a variety of “types” of service dogs. In other words, service dogs can be specifically trained for a range of different needs. Let’s delve into some of the most common types of service dogs. 

Allergy dogs

Allergy dogs are trained to support people with severe allergies. Affectionately known as “peanut dogs,” these life-saving canines can detect a range of allergens.

Allergy service dogs survey the area and use their scent-sniffing abilities to flag any risks to their owner. For example, they may sniff for traces of nuts, soy, wheat, or eggs. 

If they detect the allergen, they will alert their owner to help them avoid potentially life-threatening reactions.

Diabetic alert dogs

Diabetic alert dogs make excellent canine companions for those needing to track their blood sugar and insulin levels. They go through a rigorous training process to learn how to provide essential functions to their owners.

Maintaining insulin levels is essential for diabetic individuals. Both low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can cause a range of serious medical symptoms if left untreated.

If their handler’s blood sugar levels aren’t in balance, the dog will notice changes in their body scent and alert them.

Guide dogs

Guide dogs, or seeing-eye dogs, are matched with owners who are blind or vision impaired. They help with a range of daily tasks, including walking, shopping, and catching public transport, and they usually wear a harness with an extended handle on it for their owner to easily hold.

Training programs for these canines can take months as they must learn how to maintain focus in busy environments and navigate obstacles such as curbs, low-hanging branches, and potholes. 

The guide dog and their owner work as a team, as there are limits to what a pup can do. 

Psychiatric service dogs

Service animals aren’t just for those with physical disabilities. People with mental illnesses can also benefit from a psychiatric service dog.

There’s a range of psychiatric conditions these service animals can help with. For example, they can be trained to work with people who are diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.

A psychiatric service dog can fetch medication, look for signs of a panic attack, or bark to let others know their handler needs space. They can also support someone with a cognitive disability.

Seizure alert dogs

Professional trainers can teach dogs to recognize the signs of an impending seizure. These dogs are often matched with people with epilepsy. 

Seizure alert dogs warn their handlers, giving them time to prepare for the seizure. For example, they’ll use specific behaviors, such as barking or circling, to give their handler time to find a safe space. 

The dog may also sit with the handler during the seizure and offer them comfort afterward, or they can go find help if necessary.

How to get a service dog: learn the process

Getting a service dog is a big decision that requires careful consideration and planning. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process of obtaining a service dog:

Determine if a service dog is right for you

The first step is to decide if a service dog is right for you. Can an animal help you with your specific needs? 

For example, if there’s a risk you may have a seizure and it’s impacting your decision to leave the house, then a service dog could be the perfect solution.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling lonely and simply want the companionship, you won’t qualify for a service dog and can look into an ESA instead.

Also, keep in mind that you’ll need to take care of your service dog. Even though your pooch will be trained, they’ll still need a healthy diet, regular veterinary care, and some grooming. Dogs also have exercise requirements — though they’ll likely get plenty of stimulation helping you in your day-to-day life.

For advice, you can discuss your options with a healthcare professional who’s familiar with your disability.

Research organizations

You can research different service dog organizations to learn what they have to offer. Look for a reputable program, such as one that’s approved by Assistance Dogs International (ADI). The organization should have experience training dogs for your specific disability.

During the application process, you’ll be asked to verify your disability. You may also have to meet other minimum requirements, such as being over a certain age, having the ability to care for a dog, and being in a suitable location.

Also, consider your budget. Some charities and not-for-profits can provide service dogs at little or no cost, while other organizations may require a significant financial commitment.


If you decide to get a service dog through an organization, the dog will undergo rigorous training — usually from puppyhood until their two — to learn specific tasks. This training will be customized to suit your lifestyle.

You’ll also be trained on how to handle and care for the dog.

Sometimes, individuals with experience owning pets choose to train their own service dogs. If you choose this option, it’ll be a big time commitment. Be prepared to offer consistent training (upwards of two years) until your dog has their job mastered.

Service dogs and pet-related restrictions

If a person with a disability has a service dog, their dog is allowed to go ‌anywhere with them. Even if the handler is in hospital or staying at a hotel, the dog is permitted to be there. People can even take their service dogs to their place of employment as a reasonable accommodation.

What does this look like for renters? While landlords can make decisions about pets, there are different rules for service dogs.

Landlords can’t discriminate against applicants with a disability, and pet restrictions can’t include service animals. They can ask if you have a disability and if your dog is trained to perform a specific task — nothing else. 

For more information, read about The Fair Housing Act guidelines.

Start the process of getting a service dog

Service dogs are highly trained animals that aid people with physical disabilities and mental health conditions. They can perform specific tasks, such as fetching medications, navigating public facilities, and sniffing for allergens.

If you want to get a service dog, you’ll need to meet the minimum criteria. For example, your day-to-day life should be made easier with this type of support. And, as a service dog handler, you’ll need to be committed to caring for the animal. 

Remember, these special pets can go anywhere with their handlers. Anti-discrimination laws protect people with disabilities and their working dogs.