Pets provide companionship and entertainment, but some have even more important roles. Service animals help people with disabilities daily, and there are many different types of service pets:

What Are Service Animals?

A service animal is an animal, typically a dog, that has been specially trained to be able to complete tasks for someone who has some form of disability whether physical, mental, or emotional. These working animals go through training tailored to their owner’s needs. For example, a dog that is trained to help a visually-impaired individual will often aid in tasks like navigation, but a dog trained to protect someone with a severe allergy will be focused on identifying the presence of an allergen before it can cause harm.

Dogs tend to have greatly enhanced senses as compared to a person, especially in terms of smell. This allows them to detect things that could be harmful to their owner both externally, as in the allergy example above, and internally. A dog trained for someone with a seizure disorder can alert the person when a seizure is about to begin as well as help prevent harm during an episode. This same use of dogs’ sensory capabilities can be utilized for people living with diabetes, as they can be trained to detect high and low blood sugar.

Service animals can also make a huge difference for those suffering from certain psychological disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to offering the companionship and comfort of pets, these dogs perform specific tasks that can help their owners function in times of difficulty. Tasks such as guiding an owner during disorientation, distracting and redirecting from destructive behaviors, and finding help are a few of the ways these animals provide aid to individuals.

Finally, some service dogs are not assigned to a specific person but instead to a specific task. The best example of this are rescue dogs. These animals are not trained to care for a single person but instead to be used by an organization to find and render aid to those in need of rescue.

The Types of Service Animals

There are actually three main types categories you may think of when considering service animals: therapy animals, emotional support animals, and service animals. A true service dog will, as mentioned above, be specially trained to help with a specific disability. These dogs are considered working animals, and their use is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service dogs are legally allowed to remain with their owners in many situations where pets are not, such as in commercial establishments, and are expected to remain under their owner’s control so  they can perform important tasks.

Emotional support dogs are also relatively common but are significantly different than service dogs. These animals are typically utilized by individuals with psychological or emotional disorders, such as severe anxiety, and help by providing comfort to their handlers and reducing their stress. While these dogs do not have to be specially trained, their use is often prescribed by a physician. There is not as much legal protection offered to emotional support dogs, but they are protected in certain situations, including in housing that generally does not allow pets as well as in airline passenger cabins. While specific training is not required, these animals should be relatively well-behaved to be effective and not cause a disturbance. It is worth noting that service animals do not have to be a dog, although dogs are among the most commonly used species.

Therapy dogs are used by organizations and facilities as a source of comfort for patients rather than only helping an individual. These dogs are often utilized in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and disaster relief facilities. They are known to often reduce anxiety and provide a pleasant companion for those in potentially distressing situations.

How to Register a Pet as a Service Animal

The registration process will vary based on which type of animal you would like your pet to become. As mentioned above, emotional support animals are often prescribed by a doctor, but this is not always a requirement. Airlines do often require a written notice from a physician. It is also possible to register your pet online to get a certificate or vest for the animal, but again this is not required. Therapy dogs are also not required to have a specific registration, although several organizations, such as the American Kennel Club, offer certification levels.

Animals classified as service dogs have the most stringent guidelines as well as the greatest legal protection. Specific training to perform tasks related to a disability is required, although this training can be done by you or by a professional. You are not required to register your pet as a service animal, nor can city laws be put in place to force you to do so, but voluntary registries are common and can be beneficial in allowing you to take advantage of reduced local licensing fees or alerting first responders to the dog’s purpose in case of emergency as well as providing identifying documentation that can be useful when traveling. If you would like to register your dog, you can either do so with a specific entity, such as a city or school, or through an online service.

When using a service dog in public, you are only allowed to be asked two questions to determine whether you are properly using a service dog. These questions are: whether the dog is a service animal required for a disability and what it has been trained to do. As long as you have a covered disability and the dog has been trained, it counts as a service dog, although it must be under your control at all times.

Available Resources to Help

If you would like more information on service dogs, below are a few resources that can help:

  • The ADA National Network has a printable online booklet dedicated to service animals and a lot of information regarding legal requirements related to them.
  • The American Kennel Club has a page of general information as well as training for service dogs.
  • Assistance Dogs International is another good resource, as it is an international group dedicated to educating and providing resources for those requiring some form of assistance dog.