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What Is a Service Dog?

A service dog is a type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities, such as visual impairment, hearing impairments, mental illnesses (such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)), seizure disorder, mobility impairment, and diabetes. According to law (2011 American’s With Disabilities Act from the Department of Justice):

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. 

Assistance/service dogs are working animals and not just companions. They are considered medical equipment similar to a cane, a wheel chair or a portable oxygen system.
Many states define service animals slightly differently and some are extremely vague. Regardless of how limited or limitless a state defines disability, the end result is that the state laws cannot diminish the protection a disabled person has under the Federal ADA. Most importantly, the state laws add layers of protection to certain disabled individuals and to create additional criminal penalties for those actions the federal law does not touch.

There is much case law that helps with the specifics of the vague and broad definitions provided by the ADA and the states. While a person is not required to explain his or her need for a service animal, a state court may require some evidence of training to prevail on a state law claim of discrimination. In Washington, for instance, the Court of Appeals has stated that "that there be some evidence of individual training that sets the animal apart from the ordinary pet." Storms v. Fred Meyer Stores, Inc. , 129 Wash.App. 820, 828, 120 P.3d 126 (Wash.App. Div. 1,2005). In Storms' case, it was proven that the dog was trained to do a specific task in public for Storms when his disability manifested. 

In the ADA law:

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

It is the TRAINED TASK the dog performs that makes it a service dog. And that task MUST be something the dog does for the disabled person that makes his disability not so disabling. It must mitigate the disability and it must be a task that helps the person function in public. If the task is only performed in the privacy of the owners own residence it is not a qualifying task for service dog classification.

The court requirement of proof of training is to eliminate an abuse of the system by owners of "ordinary pets." One thing remains clear in all these situations: the ADA does not require a disabled person to disclose the nature of his or her disability to a business owner. A permissible inquiry starts and ends with the dog's qualifications. Appropriate questions are similar to: “what task(s) is the dog trained do for you that mitigates your disability”. That question alone should allow a business owner enough information to decide whether to deny access and the question must be answered by the disabled person.

There are many trainers and organizations that go above and beyond the “task” training required by law. In fact most service dog trainers will not personally certify a service dog unless that dog AND HIS PERSON can pass the public access test. That test includes a demonstration of the task(s) the dog is to perform.

But there are also many trainers and organizations that do the bare minimum of training. Most of that training is only geared to obedience and totally ignores the “task” training – this training is no different than what is given to companion dogs and pets. I don’t know what their thinking is on this, but the law is clear. A service dog is a dog that is trained to do a TASK or TASKS for a disabled person to mitigate that person’s legitimate disability.

There is nothing in Federal law or any of the 50 states that requires obedience or any other training other than the training for the tasks. Under the federal law, the only recourse a business has after asking the question about tasks, is: a service animal may be excluded or asked to leave if it poses a direct health or safety risk to others or if the animal is out of the owner’s control and the owner cannot take effective action to control it.

A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

I feel sorry for those who have been duped into accepting what is by definition a trained pet dog and not a service dog. Too many of these can only “obey” and never actually provide a service. There are many people out there who think a 2-4 week board and train with sit, down, stay (for 2 hours) and heel are enough to make a service dog.

A service dog, even if a medical alert service dog, should be trained to retrieve on command, know directions (left, right, forward, back) to find things to retrieve, know the names of at least 20 objects, be able to push the button for handicapped access, stay in a down under the chair or table in a restaurant and not beg for food or lick the carpet, load in and out of the car easily, not be afraid of elevators, and even understand the mechanics of picking something up and putting it in a receptacle whether a trash can or the front load washer and dryer. And that is just a small representation of things most service dogs should know no matter what their actual tasks are.

A service dog should understand that he has the choice in specific circumstances (such as the handler about to have a seizure or walk into oncoming traffic) to make the decision to tell the handler NO. We call this intelligent disobedience. Guide dogs have been trained for intelligent disobedience for nearly 100 years. Our current service dogs should be trained for the same and not just “obey”.


If you are or have been a victim of someone who has told you that you are getting a fully trained service dog and that dog does not perform TASKS that mitigate YOUR disability, then you have recourse. It is a federal offense to interfere between a disabled person and their service dog so as to deprive that person of the services of their service dog. Case law has shown that providing an untrained dog and representing it as a trained service dog is in fact depriving a disabled person of the services of their service dog. All that needs to happen is a report to the Department of Justice either in the state you live in or the Federal DOJ.