Assistance Dogs: Dogs Trained To Lend A Paw of Help In Need

Assistance dogs waiting commands
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Assistance dogs go beyond being pets. They change lives, provide greater independence, enhance quality of life, calm fears, give physical support and provide peace of mind. There are many questions surrounding them however.

This guide aims to answer all the important queries you may have and help you find the right canine partner.

What exactly are assistance canines?

The basic definition is that they are dogs trained to accomplish certain tasks to assist a person with disability, which may be physical or psychological in nature. The work done by these canines should be directly relevant to the disability of their handlers. In the US, the terms ‘assistance dog’ and ‘service dog’ are used interchangeably.

Assistance dogs infographic

The American Disabilities Act (ADA), which outlines the rights of individuals who live with canine partners, identifies the following types of assistance or service dogs:

  • Guide dogs for the blind – trained to lead visually impaired individuals and serve as a travel tool. They may even be trained to open doors or pick things up all for the purpose of helping people who cannot see lead a more normal life.
  • Hearing alert dogs for the deaf – perform specific tasks such as alerting their handlers when a sound occurs like when an alarm goes off, someone is knocking on the door or something falls.
  • Mobility dogs – help anyone who has difficulties standing up or walking. The assistance they offer range from providing stability to pulling wheelchairs.
  • Psychiatric service dogs – these four-legged partners are trained to detect the onset of any psychiatric episode and help their humans take action to prevent the episode or to lessen its effects. These dogs are often relied upon to remind when to take medicines or stop any self-inflicted harmful behavior by people suffering from dissociative identity disorders. Psychiatric service dogs are also a huge help to PTSD patients as they minimize anxiety attacks by turning on lights and doing room searches for possible triggers.
  • Sensory or social signal dogs – they signal their handlers or other people in the house if there is a sudden change to the patient’s condition. A signal dog may alert an autistic person, for example, when he is doing distracting repetitive movements in public such as hand flapping. A signal dog may also alert a parent if a sick child’s condition suddenly takes a turn for the worse.
  • Seizure alert dogs – remind their humans to take medicine or guard over them when they’re having a seizure. The dogs also perform tasks such as fetching the phone so the individual can call for help. Some seizure dogs are taught to detect the onset of epilepsy so that the person can take precautions or find a safer place when out of the house.

What breeds make good assistance dogs?

Any dog breed can become a working dog as there are no exclusions imposed by the law. The only thing that matters is that the canine undergoes training and be able to effectively do the work or tasks he is meant to do. Sure there are certain breeds that are pre-disposed to becoming service dogs, examples of which are Labradors and Golden Retrievers.

They have many characteristics that make them easy to train for various support tasks. Small sized dogs like Poodles, Shi Tzus and Chihuahuas also make excellent hearing dogs simply because they are an energetic and people-oriented breed. However, there is really no limit. Some people might think that Pit Bulls are aggressive and would not make good assistance dogs, but you would be surprised that there are several facilities in the country specializing in training this breed.

What about emotional support and therapy dogs?

According to the ADA, emotional support and therapy dogs are NOT service dogs. This is because they only function as a stress reliever (different from service dogs that function as stress relievers by performing certain cues for their owners) or they are there to provide unconditional love and support.

They did not undergo hours of training to perform specific tasks for their owners and are therefore not covered by the regulations stipulated by the ADA. Whereas service dogs can accompany their handlers into public spaces that have ‘no animals’ policies, therapy and emotional support dogs may not.

Emotional support

It is stressed by the ADA that the tasks performed by an assistance dog should be directly related to the person’s disability. It must be noted as well that emotional support dogs can come with a note from the doctor, but this note does not instantly make them service animals.

Passing them off as service dogs in order to circumvent airplane and no-pet housing rules is a violation of the law. Fake assistance dogs are especially frowned upon because they are not rigidly trained and have higher tendencies to cause damage to businesses or harm other people.

Where can assistance dogs go?

The federal law that regulates service dogs is the American with Disabilities Act (you can learn about your rights in regards to assistance dogs in our article on service dog laws). It specifies that any place or organization serving the public (e.g. restaurants, hospitals, government offices, offices of nonprofit organizations, and other commercial establishments) should allow assistance dogs in. This is under the condition that the canines are well-behaved and that their handlers must maintain control throughout using a leash, harness or tether.

However, if these control devices interfere with the dog’s function or an individual’s disability prevents their use, then it is okay to forego them as long as the owner can control the dog through other means such as voice commands and hand signals.

Assistance dog going with woman on escalator

Businesses are not allowed to refuse entry or provide subpar services to anyone with an assistance dog (example: seating a blind man with his partner outside the restaurant even if it is raining). The staff of any establishment is not allowed to specifically inquire about a person’s disability nor demand to see a demonstration of what the dog can do.

The ADA only allows these two questions to be asked: “is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

If, however, the animal misbehaves like barking at other customers or causing damage to the business’ property, then owners and staff have the right to have the dog removed from the premises. It is also within their right to press charges, especially if the handler showed no effort of preventing or stopping the misbehavior. For more details, please visit the official Americans with Disabilities Act website.

Can assistance dogs live in housing units with ‘no-animals’ policies?

Yes they can according to the Fair Housing Act, which outlines that persons with disabilities are entitled reasonable accommodation or “a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces”. It is generally unlawful for a landlord to refuse accommodation for an individual and his service dog save for the following exceptions:

  • If the request for reasonable accommodation was not made personally by the individual with impairment or was not made in behalf of him. In other words, housing providers have the right to refuse people without disabilities insisting to receive reasonable accommodation.
  • If providing the accommodation is not reasonable due to the landlord’s financial or administrative restrictions or if it means altering the housing’s major operational processes.
  • If the building has less than four dwelling units and the owner is occupying one of them.

Housing providers are also not allowed to impose weight or breed restrictions on assistance dogs. For example a housing unit has a policy of allowing dogs below 60 kilograms only yet your canine partner is 75 kilograms, then an exception must be made.

Landlords are prohibited as well to ask for some sort of extra payment such as a pet deposit because service dogs are not pets. If ever reasonable accommodation cannot be provided due to the landlord’s financial or administrative restrictions, the housing provider must discuss alternative solutions in order to address the disability-related needs of the tenant. For better understanding, please visit the official Fair Housing Act page.

Can assistance dogs ride in the airplane cabin with their owners?

The Air Carrier Access Act allows for individuals with disabilities to have their service dogs accompany them inside the aircraft cabin without being charged extra fees. This applies to local flights by the way because flying to other countries may require you to follow further regulations. The Air Carrier Access Act further specifies:

“Carriers shall accept as evidence that an animal is a service animal identifiers such as identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses, tags or the credible verbal assurances of a qualified individual with a disability using the animal.”

Assistance dog going into a airplane cabin

Assistance dogs are also allowed to sit with their handlers wherever they may be seated provided that the animal does not obstruct the aisle or other spots inside the airplane that must remain unobstructed such as the area leading to the toilets or in front of the emergency hatches.

If a service dog really cannot be accommodated at the passenger’s seat location, then the carrier must offer the passenger an alternative seat within the same class, if available, in order to accommodate the canine instead of having the dog travel inside the cargo hold.

Flying with your assistance dog will be easier if you can readily provide evidence that your canine is indeed trained to help you. Bringing other identifiers and documentations plus the presence of control devices such as harnesses will make things easier at the airport. Speaking of which, the TSA has imposed clear guidelines on their official website regarding the screening of passengers and their working dogs.

Screening may be done either by thorough patdown or by metal detector. Additional explosives trace testing may also be performed. If going through the metal detector and the alarm sounds off for the canine but not for the handler, then the dog will be subjected to further inspection and the owner is not allowed to make contact until clearance is provided.

As mentioned above, flying to other countries will require you to follow further regulations such as making sure your dog has updated vaccination documentations and has undergone other required health checks. Other countries may also require certification from international organizations before allowing any service dog entry.

It also pays to read specific carriers’ policies about service dogs as they provide a wealth of information that will prevent headaches on your part. Virgin Atlantic, for example, clearly details what should be done to avoid quarantine issues and how to prepare your dog for the flight.

What training is required?

For canines to be considered assistance or service dogs, they must undergo several months or even years’ worth of training to perform the tasks directly relevant to their handlers’ disabilities. As such, assistance dog training varies depending on the impairment a canine is groomed to help with.

Seizure alert dogs, for example, are trained for years to detect the onset of an episode and to be able to save their owners from harm or guard over them when having a seizure. All assistance dogs however must learn the following no matter what type of specific work they need to perform:

  • Good manners – there’s a reason why assistance dogs differ from emotional support and therapy dogs under the law – they are rigidly trained to not misbehave in public. Whereas other dogs might bark at strangers or lash out at anyone who stresses them (e.g. someone accidentally stepping on their tails or a child playfully pulling on their ears), assistance dogs are trained to remain calm and even avoid potential stressors for themselves and for their handlers.
  • Obedience – there will be times when people cannot control their canines through leashes, tethers or harnesses. That is why it is expected that obedience be taught. The dogs must be able to understand and follow certain voice commands and hand signals, especially for ‘sit’, ‘heel’, ‘stay’, ‘down’ and ‘come’.
  • Confidence in social situations – Many dogs cannot endure a crowded place for long. But if an assistance dog is to be effective in helping someone with disability, then that means the canine must be ready at all times to accompany his human in various social situations. Confidence training is necessary so that the dogs won’t cower, slink away or become overprotective in public places. They also need to be taught not to accept any food forced on them by well-meaning strangers, which could lead to an upset stomach or bigger health issues.

You can learn more about discipline in this article on basic training for service dogs.

Who should provide training and what about certificates?

Training facilities are plenty in the US; some will provide certifications and some would not. But one must remember that there are no official organizations mandated by the law to train assistance dogs. This means then that no institution can claim that the certificate they provide is mandatory and that you should pay extra to get it or that it needs to be renewed for, you guessed it, extra fees.

What you should look for in training facilities is their ability to produce effective assistance canines; asking about their past successes and checking out offline and online reviews about them are highly recommended during the selection process.

Trained dog

Dogs can also be trained by their owners provided their handlers know what they are doing and have the patience and dedication to see the training through. Some individuals find the process bothersome and quit halfway through, which results to poorly trained dogs that might act out in public places. Naturally this is not a good thing considering charges may be filed against handlers whose four-legged partners caused damage.

A certification or ID proving that your dog has been properly trained will come in handy when you do need to go to court. As mentioned above, these documentations might also be needed to make flying to other countries easier. But once again, legally there are no certifications required and businesses such as restaurants and apartments are not obligated to demand training certificates before providing service to you.

What are the responsibilities of assistance dog owners?

Always remember that your canine is not a pet, therefore it is important that you enforce control over his behavior. Any laxity can lead to the unraveling of the dog’s training, which will impact you negatively in the long run because failure to perform disability-related tasks is likely to happen.

This does not mean though that you neglect the dog’s needs. As a responsible partner, make sure you are aware of any health issues and stresses. Give your partner a break from crowded spaces from time to time. Make sure vaccinations are updated and have the veterinarian check on any noticeable health issue right away. Provide good grooming as well; fleas are a problem for any dog owner so check your canine regularly, especially if you have just been to a place frequented by other dogs that might have been infected.

What are the common misconceptions about assistance dogs?

There are quite a few actually and these include:

  • Certificates and IDs are legally required for service dogs. No they are not.
  • Emotional support and therapy dogs are covered under the ADA. Unfortunately they are not. Whereas an assistance dog can accompany his human inside the aircraft cabin, for example, therapy dogs can only do so once their owners procure a signed note from a licensed and reliable doctor.
  • Assistance dogs cannot play and socialize with other dogs. Yes they can, provided that they are not currently at work.
  • There’s no problem waving and whistling at service dogs. For some part that is true because properly trained dogs will not respond. However, the canines might get distracted from persistent whistling and waving and this might interfere with his functions. A distracted guide dog, for example, might cause his human with impaired seeing to stumble.
  • Assistance dogs are expensive. There are actually non-profit organizations and training facilities that make acquiring service dogs very cost-effective.

Assistance dogs are a big help to anyone with a disability and wants to live a more normal life. With proper training and care, they will prove to be invaluable partners.

Assistance dog match up

Hopefully this guide has made you understand better what assistance dogs can do for you or someone in your family who needs one. With fuller understanding and by clarifying misconceptions, you are one step closer towards a better quality of living.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.