SD 101: Types of Service Dogs

by Jenna Clark

Many people recognize what a guide dog does or that a person in a wheelchair may need a service dog, but there are different types of service animals for people with various disabilities. In addition, not all service animals have public access rights under the American’s with Disabilities Act, which states that “a service animal must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks of benefit to a disabled individual.“

There are also many types of service animals for people with a large variety of disabilities. Guide dogs have specific tasks they are trained for, often solely related to a person with a sight impairment. According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAAPD)‘s own training:

“A guide dog’s four to six month education involves mastering a set of tasks which, taken together, allow a blind or visually impaired individual to negotiate the unseen environment with greater safety and independence.”

The above link lists the variety of common tasks for hearing dogs and a wide variety of service dog tasks. Guide and hearing dogs have specific tasks for that particular disability, whereas service dogs for people with physical disabilities can be trained to help with tasks their human partner needs assistance with. An example is someone training their service dog, using commands the dog already knows, to perform tasks such as emptying the dryer or tugging open a refrigerator. The former example uses commands such as get it, bring it here, and drop while the latter uses the tug command. For tasks such as tugging doors open, a tug toy is tied to the door handle and the command tells the dog to grab the toy and walk backward.

Sometimes, people may have invisible disabilities and benefit from a dog trained to alert for seizures, help a person stay calm in a crowd by being a buffer between them, or help a person with autism. The latter is currently in debate due to an 8-year-old boy named Sean Forsythe whose certified service dog was denied access into his elementary school. Sean’s mother, Jennifer, states that Sofia, Sean’s service dog, helps Sean manage his “meltdowns”. In addition, Sofia “is able to alert…[s]he sees things before we do”. The school district is seeking more information before rendering a final determination, but they have told Sean’s parents that:

“They didn’t think the dog was necessary in order for Sean to receive an appropriate education since he was making good academic, social and behavioral progress.”

Wouldn’t limiting “meltdowns” be beneficial in a classroom setting?

The refusal to include a service dog, forcing a child to wait while a school district determines whether to grant admittance of the companion, illustrates the discrimination people who have invisible disabilities face when it comes to service dog access.

Service dogs for autism are relatively new, but they are facing a type of discrimination people with psychiatric service dogs have faced for years. Because the tasks service dogs for autism or psychiatric disabilities are so different from those for people with physical disabilities, people think these specific tasks are less important or not truly needed. Many misinterpret the ADA to say that it doesn’t grant access to public places to psychiatric service dogs. The IAAPD explains:

“While a dog’s companionship may offer emotional support, comfort or a sense of security, this in and of itself does NOT qualify as a “trained task” or “work” under the ADA, thus it does not give a disabled person the legal right to take that dog out in public as a legitimate service dog.“

‘Service animal’ is not the only kind of ‘Working animal.’ Sometimes a working animal that begins training as a service animal for a person with a disability can be career-changed. For example, a dog can instead go into law enforcement as a bomb or drug sniffing dog. A therapy dog is another example of a change in career for a working animal. Therapy dogs visit hospitals, convalescent homes, or libraries to help kids with reading difficulties by simply laying near the child and listening.

Service animals are aids that many people use on a daily basis for a variety of different reasons.  Those reasons also might not be obvious to the inexperienced eye, but that doesn’t make the need insignificant.  Whether a service dog provides balance, alerts to seizures, or helps a person navigate a crowd for a friendly face, they provide critical supports to their owners and help be a stabilizing force in the lives of people with disabilities.

Editor’s Note: Please make note that Jenna makes a distinction between a therapy animal and a psychiatric service animal. For more information on the variety of types of service or assistance animals, you can check out the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. For more information about Autism Service animals and what they can do, we recommend Jim Sinclair’s 1990 essay, What do SSigDOGs do? Jim’s work around Autism Service Animals dates back to the 1980s and continues to this day.


5 thoughts on “SD 101: Types of Service Dogs

  1. I find it interesting (but very disappointing) that not all service dogs are granted access under the ADA.

    Here in Sweden, guide dogs are supposed to be allowed entrance pretty much everywhere, but it’s not followed. :/ Other service dogs are rarely treated like guide dogs (i. e., are granted access everywhere) here. There’s a lot of work left to be done, for sure.

  2. I appreciate the changes that were made to this post, such as the removal of the career change information.

    I feel sad and frustrated that certain aspects of this post are not entirely accurate and therefore may contribute to confusion for people who are not well-versed in the rights and responsibilities of assistance dog partners and the general public in the United States.

    The ADA does explicitly *include* service dogs that are task-trained to assist a person with a mental health disability. People accompanied by psychiatric service dogs do have the SAME rights under the ADA to places of public accommodation as people accompanied by other types of assistance dogs, such as guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility service dogs, etc.

    What the ADA does NOT cover in its description of what a service animal is are emotional support animals (ESAs). A dog who provides emotional support simply through its calming effect on a person is not a service dog because the dog is not performing skills that mitigate specific aspects of the human’s disability.

    For clarity, here are two theoretical examples, based on the situations of many people I know.

    Here is an example of a service dog who assists a person with a mental health disability:

    Claire has mental health disabilities that cause her to become disoriented in crowds, to dissociate and lose track of where she is, or to freeze and be unable to move. She has trained her Newfoundland, Scout, to stop and block her path at every street intersection until she gives the cue to proceed across the street. If she does not cue Scout to cross, Scout continues to block her. Claire trained this behavior because she used to sometimes wander into traffic in a dissociated state. Having to cue the dog ensures that she is connected to what’s going on around her.

    Claire freezes in panic sometimes and then can’t find her way out of a public space, such as a crowded store. If she freezes, Scout steps on her foot with his paw to try to ground Claire. If Claire is still immobilized, Scout uses body pressure, pressing his shoulder and head against Claire’s leg. When Claire realizes what Scout’s doing, she gives he command, “Find the door,” and Scout guides Claire to the store exit. Claire does not have to provide documentation to store or restaurant managers to enter because Scout has been trained to have perfect comportment in public and because she is a working assistance dog.

    Here is an example of an emotional support animal:

    Jennifer has similar diagnoses to Claire. Her dog, Rosie, helps her feel calm and safe when she pets her or snuggles with her on the couch. She is less depressed since she got Rosie because needing to feed, groom, and walk Rosie helps Jennifer have more structure in her life and gives her a sense of purpose, because she knows that Rosie needs her. Taking Rosie for walks has decreased Jennifer’s isolation, social anxiety, and depression because she gets out more and finds it easier to talk to people who also love dogs and approach her to tell her how beautiful and sweet Rosie is. Even though Jennifer lives in a “no pets” apartment complex, she is allowed to have Rosie as a reasonable accommodation to her disability under the ADA.

    Jennifer’s doctor wrote a letter to her building manager explaining what Jennifer’s disabilities are and that Rosie helps mitigate the effects of her disabilities to live independently in her home. This was requested as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, just as having PCAs who sleep over is an accommodation for an apartment complex that does not usually allow “guests” to spend the night for more than a week.

    • Thank you for the eloquent explaination of the difference Sharon! This post wasn’t planned to cover the difference, even though this is an important issue so we are glad for your comment.

      I think, perhaps, the issue at hand is that too many people’s Psych Service animals are not recognized as such. Too few people have a real idea of the scope of what service or assistance animals can do. So some people’s PSA/PSDs are not recognized, particularly in areas that are not up on the fact that there *is* a difference, as not being Emotional Support Animals. I think your comments clarify that this is what is happening, rather than the ADA not recognizing things.

      Even a great law can be misused or too restrictively applied, and that is unfortunately what tends to happen with PSA/PSDs.

      I think it is important, too, that you mentioned that while ESAs aren’t Service animals, that they are still Reasonable Accommodations under the ADA. I think that this is something that gets ignored often in the conversations about the difference between an ESA and a PSA/PSD.


  3. i dont know much about this but i do know 7 yrs a go i found out thes things i have been going throught is called sever anxiety and after getting out of the hosp i got a cat he was 6 weeks old and he would come and lick my face and rub on me to help me throught it and when i would say i got to go to the store he would lick my face because going to the store is a chriger for me and going places i dont know are to but now i have a puppy she is 8 mons old and she has stop so many at 3 mons she stop 6 of them and for now the only place we can go togrther is petco and we do it one the weekends she has not had any service training yet but i could not do this with out her and that is a little of my story thank you

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