A Service Animal Guide: Animals That Are Our Ears, Eyes and So Much More

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service animal training crossing the street with its owner

A service animal is truly the hero of the animal world. Service animals can help people with all sorts of disabilities to maintain their independence and live fuller lives. Sadly, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about who these helper animals actually are, and what they do. Fear not though, as we’re here to set the record straight with this service animal guide.

Read on to learn about all things service dogs, from how they differ from emotional support animals, what legal protections they have, and, most importantly, how to get one!

What is a Service Animal?

A service animal is an animal (almost always a dog) that is specially trained to help an individual with a disability with tasks relating to their condition.

Guide dogs who help people with visual impairments are the most well-known type of service animal, but there are many other kinds too, like a psychiatric service animal.

Who Qualifies for a Service Dog?

Anyone with a disability—physical, sensory, emotional, psychiatric, intellectual or mental—could qualify for a service dog. The most important thing is that the service dog is trained to perform specific tasks that help that individual to live with their disability. Unfortunately, not everyone who qualifies for a service dog is able to get one, whether due to availability or prohibitive costs.

golden retriever service dog opening door for person in wheelchair

Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal: What’s the Difference?  

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are often confused with service animals because there are certain similarities between the two. After all, both help people with disabilities to live with their symptoms and to enjoy greater freedom. However, there are a few important differences when it comes to emotional support animal vs service animal:

  1. While service animals must be specially and individually trained to perform specific tasks, emotional support animals do not need any special training. They just need to be able to help their owners feel better.
  2. Only service dogs can be classified as service animals, allowing them full legal protection. Any domesticated animal can become an emotional support animal, but dogs and cats are the most common.
  3. The legal protections for service animals are greater than those for emotional support animals. See below for more information on which laws cover which.

If you feel you don’t need a dog with specific training to help you cope with daily life, but need the emotional support of an animal, an ESA will be perfect for you! Getting an ESA is much easier than getting a service animal. You can start the process by taking CertaPet’s free online 5-minute pre-screening.

If your answers show that may qualify for an ESA, we’ll put you in touch with a licensed mental health professional, and you could have your service animal in as little as 48 hrs!

Service Animal Laws By State  

Service animal law is federal, meaning there is no difference in the main service animal laws by state. California service animal laws are the same as those in Minnesota, Wyoming, or any other state. Let’s take a look at the laws that cover service animals.

Fair Housing Act Service Animal

Under the Fair Housing Act service animal handlers (and ESA owners) may keep their animals with them in rented accommodation without paying pet fees. This includes accommodation where pets are not permitted. The FHA also covers college on-campus accommodation.

What is ADA Law?  

One of the most common questions about service dogs is “What is ADA service dog laws?” ADA stands for the American with Disabilities Act. The ADA is one of the most important pieces of legislation regarding the rights of people with disabilities and US service animals.

As well as defining service dog requirements, the Act also sets out their rights. Under the ADA service animals and their handlers are permitted access to any place that members of the public may go.

Service Dog in Training Laws 

Service dog in training laws are different to those for trained service dogs. The ADA does not cover service dogs in training, and they are not granted the same rights of access. However, some states have specific laws for service dogs in training, and some businesses grant them special access.

labrador wearing a service dog vest lying next to its owner

How to Get a Service Animal  

There’s no single answer on how to get a service dog. Many people get their service animal through a dedicated service dog charity or non-profit organization. These organizations help with training, advice, and financing.

However, some people, usually those who have experience in training dogs, will choose the train their own service animals. Service dog training is difficult and time-consuming, however, and not recommended for beginner dog trainers.

However you choose to get a service animal, the main requirement is that it is properly trained to assist you with tasks relating to a diagnosed disability. If you don’t have a disability, you can’t have a service animal.

Types of Service Animals

There are almost as many types of service animals as there are types of disabilities. While some kinds of service animals are well recognized, others are less common, and, unfortunately, their handlers often face unwelcome suspicion or questioning.

Psychiatric Service Dogs, Guide Dogs, and More! 

Some service dogs help people with physical disabilities. Guide dogs, who help people with visual impairments to get around, are one of the most well-known types.

However, other types of service dogs include those that can sense and alert their handlers to certain situations their owner an oncoming seizure, a sudden change in blood sugar levels, or the presence of allergens like peanuts.

Another kind of service dog is one that helps its handler with mobility-related tasks, like pulling a wheelchair, switching lights on and off, loading the washing machine, or even acting as a walking aid.

A psychiatric service dog is one that is trained to help people with emotional, mental, or psychological disabilities. PTSD service dogs, service dogs for acute stress disorder, and autism relief service dogs are all common examples of psychiatric service dogs.

Remember, not all disabilities are visible! If you’re confused about the difference between a psychiatric service dog vs emotional support animal, we have a great resource on that topic.

Service Dog and Miniature Horse Service Animal 

Under the ADA law, only dogs can become service animals. Any other species cannot be considered a service animal by law. Miniature horses are often trained to help people with disabilities and can offer great value to people’s lives.

However, there is technically no such thing as a miniature horse service animal, as they do not have the same legal protection as service dogs.

No Service Cat or Service Monkey

No matter how well trained they are, and no matter how hard people may wonder “can a cat be a service animal?” the rules are clear: no other species of animal except dogs can become a service animal as recognized by the ADA.

The ADA makes certain provisions for miniature horses, but there is no such thing as a service cat, service monkey, or service ferret, unfortunately.

If you have an animal that you think helps you to cope with an emotional or psychological disability why not take CertaPet’s free online pre-screening to see if you could qualify for an emotional support animal.

young girl in wheelchair giving her service dog attention

Service Animal Vest and Harness: Is it Essential?

Under ADA law, there is no requirement for service animals to wear a service animal vest, service animal harness, or any other kind of identifier. Similarly, there is no requirement for service dog handlers to have or to carry a service animal identification card.

With that being said, however, many service dog charities do suggest that handlers do put a vest or harness on their service dogs to avoid unnecessary questions. A vest will also discourage members of the public from trying to pet or otherwise distract the dog while it’s working.

Service Dog Requirements

The most basic requirement for service dogs is that they are trained to perform tasks that help their handler to live with a disability. However, there are other important criteria that a service dog should meet:

  • Service dogs should have impeccable behavior, even under stressful or unfamiliar circumstances. They should be focused on their handler at all times, and never react to other people or dogs.
  • Service dogs of all kinds need to be able to communicate well with their handlers, reading body language and making themselves clear in return. This is especially important with service dogs whose task is to sense things, like seizures or blood sugar fluctuations.
  • Potty training is an absolute must for all service dogs! There’s nothing like an indoor accident to turn people against a service animal, no matter how hard-working it is.

Service Animal Training: Where to Go and How to Do It! 

Service animal training is a long and difficult process, which usually takes at least a couple of years. This is why most people who aren’t professional dog trainers choose to get a service animal through a specialist charity or organization.

The first stage of training for service dogs is socialization, which usually happens as soon as puppies are old enough to be out in public. This involves putting the service dog in training into lots of new situations and having it meet lots of other people and dogs to ensure that it does not react badly.

Next comes general obedience training: all service dogs must be completely under their handler’s control at all times, so advanced obedience training is very important.

Finally, once a service dog has mastered these two steps, it will learn to how to carry out its specialist task or tasks. The type of training required for this stage depends on what tasks the dog will need to carry out, but regardless of the type of work, this stage of training is usually the most difficult.

Service Dog in Training Vest  

Many service dogs in training will wear vests identifying them as such. If you see a service dog in training vest, make sure you treat it the same way you would treat a qualified service animal, even if it is an adorable puppy! If you’re lucky, the puppy might be at the stage of training where it is being socialized with people and other dogs, and the trainer may ask you to pet it. Only do this if you get express permission, though!

service dog training a group of service animals wearing service dog vests

Is Service Animal Registration Real?

In short, no, there’s no such thing as service animal registration! There is no national service animal registry, despite the number of websites claiming to be one, and offering to register service animal.

In the same way, there is no official source of service animal ID cards. While some handlers choose to carry one for the sake of ease, usually given by the organization that trained the service animal, there is no need to.

There is no way to turn a pet into a service animal other than rigorous training: not adding it to a “registry”, buying it a bogus service dog ID, or getting it a certificate.

No, and Neither is Service Animal Certification

Similarly, service animal certification is not necessary or recommended and does not add any value for service dog handlers. It’s worth noting, however, that some service dog charities will issue certificates to dogs that have completed their training process and qualified as fully-fledged service dogs.

Top FAQs!

Let’s go over some of the most frequently asked questions about service animals. The more you know, after all!

Can I go to a service animal registry and become a verified SA owner?

Absolutely not! There is no such thing as a service animal registry or certification. The only way to get a service dog is to have one that is specially trained to help with specific tasks relating to a diagnosed disability. The law only covers dogs, so you can’t get a service animal cat, either.

Because of the ADA: Service Animals are allowed everywhere, correct?

That’s right! Trained service dogs and their handlers are allowed the same access to places where members of the public are allowed (known as public accommodations) as any other person. This includes places of work, shops, restaurants, businesses, public places, and so on.

Is it illegal to ask for service dog papers?

Is it illegal to ask for service dog papers? Yes! Under the ADA, it is illegal to ask a service dog handler for papers to prove the dog’s status. In fact, it is illegal to ask any questions except the following two:

  1. Is this animal a trained service animal that is needed because of a disability?
  2. What tasks or work is this animal trained to do? (If it is not immediately obvious).

How much does a normal ADA service dog cost?

There is no way of valuing a service dog. This is because many service dogs are trained by specialist charities who will place them with people with disabilities free of charge.

However, many specialist service dog charities estimate the total cost of training a service dog at over $50,000! This service dog cost includes breeding, years of training, equipment, and follow-up services.

Service Animals: They’re There for People with Disabilities

golden retriever guide dog walking with its owner

Although it may seem tempting to claim that your pet dog is a service animal in order to take it more places with you, we can’t discourage this enough. Once again, service dogs are only for people with diagnosed disabilities, whether they are physical, psychological, emotional, or anything else.

For many people, their service dog has granted them more freedom and access than they’ve ever had before, and as such, their value cannot be overstated.

However, for every person who falsely claims that a pet is a service dog, only for said dog to behave badly, public opinion towards service dogs sours. This change in public mood can cause businesses to grow suspicious, and can even cause service dog policy to change.

The ultimate losers in these scenarios are people living with disabilities.

Common Questions on Service Animals

Can any animal become a service animal?

Who can get a service animal?

What training do service animals need?

How are service animals different from emotional support animals?

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