What are different types of service dogs and what can they do?

Living with any kind of disability is hard, but it can be easier with help from a service dog. There are many different types of service dogs, with specific tasks and legal rights. 

Keep reading to learn more about the best service dog breeds and how they can help people with disabilities.

Service dog working as guide to blind man on crosswalk

What is a service dog?

Dogs have been our best friends for a long time. The mix of empathy, loyalty, and hard work is why dogs are the only animals that qualify as service animals.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is defined as a dog “trained to perform tasks for a disabled individual who would otherwise have trouble completing those tasks.”

People with physical or sensory disabilities, and intellectual, psychiatric, or other mental disabilities qualify for a service dog.

What makes a good service dog and which breeds are best at it?

Next to the intelligence needed for complex tasks, good service dogs have a calm demeanor. They also need a strong work drive and a tendency to bond strongly with their human partner.

Here are the best service dog breeds:

  1. German Shepherds
  2. Labrador Retrievers
  3. Golden Retrievers
  4. Poodles
  5. Great Danes
  6. Boxers
  7. Pomeranians
  8. Border Collies
  9. Pitt Bulls
  10. Bernese Mountain Dogs 

Different types of service dogs and what they do

The most common type of service dog is a guide dog. Guide dogs help blind people in their everyday activities and walking around public spaces.

Other types of service dogs are hearing dogs, mobility assistance dogs, seizure alert dogs, autism assistance dogs, psychiatric dogs, etc.

You can see some of the tasks that service dogs perform in this video:

General Service Dogs

1. Mobility assistance dogs

Also known as brace/mobility support dogs (BMSD), these dogs assist people with mobility issues. These issues are often caused by brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and arthritis.

They can perform various tasks like pulling wheelchairs, retrieving objects, opening/closing doors, pressing buttons and light switches, etc.

These dogs also provide balance or bracing to handlers with balance issues. Most BMSDs wear a special harness.

Only large breeds can be mobility assistance dogs since they need to support the weight of their partner. Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Rough Collies, and Samoyeds are commonly used for this job.

Guide Dogs

2. Seeing eye dogs

Seeing eye dogs or visual assistance dogs lead and help blind people and people with visual impairments. Attempts to train dogs to assist the blind have been going on for centuries.

However, the modern history of guide dogs started during the First World War in Germany.

Dog training of guide dogs is extensive and it can last for 14-18 months. These dogs learn how to avoid overhead obstacles, stop at curbs, and help their handler find door handles, among other things.

They are also trained to disobey commands that could put their handler in danger.

The most common seeing eye dogs are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Poodles.

3. Hearing dogs

Hearing dogs are trained to alert deaf or hearing impaired people to various noises and sounds.

They alert their handlers by touching them and leading them towards the noises like smoke alarms, alarm clocks, doorbells, door knocks, ringing phones, crying babies, etc.

Once again, Labradors and Golden Retrievers lead the way. Other suitable breeds include Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, Lhasa Apsos, Shih Tzus, and Chihuahuas.

Medical Assistance Dogs

Medical assistant dog lying beside the patient
Image source

4. Psychiatric service dogs / social anxiety dogs / PTSD service dogs

Psychiatric service dogs assist people suffering from various mental health issues, such as depression, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Their primary function is to maintain their handler’s emotional state.

PTSD is the most common mental health affliction that requires the help of a service dog. It often affects people that have served in combat or as first responders.

However, PTSD can be caused by other life-threatening events like terrorism, natural disasters, or a car crash.

These dogs can calm down people with PTSD when they experience flashbacks. They also provide physical comfort and emotional support during panic attacks or anxiety attacks.

They are trained to enter a room before their handler, turn on the lights for them, and create a barrier between their human and other people in public.

Psychiatric service dogs have to be reliable, calm, intelligent, cooperative, and eager to please. Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Havanese, Schnauzers, Boxers, and German Shepherds are the most reliable psychiatric service dogs.

5. Autism support dogs / Autism service dogs

Autism service dogs are trained to help children and adults on the autism spectrum. They can stop harmful behavior, alert the handler to certain noises, and alert parents of autistic children to dangerous situations.

For children on the autism spectrum, including kids with less severe conditions like Asperger’s, service dogs can provide confidence in social situations and help them connect with other children.

Labradors and Golden Retrievers are most commonly used as autism support dogs. Other breeds such as German Shepherds, Saint Bernards, Beagles, Rough Collies are also suitable for the job.

6. Seizure alert and response dogs

Seizure response dogs assist people during or after seizures. Meanwhile, whether the dogs can be trained to predict oncoming seizures is debatable.

Some neurology experts claim that they can’t. Other research suggests that dogs can smell upcoming seizures.

In any case, seizure response dogs are crucial for people with epilepsy. Their job is to activate an emergency response alarm, retrieve medication or phone, and get someone to help during the seizure.

They can even remove their handler from a road or another unsafe place or situation.

Larger breeds like Golden Retrievers, Labs, German Shepherds, Border Collies, and Samoyeds are suitable for this work.

Sleeping autism service dog
Image source

7. Sensory Signal (Social Signal) Dogs

Sensory signal dogs are similar to autism service dogs since they are also trained to help people on the autism spectrum. They can interrupt their handler when they engage in repetitive or self-injurious behavior.

8. Allergy alert dogs / Allergy detection dogs

Allergy alert dogs (AADs) help people with severe allergies by sniffing out the smallest traces of allergens that could cause an anaphylactic shock.

Any dog breed can become an allergy alert dog if they have an extraordinary sense of smell.

They are mostly paired with children to keep them away from allergens such as milk, eggs, peanuts, and wheat.

9. Diabetic alert dogs (DADs)

Diabetic alert dogs are a type of medical alert service dog. They are trained to alert their humans to blood sugar changes since they can sense high or low blood glucose levels by scent.

If a blood test confirms these changes, the handler will inject insulin or take a dose of glucose.

10. FASD service dogs

FASD service dogs support children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which are caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

These kids can have a range of physical and mental problems, behavioral issues, and learning disabilities.

FASD service dogs are trained similarly to autism support dogs, including their ability to interrupt repetitive or self-harming behavior.

Frequently asked questions about service dogs

Blind woman walking outside with a guide dog

What rights do service dogs have?

Service dogs have full public access rights, allowing them to go into public places where other animals can’t, such as restaurants, libraries, stores, etc.

They are also allowed in housing or public transport of any kind, including airplanes.

Is there a difference between service dogs and working dogs?

Service dogs and working dogs are pretty similar since they both have specific tasks. In general, working dogs can perform more tasks, often related to their sense of smell.

Some tasks that working dogs perform include search and rescue, explosives or cancer detection, police and military work, herding, hunting, and others. Allergy alert dogs are sometimes classified as working dogs. 

What is the difference between service dogs and therapy dogs?

Therapy dogs don’t have a single, specific handler. Instead, they volunteer in public settings, like hospitals, hospices, mental health institutions, nursing homes, and schools.

Their task is to provide comfort and affection to anyone who needs it.

Breeds that have a calm demeanor and easily show affection to people are suitable to being therapy dogs.

That includes Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Pugs, Greyhounds, Pomeranians, German Shepherds, Beagles, and many others.

Although therapy dogs can be quite helpful, they don’t have any legal rights, including public access rights.

If you want to volunteer and feel that your dog could be a good therapy dog, contact the Alliance of Therapy Dogs for guidelines. The AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program provides a training program for therapy dogs.

What do emotional support animals (ESAs) do?

Emotional support animals, including emotional support dogs, are different from service dogs. While they often have one handler, they aren’t trained for specific duties and tasks.

However, ESAs can help people with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and various phobias. A mental health professional must prescribe an emotional support dog to the patient.

ESAs have limited legal rights. Under the Fair Housing Act, they have a right to “reasonable accommodations” in buildings that don’t allow pets.

Emotional support animals were also allowed on flights until recently, but airlines have the option to refuse access to ESAs now.

Big service dog wearing a backpack

How to know if your dog can be a service dog?

Any dog can become a service dog, but small breeds may not be suitable for jobs that require strength and size.

Before a dog can become a service dog, it has to go through rigorous training. While you can train the dog yourself, it is best to hire a dog trainer.

In the USA, it is not necessary to certify service dogs.

To confirm that your dog is ready to take on his duties, he should pass the Public Access Certification Test (PACT), found on the website of Assistance Dogs International.

You can learn more about the public access test for service dogs on this website.

How to choose a service dog?

As we already mentioned, any dog can become a service dog after training. If you are looking for a service dog to train, choose a suitable breed for your disability.

If you don’t already own a dog that you want to train, check out service dog organizations in your area for help. If necessary, you can have more than one service dog.

Who determines whether you need a service dog?

People with disabilities determine whether they need a service dog. Still, a physician or a mental health expert can recommend it.

Conclusion

Training a service dog requires a lot of time and effort. At the very least, it can be costly to hire a professional trainer.

However, service dogs can provide invaluable help and improve the quality of life of people with disabilities.

Do you have a service dog, or do you plan to use one in the future? Share your experience in the comments.

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