As a dog owner and dog lover, you already know from personal experience that dogs provide many benefits for human health, including the abilities to reduce stress and keep it low, increase physical fitness and improve mental and emotional well-being. Did you know, however, that, for a person with one or more disabilities, a dog can actually provide even greater and more specific health benefits?

If you have a disability, a service dog can help you live more of life and start enjoying activities that you currently may not be able to access, including travel, public programs and social engagements and living on your own. If you’re interested in having a service dog but you already have a pet dog, you may be wondering if you can make your dog a service dog and, if so, how to make your dog a service dog.

Having a service dog can not only help you live your life more fully and independently, but it can save you hundreds of dollars in pet-related fees every year. If you already have your own dog, however, adding a new dog into your home can be a lot more to handle than you’re necessarily prepared to deal with. In such instances, it can be extraordinarily helpful to make your existing dog a service dog. Read on to learn everything you need to know about how to make your dog a service dog.

What Is a Service Dog?

What Is a Service Dog

The first service dogs were seeing eye dogs for the blind back in the 1920s. Today, a century later, the definition of a service dog and the possible roles one can play have greatly expanded.

A service dog is simply any dog that helps a disabled person with specific tasks. The disabilities that service dogs can help with and the range of tasks they can perform are wide and varied. One commonality among all service dogs, however, is that the people who have them typically rely on them each day to aid them in living and enhancing their lives.

A service dog is not a pet, and is treated differently under federal, local and internationally laws than a pet dog. More specifically, service dogs are afforded certain rights to access places forbidden to pet dogs and are exempted from costs otherwise charged to owners of pet dogs. These rights are especially notable in the areas of living in housing with a service dog, traveling with a service dog and going out in public with a service dog, each of which is covered in more detail in the sections below. Before getting to that, however, the next parts of this article explore the qualifications to have a service dog, the qualities of a service dog and the laws affecting service dogs.

Read also: How to Register your Service Dog

Disabilities Your Service Dog May Assist With

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) declares that any person with a disability is allowed to have a service dog. Service dogs can help with a wide range of disabilities, disorders and chronic medical conditions, including both psychiatric and physical ones. That includes the following types of service dogs named for the disabilities they assist with:

  • Diabetes alert dogs
  • Guide dogs for the blind
  • Hearing alert dogs for the deaf and hearing impaired
  • Mobility aid dogs for those with an ambulatory disability, such as people confined to a wheelchair
  • Migraine alert dogs
  • Narcolepsy alert dogs and narcolepsy response dogs
  • Psychiatric service dogs for those with a mental or emotional disorder or disability, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder / OCD or Post-traumatic stress disorder / PTSD service dogs
  • Seizure alert dogs and seizure response dogs

Other disabilities that a service dog may assist with include autism, cancer and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Laws Affecting Service Dogs

The primary law that allows and regulates service dogs is the ADA. As a federal law, it is recognized in all 50 states and supersedes any conflicting state or local laws. That means you are free to travel about the country with your service dog, including across state borders and, even in towns and cities with prohibitions on dogs in public.

The other laws affecting specific rights regarding service dogs are the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulating service dogs on air travel and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) regulating service dogs in residential housing. These are both federal laws as well, and therefore must also be honored in all 50 states.

Before answering your question of “how can I make my dog a service dog,” it’s important to determine first whether your pet dog can make the right service dog for you.

Read also: How to Qualify for a Service Dog

Qualities of a Good Service Dog Candidate

A service dog can be any age, breed or sex, although puppies and elderly dogs do not make the best service assistance dogs. Puppies are often too hyperactive, distractible and unfocused to fulfill the requirements of a service dog consistently and reliably. Puppies can, however, begin the appropriate training so they can become service dogs when they’re older. Elderly dogs may not have the strength, concentration or sensory abilities to be an effective service dog. You don’t want to spend most of your time caring for a sick and infirm service dog that’s supposed to be looking out for you.

With these considerations in mind, what’s most important for a service dog are his or her behavior, temperament and training. To qualify as a service assistance dog, a dog must not be aggressive or overly timid. He or she must be able to remain calm and still on command for long durations, even in confined and/or crowded spaces, yet also remain alert and responsive the moment his or her services are needed. Above all, he or she must be obedient and abide by the commands of his or her owner.

Other traits of a quality service dog include the abilities to do the following:

  • Remain calm, especially in unfamiliar settings
  • Remain alert, but not reactive
  • Be willing to please
  • Be capable of learning and retaining new information
  • Have the ability to be socialized to a variety of environments and circumstances
  • Perform repetitive activities consistently and reliably

Beyond that, as long as a dog can be trained to perform the specific tasks required of him or her as a service assistance dog, that dog can be one. You do not even need to have your service assistance dog professionally trained, either. Rather, you are perfectly allowed to train your service assistance dog yourself, provided that training is effective.

Which Breeds Are Best for Service Work?

Best Service Dog Breeds

Although any breed of dog can be a service dog, and no service dog can be refused access strictly because of the dog’s breed, some breeds of dogs simply do better at being service dogs than other breeds. The dog breeds best-suited for service work include the following:

  • American Pit Bull Terriers
  • Border Collies
  • Burmese Mountain Dogs
  • Chihuahuas
  • Collies
  • Corgis
  • German Shepherds
  • Great Danes
  • Irish Wolfhound
  • Papillon
  • Poodles – Standard, Toy and Miniature
  • Retrievers – Golden and Labrador, especially
  • Saint Bernards

Note that not all of these dogs make equally effective service dogs for all disabilities. You must still select a breed most appropriate for your needs, lifestyle and the tasks you will assign the dog.

These and other excellent breeds of dogs for service work have certain qualities in common. They are all naturally intelligent, highly trainable and are naturally inclined to place their predominant focus on their owner or handler. They are also generally good-natured dogs with a calm temperament and a friendly demeanor and are not prone to being nervous, anxious or aggressive.

Should You Choose a Small or Large Dog to Be Your Service Dog?

Different breeds and sizes of dogs are also better service dogs for different people and disabilities. For example, a large breed may be a better service dog for a person with a mobility disability, while a seizure alert dog can easily be a small breed. Consider factors of your lifestyle in addition to your needs when deciding whether to get a small or large service dog. Do you want a dog able to sit in your lap or a dog able to guard your home? If you travel often, you want a dog that isn’t too large to comfortably travel with you. If you need the dog to help wheel you around, open and close doors, retrieve heavy items or provide physical pressure during panic or anxiety attacks, you want a dog that isn’t too small to do these things effectively.

Steps to Making Your Dog a Service Dog

Fortunately, getting a service assistance dog is easy if you qualify. You need no authorization to get a service dog, although medical documentation that you have a disability and the need for a service assistance dog can help you to more easily identify yourself as a disabled person and your dog as a service dog to people unfamiliar with the law. If you’d like to get such documentation, you can get it from your doctor or contact Certifymypet and have us arrange you a teleconference with a doctor licensed to practice in your state of residence to consult with you and provide you that documentation.

Training Your Dog to Be a Service Dog

Regardless of whether or not you choose to take this preliminary step, the only other steps to making your dog a service dog are to train your dog to be a service dog. You can either train your dog yourself or use the services of a professional service dog trainer to train your dog. Whether it’s you or another training your dog to be a service dog, the dog will learn three sets of skills:

  1. Heeling – The dog will learn to remain at your side in a focused and attentive manner no matter in which direction you move or how long you remain still.
  2. Proofing – The dog will learn to apply the skills he or she learns in a variety of common situations and settings.
  3. Tasking – The dog will learn to perform the specific tasks you need him or her to perform in order to help you with your disability.

In addition, the dog will learn common basic obedience training commands like:

  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Lie down
  • Come

Is A Dog in a Vest a Service Dog?

The short answer to this question is: maybe. That is, a dog in a vest may be a service dog, but not necessarily. A dog in a vest may be an emotional support dog, a psychiatric service dog, a therapy dog or, even, a courthouse dog or courtroom dog.

Although some service dogs may wear vests, special harnesses, collars or tags, the ADA does not require service dogs to wear vests or display identification.

That said, putting an identifying harness or vest on your service dog, or at least carrying around some sort of official or official-looking documentation, helps you to avoid delays and hassles while out in public, in airports and on airplanes, on rental property and generally anywhere out in public with your service dog. While many people will take umbrage with a dog accompanying a person somewhere dogs aren’t ordinarily permitted, when seeing a dog wearing a harness or vest, most of them will assume the dog is a service dog and relax.

Likewise, when trying to enter a business, transportation or a public program or space or exercise any of your other rights regarding your disability and service dog, the person responsible for entry and access to that facility, transportation or space may ask to see documentation verifying your qualifications to have a service dog. If, however, your dog is wearing a vest or harness, that same person may be more inclined to accept the dog as a service dog at face value and let you enter without stopping you to question your legitimacy.

For these reasons, many people with service dogs put those dogs in vests or harnesses anytime they’re out of the home, even though the law does not require it.

Living With Your Service Dog

If you make your dog a service dog, the Fair Housing Act permits your service dog to live with you, including in the following cases:

  • If your landlord or HOA (homeowners association) does not allow pets, in general, or dogs, in particular. Since service dogs are not pets, a “Pet Free” or “No Dogs” policy does not apply to them.
  • If your landlord or HOA does not allow specific breeds, such as Dobermans, Great Danes or Pitbulls. Rather, there are no legal breed restrictions on the type of service dog you can choose to live with you, and landlords and HOAs must accept whatever breed of service dog you choose to have.
  • If your landlord or HOA has a weight limit on dogs allowed to live on the premises. Rather, landlords and HOAs must, by law, allow service dogs of any weight, even dogs weighing over 100 pounds.

Moreover, since a service dog is not a pet, you cannot be charged a pet deposit or any pet rent for your service dog to live with you.

In addition, when you have a service dog living with you, your landlord and HOA are not allowed to request the following:

  • For you to prove your disability or disorder to him or her.
  • For your service dog to demonstrate the tasks he or she performs for you.
  • To disclose any private and sensitive medical info.

Staying at a Motel or Hotel With Your Service Dog

These same rules that apply to rental housing situations also apply to hotels and motels. Businesses like hotels and motels offering primarily accommodation services are also required to allow service dogs to stay with guests in their rooms at no extra cost and with no deposit required. Furthermore, the establishment cannot restrict you and your service dog to only particular rooms or floors or confine you and your service dog only to certain areas. On the flip side, however, if you prefer a certain room or floor, like a room near an exit or on the first floor, you can request it and the hotel or motel should do all it can to accommodate your request. A hotel or motel also cannot prohibit you from entering the dining area with your service dog. Having said that, you still remain fully responsible for any damage your service dog causes to hotel or motel property.

Travel with your service dog

According to the ACAA, all domestic air carriers within the United States and all foreign air carriers on routes starting or ending in the United States must allow people with disabilities to travel with their service dogs in the passenger cabin of the airplane. Carriers may not require service dogs travel in the cargo hold, no matter their size. If an airline is concerned with weight restrictions on particular planes, it must make adequate alternative accommodations available to the traveler and their service dog, such as booking them for free on a comparable flight.

Air carriers in and traveling within the United States must also accept written documentation such as a doctor’s letter, service dog identification cards, the presence of a service dog harness or vest with tags or markings identifying the dog as a service dog or the traveler’s credible assertion of having a qualifying disability for a service dog as valid and acceptable evidence that the dog is a service dog.

The carrier must, further, allow the service dog to sit with the traveler in whatever seat the traveler has been assigned. That said, airlines do have certain legal seating restrictions and other travel requirements for those traveling with service dogs, such as:

  • Service dogs need to be seated on the floor. They cannot sit in a passenger seat, though a service dog can sit in your lap, as long as the dog doesn’t intrude on the neighboring seats or aisle space.
  • Service dogs must not block the aisle. That includes their paws, muzzle or tail.
  • Service dogs cannot be seated in an emergency exit row. If you are accidentally seated in an emergency row with your service dog, ask a flight attendant immediately to reseat you before takeoff, noting that flight regulations prohibit service dogs from sitting in emergency exit row.

Service dogs are permitted on Amtrak trains as well as municipal subways and buses. As with service dogs permitted in airplanes, they must remain under your direct control at all times. The only question an Amtrak worker may ask you is the tasks your dog performs for you. If the train’s schedule allows, you can take your service dog out for a walk while the train is stopped at a station. If you do this, however, it is wise to let the conductor know you’ll be taking your service dog for a short walk, so the train doesn’t leave without you. While on the train, service dogs must remain on the floor. They are not allowed on the seats.

Even ride-sharing platforms like Lyft and Uber are required to abide by the ADA and accommodate your needs. Drivers are not allowed to discriminate against people with service dogs or refuse them service. It is illegal, in fact, for a driver to refuse service to anyone trying to ride with a service dog, even if that driver has allergies to dogs, makes a religious objection or is simply afraid of dogs. Although you don’t need to give the driver advance notice that you’ll have a service dog with you, it is a courteous thing to do and could avoid problems or confusion when the driver arrives. If a driver has denied you a ride with your service dog, you can contact Lyft or Uber directly by phone or online.

Every U.S.-based cruise-ship carrier is required by law to let your service dog travel with you. On a cruise ship, as anywhere else on land, your service dog can accompany you anywhere that guests are permitted, including dining areas. You must keep your service dog on a leash or tether or in a harness when riding together on a cruise ship, however. Furthermore, service dogs are not allowed in spas, whirlpools and swimming pools on cruise ships.

How to Get a Dog Certified as a Service Dog

In addition to answering your question: how can my dog become a service dog, you may also be wondering how to register your dog as a service dog.

Before answering how to get a dog certified as a service dog, however, it’s imperative to point out that getting your dog certified as a service dog is not necessary. You are not required by any law to certify or register your service dog. That said, doing so can be extremely worthwhile.

The benefits of registering your service dog are many, all providing you certainty, authority and peace of mind whenever going out in public with your service dog or simply exercising your legal rights as a disabled person. With service dog registration through Certifymypet, for example, you get helpful documentation of your qualifications produced by a legitimate doctor licensed in the state where you live, extensive identification to prove your qualifications to anyone who questions them and, even, entry in a digital database to which you can refer anyone demanding third-party verification of your qualifications. Again, while none of these are mandatory to have a service dog, and you shouldn’t really have to prove your qualifications to anyone, being able to do so can relieve a great amount of discomfort and stress and eliminate hassles, delays and other obstructions of your rights.

With that in mind, here’s how to register your dog as a service dog, simply, quickly and affordably:

  1. Contact Certify My Pet to arrange a teleconference with a doctor licensed to practice medicine in your state who will discuss your disability with you and how a service dog can help.
  2. If you qualify for a service dog, the doctor will write you a letter you can use to help confirm your qualifications for a service dog to people unaware of your rights as a person with a disability or unclear that you qualify for a service dog.
  3. Look for your registration materials in the mail and start putting them to work for you. These include several types of identification you can present to anyone who asks for further verification of your qualifications to have a service dog, including ID cards for you and a vest and harness for your service dog.

With Certifymypet registration, you and your service dog will also be listed in a database you can also use to verify your qualifications to anyone still unsure, even after viewing your other identification. Anyone using the registry to verify your service dog qualifications will only be able to confirm that you have a disability, a service dog can help you with that disability, and indeed that’s what your service dog does. If your disability is obvious, however, a person can’t even ask to see identification proving your qualifications or seek verification of that identification.