Several different types of service dogs exist. This article describes each of them in detail, including what distinguishes each one from other types of service dog, the types of tasks each one performs and what unique rights or restrictions, if any, each one has. Where possible, information is also provided on qualities of a good service dog of a particular type.
Before moving on to the different types of service dogs, however, one important distinction needs to be made. Service dogs are a kind of working dog or assistance dog. Other kinds of working dogs, or assistance dogs, like therapy dogs, comfort dogs and emotional support dogs, are not recognized as service dogs under Titles II and III of the ADA and so do not have the same rights. As you’ll see below, psychiatric service dogs, by contrast, are indeed considered service dogs.
All types of service dogs have certain rights granted to them and certain regulations and restrictions imposed on them by federal regulations updated on July 23, 2010. Firstly, the tasks that a service dog is trained to perform for his or her partnered person must be directly related to that person’s medical condition. Service dogs must be harnessed or leashed unless that would interfere with the dog’s ability to perform the tasks he or she needs to perform.
As for federal service dog laws uniformly affecting others, like business owners and public programs, it is against the law to impose bans on certain breeds of service dogs or impose weight or size restrictions on them. This and other public access related regulations, including those affecting service dogs in businesses, non-profit organizations, motels and hotels, schools, restaurants, local and state government services, hospitals and public transportation are regulated and enforced by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA.) Regulations affecting service dogs and air travel are governed by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA,) and regulations affecting service dogs in housing situations are governed by the Fair Housing Act. All three of these laws are federal laws and cannot be superseded by local or state law or company policy.
With that in mind, the following are the different types of service dogs:
- Anxiety Service Dog
- Chronic Pain Service Dog
- Nervous Habits Service Dog
- Psychiatric Service Dog (PTSD)
- Seizure Alert Dogs and Seizure Response Dog
- Medical Alert Service Dog
- Diabetes Service Dog
- Allergy Service Dog
- Sensory Signal Service Dog
- Guide Service Dog
- Hearing Service Dog
- Mobility Service Dog
Anxiety Service Dog
Assistance dogs for people with anxiety are often emotional support dogs, but not always. Anxiety that is either classified as a psychiatric disability listed in the DSM-5 or is symptomatic of such a condition qualifies for a service dog. That means, if your anxiety is so severe as to impair your ability to perform certain basic life tasks that you require a service dog to perform them for you so that you can live a normal life, chances are you qualify for a service dog for anxiety.
Conditions that may qualify for an anxiety dog include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic attacks
- Specific phobias
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Chronic depression
- Substance abuse disorder
- Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Tasks an anxiety dog might be trained to perform include:
- Anticipating anxiety attacks or other signs of oncoming symptoms before the person may even be aware of it and alerting the person so he or she can take appropriate action, such as finding a safe place to sit down and breathe
- Keeping strangers from approaching the individual while he or she is in distress
- Providing medication reminders or retrieving medication when needed
- Providing calm and comfort during an attack by distracting the person, such as by offering a paw or licking his or her face
- Retrieving a telephone during an episode
- Providing calming and comforting physical pressure therapy by lying down over the person’s abdomen or chest
- Seeking and soliciting assistance when the person is experiencing a severe anxiety episode
- Conducting safety checks of the home or turning on lights to provide comfort
Chronic Pain Dog
Like an anxiety dog, a chronic pain dog can provide medication reminders, retrieve medications, provide soothing physical pressure and seek and solicit aid when needed.
Conditions qualifying for a chronic pain dog include:
- Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
- Migraines and chronic headaches
- Chronic back pain
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscle spasms
- Neuropathy (nerve damage)
Researchers on the use of therapy dogs to treat fibromyalgia found that, after just 12 minutes with the dog, patients reported lower fatigue, emotional distress and pain. Note that therapy dogs are similar to service dogs, except that, rather than living with an individual patient, a therapy dog is usually part of a team and is brought by the owner or handler to various patients, one at a time, to provide its therapeutic services. Among the methods by which therapy dogs were found to help with chronic pain included decreasing heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, reducing cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and boosting endorphins (the “feel-good” hormone) and, most importantly perhaps, boosting the immune system and enhancing the body’s own natural painkilling mechanisms.
Because people with chronic pain also tend to have limited mobility, service dogs can also help to aid in mobility-related tasks, such as standing from a seated position and balancing. One study on using service dogs for chronic pain found that wheelchair-bound people who had a service dog pull them around in a manually-operated wheelchair experienced less shoulder pain than those who operated their wheelchairs themselves.
Nervous Habits Dog
There are several psychiatric conditions, disorders and disabilities characterized by nervous habits. Nervous habits include body-focused repetitive behaviors, or BFRBs, such as the picking, pulling, scraping or biting of your nails, skin or hair, such as:
- Trichotillomania – Compulsive hair-pulling
- Excoriation disorder (or dermatillomania) – Compulsive skin-picking
- Onychophagia – Compulsive nail-biting
Any of these conditions qualify for a service dog, as well as other disorders and disabilities characterized by nervous habits, or tics, including the most severe of such conditions, Tourette’s syndrome. Note as well that BFRBs are often associated with OCD and impulsive-control disorders, both of which also qualify for service dogs.
In cases in which the individual can control the nervous habit to some degree with focused awareness, a service dog can help bring that awareness whenever the individual begins performing the nervous habit. In other instances, a service dog could retrieve medication or provide medication reminders to help the individual keep the symptoms at bay.
Psychiatric Service Dog (PTSD)
Service dogs used to help people with a psychiatric or neurological disability, or psychiatric service dogs, are specifically protected by the ADA. A psychiatric service dog is not the same as a therapy dog, which itself is not even recognized as a valid type of service dog.
A therapy dog, as distinct from a psychiatric service dog, is a pet dog trained and tested, certified and insured to serve in an institutional setting, like a nursing home, hospital or school. The therapy dog’s handler is not the disabled person being served by the dog. Rather, the dog is brought to places where one or more patients could benefit from its presence. Therapy dogs may be used to cheer up patients and provide a counter to stress and grief. People with therapy dogs are not granted the same rights granted to people with service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs. Other types of working dogs not considered service dogs include dogs that perform search and rescue operations, detect explosives and detect cancer and other diseases.
Psychiatric service dogs, in contrast, typically serve one individual all the time by performing tasks such as:
- Giving medication reminders
- Providing room searches or safety checks
- Turning lights on in response to a panic, phobic, PTSD or other episode
- Interrupting an act of self-mutilation, such as an individual with a dissociative identity disorder might perform
- Protecting a disoriented person from harm
In addition to the specific services they provide, psychiatric service dogs also help people with mental and emotional disabilities and disorders to reduce feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. They also encourage such people to get out of bed, out of doors and exercise.
In 2013 and 2014, psychiatric service dogs were the number four most common type of service dog to be placed by US facilities, according to the study at the University of California, Davis.
Seizure Alert Dogs and Seizure Response Dog
Seizure alert dogs and seizure response dogs are similar in that they both help individuals with seizure-related disabilities or disorders, but they’re different in how they go about doing this.
Seizure Alert Dogs
Around 15% of dogs are able to predict seizures prior to their occurence. Typically, these dogs can make such predictions anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes before the seizure’s onset.
A seizure alert dog is trained to make these observations and respond by alerting the individual and helping them to take appropriate next action.
This may be to sit down, move to a safer location, take certain medication or contact someone authorized to come help or check back in shortly to make sure the individual is okay.
There are many other ways a seizure alert dog can perform their duty too, depending on the disabled individual’s particular needs. Some of the other tasks a seizure alert dog might perform include:
- Standing guard over the individual while he or she is going through a seizure
- Going for help when the person has a seizure
- Detect the signs of an oncoming seizure to predict the seizure and warn the individual to sit or otherwise move to a safer location
Seizure Response Dog
A seizure response dog, on the other hand, is trained to notice when a seizure is occurring and respond accordingly in order to protect the individual from harm.
Some of the possible tasks a seizure response dog may be trained to perform include:
- Rolling the individual in order to open his or her airway
- Going to seek help
- Clearing vomit from the mouth
- Blocking an individual experiencing postictal disorientation from intersections, staircases and other dangers
- Aiding with other postictal balance concerns
- Pressing a call button or operating a K9 phone
- Helping the individual to sit, rise or lie down
- Guiding the individual to a predetermined person or location
Seizure Alert and Response Dogs (aka Seizure Dogs)
In most cases, seizure alert dogs are also trained in response duties, essentially making them seizure alert and response dogs, otherwise known simply as seizure dogs.
It is currently still uncertain how certain dogs can sense when a seizure is going to happen, though there are a couple of theories. The dog may be able to smell small shifts in the individual’s biochemistry, such as in the blood, or the dog may be able to notice fine motor changes that are imperceptible to the human eye. In order to successfully train a seizure dog, the dog must already possess some innate abilities to detect seizures on his or her own, and the trainer must be able to effectively simulate real seizure activity in the training environment. Some experimental training methods have involved exposing the dog to the sweat of a person who has just undergone a seizure, but critics of this method note that what the dogs under training would be sniffing would be 10 to 20 minutes old and incorrectly condition the dog to respond to this scent instead of the scent linked to an oncoming seizure.
It can take a dog with natural seizure-detecting abilities as long as six months of living with an individual with a seizure-related disorder to be able to reliably detect the signs of an oncoming seizure and perform their service duty. Interestingly, approximately half of seizure response dogs placed with a person with a seizure disorder go on to develop seizure predicting and alerting abilities as well within the first six months.
Medical Alert Dog
One type of medical alert dog is a diabetes dog, or diabetes-detecting dog, or a type of service dog can help detect signs of low blood sugar or other signals of a diabetic need and indicate to the individual to take action.
A diabetes dog may even be trained to retrieve medication when needed, provide medication reminders or seek help during a crisis episode, such as diabetic shock. Other types of medical alert dogs include migraine alert dogs and narcolepsy alert dogs.
Allergy dogs are medical alert dogs used to alert an individual to the presence of an allergen.
Allergy dogs are trained to sniff out the trace elements of various allergens in the atmosphere including the following:
Children who have severe allergies are often paired with an allergy dog in order to protect them from harm while giving them greater independence.
Sensory Signal Dog
Not all of the 1-2 individuals out of 1,000 who have autism, nor all of the six out of 1,000 who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, are disabled by this disorder. Many can function quite normally. Others, however, find the conditioning significantly restricting their ability to live a normal daily life. For these people, autism service dogs, or sensory signal dogs, can make the difference between a life constrained by their condition and a full and normal life.
The main task sensory signal dogs perform is alerting their charge to the fact that they’re performing distracting and potentially harmful repetitive motions (otherwise known as stimming) like incessantly flapping the hands or, more direly, banging the head, thereby helping them to cease performing the movement and keep themselves safe. Even in benign situations, stimming can make it harder for an individual to relax and stay calm.
With a sensory signal dog, a person with autism can increase confidence and acquire independence. Many of the tasks a sensory signal dog may perform are similar to those a guide dog, or Seeing Eye dog, (another type of sensory processing disorder service dog) would perform, although with a different focus.
An autism or sensory signal dog could signal an individual with processing impairments who is presently overwhelmed by multiple sights, sounds and smells of important signals requiring immediate focus, like a fire alarm. Such a dog can further guide a bewildered individual through and away from an overstimulating situation or environment. Alternatively, these dogs may be trained to simply locate a different individual to help when commanded or sensing their charges in an overstimulated state.
A sensory signal or autism dog might also respond to detecting overstimulation in their charge by providing firm but gentle pressure on the individual’s body. Others may retrieve weighted blankets and place them so as to achieve this same effect, or wrap the individual in blankets to the same ends.
Note that it is not considered acceptable in the community of disabled people and service dog owners to tether young autistic children to dogs in the expectation the dog will act as babysitter and prevent the child from bolting away, unless the dog is a service dog trained to perform such a task.
Commonly known as a Seeing Eye® Dog, a guide dog is a dog trained to help a person who is blind or has a severe visual impairment to travel and perform other tasks requiring vision.
Guide dogs are paired extremely carefully with their charges, taking note of the individual’s activity level, living arrangements, hobbies, family and other lifestyle factors. In the best of cases, guide dogs spend a great deal of training time with the individual they will be serving. According to a University of California, Davis, service dog study, guide dogs were the top most common type of service dog placed by US facilities in 2013 and 2014.
While the range of breeds that can be effective service dogs is wide, the most common guide dogs are by far the following:
- Labrador retrievers
- Golden retrievers
- German shepherds
- Standard poodles
Standard poodles are most commonly used, in particular, for visually-impaired people who also have allergies to dogs.
Guide dogs are one of the only types of service dogs required to wear harnesses while working. This is obviously so that the individual being guided has a constant tether to the dog. It is also beneficial, however, for indicating to others that the guide dog is presently working and should not be pet or otherwise engaged. That said, guide dogs are also socialized as part of their training, so they pose no danger to those who cross that boundary.
A guide dog can help a visually-impaired person to find a new sense of freedom and independence.
Also known as a signal dog, a hearing dog is a dog trained to alert an individual who is deaf or has major hearing loss to respond appropriately to sounds.
Sounds that hearing dogs are trained to respond to include the following:
- The phone ringing
- A knock on the door
- Smoke alarms
- Kitchen timers
- Emergency vehicles
- Car horns
- Fire engine sirens
- A crying baby
- A person calling out to the individual
- And many others
A timeline of hearing dogs in the US:
- The first hearing dog recognized in the United States was trained by Sally Terroux from Denver, Colorado in 1968.
- In 1975, International Hearing Dog, Inc. was born out of Minnesota’s SPCA to train hearing dogs.
- In 1976, the Humane Society continued the program, though they discontinued it in the early 1980s.
- In the same University of California, Davis study cited above, hearing dogs were the third most placed type of service dog in 2013 and 2014 by US facilities.
- The SPCA now performs temperament tests and training from their shelter with sponsorship from the Lions Foundation.
While many other types of service dogs benefit from careful breeding, there is no known genetic marker for dogs that respond well to sounds. As such, shelter dogs are often trained as hearing dogs and are quite successful in that role. For other types of service dogs, shelter dogs are not used nearly as often, particular purebreds or cross-breeds more preferred.
Beyond the key requirement of a keen sensitivity to sounds, what also makes for a good hearing dog? Potential hearing dogs are selected due to their strong work drive and excellent temperament. If a hearing dog will be used outside of the home in addition to within the home, the dog’s training must include public access abilities. Any breed or size of dog can be a hearing dog.
To qualify for a hearing dog, your hearing loss typically must be a minimum of 65db.
This can include, but isn’t limited to:
- Transferring a person to and from a wheelchair
- Pulling, moving and stopping a wheelchair
- Retrieving items dropped from a wheelchair
- Turning on and off light switches
- Paying for purchases at a store
- Opening and shutting doors
The University of California, Davis study on service dogs found that, in 2013 and 2014, mobility dogs were the second most common type of service dog US facilities placed.
If a person with a mobility disability is ambulatory, a mobility dog can aid with balance and stability while he or she is walking. These types of mobility dogs wear a special kind of harness that allows them to serve as a counterbalance for the disabled individual to help prevent him or her from falling. This kind of mobility dogs may also perform tasks like mobility dogs for wheelchair-bound individuals do, including:
- Pulling off clothing (aiding in disrobing)
- Retrieving a walker or cane
- Pulling laundry basket
- And many others
There are number of mobility-related disorders and disabilities with mobility-related components for which a mobility dog can be beneficial, including:
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Cerebral Palsy
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Spinal cord injury
Qualities that make a good mobility dog include:
- A good temperament
- A strong work drive
- Excellent biddability, or docility and ease to teach and control
The best mobility dogs have a solid build and strong joints and bones. Mobility dogs typically take 18 to 24 months to train, which can only begin once a veterinary x-ray confirms that the animal’s growth plates are closed. Otherwise, injury could occur to the dog due to the demands of balance work and the special harness’s weight. Because of this, waiting lists for a mobility dog are often longer than those for other kinds of service dogs.
Service Dogs for Other Physical and Mental Disabilities
Not every disability falls into the aforementioned categories, but that doesn’t mean they don’t qualify for a service dog. In fact, all physical and psychiatric disabilities qualify for a service dog.