Disclaimer: Please note that while the US & Canada often use the term ‘service dog’ , ‘assistance dog’ is the more internationally recognized term. I use both, interchangeably here. Note that, depending on the country, not all service animals are dogs. None of this should be taken as legal nor medical advice. This is meant to be informational for the US & Canada, with some differences depending on State and Provincial laws. For specific cases or locality, please do your own research.
In general, a working dog is any dog that has been trained, and sometimes bred, to perform specific tasks, often to accompany a professional in their job. Examples include police work, search and rescue, mine detection, herding, and drug detection. For more information on different types of working dogs, here is an American Kennel Club article (US link).
An assistance dog is a working dog whose task is to alleviate a specific person’s medical disability. A service dog is considered medical equipment, equivalent to a wheelchair or a hearing aid. Refusing access to an assistance dog is refusing access to a disabled person due to their disability: a violation of human rights. For this reason, public access and free transportation and accommodation is required.
Assistance dogs (aka service dogs)
An non-exhaustive list of common assistance dogs include guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing, psychiatric dogs for mental disabilities (including autism), seizure alert and response dogs, and mobility assistance dogs. As long as the dog’s handler has a medical disability that the dog can mitigate by performing one or more specifically trained tasks, that dog is a service dog, regardless of breed, size, or origine.
Examples of tasks assistance dog perform and example applications
Each tasks is useful for many disabilities, and two handlers with the same diagnosis will not have the same list of tasks for their service dogs. Each dog is trained for the specific disabling symptoms of their handlers. For those mathematically inclined: there is no bijection between tasks and disabilities, nor equivalence between diagnosis and disability.
- item retrieval: eg. medication, phone, dropped keys
- guide: a blind person around town, or a dissociating person to a building’s exit
- crowd control: blocking out a safe distance around the handler, check a room for safety
- medical alert: alert handler of impending seizure, detect blood sugar high & lows, alert of a change in stress hormones
- mobility: offer counterweight for someone with poor balance, assistance walking, forward momentum
- deep pressure therapy: applying pressure on the handler’s body to regulate the autonomic nervous system. Commonly used for psychiatric purposes as well as to mitigate physical pain
Dispelling some misconceptions
→ I can tell a pet dog from a service dog by looking at the person. No. Not all disabilities are visible. In fact, there are more invisible disabilities than there are visibly obvious ones. Think of autism, diabetes, PTSD, or epilepy. What would the visual clues be? Even blind handlers complain being told that they ‘do not look blind’. This abelist way of thinking conveniently assumes that if you do not see it, it does not exist. However, this erases and contradicts the lived experience of people. Only a medical professional can diagnose a person, often after extensive testing.
→ Only guide dogs for the blind are real service dogs. No. Though historically they were the first, they opened the gates to more dogs helping more disabled people in their daily lives, regain independence. The more we understood about dogs in a medical setting, the more we discovered the wealth of tasks a dog can perform to help their disabled handler.
→ Only dogs (or certain breeds of dog), can be a service animal. No, any dog of any size, can potentially become a service dog. Temperament testing is the most important factor in determining whether a prospect will make it as an assistance dog or not. The size and breed is determined by the specific need and lifestyle of the disabled handler. For example, a toy size can be excellent for a diabetic alert dog, because they can be carried on a sling close to the face of the handler. As for other animals, this depends on the country. In the US, mini horses are a valuable alternative for those who need heavy mobility, longer lifespans, or cannot work with dogs.
→ Psychiatric service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs are the same. No. A psychiatric service dog has to actively perform a task for a disabled handler, whereas an emotional support dog can passively help their disabled human. Emotional support animals can be life-changing and even life-saving. Since emotional support animals have no required training nor use in an emergency situation, they do not have public access. Instead, the handler must have a doctor’s note attesting that their health benefits from their animal. (NB: in Ontario, emotional support dogs are not legally well defined)
A therapy dog is a dog that has gotten some obedience training and behavioral vetting by a program, in order to help many people. Those dogs work to make seniors in homes happier, cheer up long-term hospital patients, and calm kids or victims when testifying in court. The handler is not the beneficiary of their therapy dog.
For more information, here is a CBC article on the differences between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals in Canada.