Caring for those in Need

Should I Consider Having a Service Dog

Have you ever wondered what the advantages are of having a service dog? If you are attempting to cope with a difficult medical diagnosis, you might be interested in learning the many tasks a service dog, properly trained, is able to do to help improve the quality of your days.

BY Ellen Lenox Smith | May 2023 | Category: Mobility

Should I Consider Having a Service Dog

Iwas very fortunate to be matched with a service dog from the organization called NEADS. Living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, one’s life is unpredictable and difficult to navigate. I applied, was granted an in-person interview, and then after acceptance to receive my match, I waited for that magical call. At that time, I was confined to a wheelchair, which lasted four years, and needed help to be more independent. After eight months, the call came in that I was matched to Maggie and life became magical.

Just eight days after returning from my two-week training with her on campus, I woke up on the hospital bed with her next to me, in defiance of the command to sleep next to the bed on the floor.  However, I couldn’t scold her because she sensed I had stopped breathing, despite using my bi-pap machine. She had jumped up and proceeded to reposition me until the airflow returned, saving my life. From that day on, the doctor asked that she sleep next to me to keep an eye on me. And understand, she was never trained to alert me in any way. Yet, just after two weeks of training with me, she already understood when something was very wrong and she clearly enjoyed taking on the responsibility of helping me. Her loyalty to doing her chores on command and keeping me safe remained for over ten years until her passing. 

So what are some of the many things a service dog can provide for a person upon command? 

  • Pick up dropped objects on the floor
  • Collect the morning paper
  • Tug open a refrigerator or other door with a rope
  • Tug cabinets open
  • Nudge a door closed
  • Pick up food bowls
  • Nudge a breathing machine located on the floor
  • Carry your belongings in their working jacket pockets
  • Carry an object to another person for you
  • Watch you work out and be sure you are safe
  • Travel at your feet on busses, trains, and planes
  • Carry your tickets for the trip
  • Be allowed to be by your side, even in a hospital 
  • Turn light switches on and off
  • Retrieve objects from tables and counters
  • Bark on command to alert others of your needed help
  • Push automatic door buttons
  • Retrieve the phone
  • Provide the most amazing comfort and support one could ask for

If this is of interest to you, the next thing you need to decide is how you want to consider getting a dog. You can contact organizations that train and match those approved or you can train a dog on your own or with assistance. 

Commonly Asked Questions

Can You Train your own Dog? Under the ADA, people with disabilities have the right to train their own service animals and are not required to use a professional service dog training program. There is no legal service animal certification. 

What is the definition of a Service Dog ? Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task performed by the dog must be related to the person’s disability. The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.1

How Does My Dog Become a Service Dog?

  • The first step is to know what the requirements and laws are for service dogs. 
  • Title II and Title III of the ADA define Service Animal as any dog that is trained to perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. This may include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other emotional disability.
  • Based on the ADA’s ruling in 1990, dogs that provide a professional service to individuals with disabilities that require their support will be allowed access to public places when accompanying their handlers. 
  • This is not limited to seeing eye dogs as commonly believed!  

What Are Service Dog Requirements?

Step 1: Identifying and Understanding What Type of Dog You Have: Any dog breed is suitable for service work! From Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Bully Breeds, Poodles, Huskies, etc. All types of dogs are eligible to become service dogs. Service dog laws do not include dog breed restrictions or weight discrimination. If you don’t know the breed of your dog, you can aquire a simple dog DNA test that can provide you with higher accuracy of breed-related instincts. You should also be aware of your dog’s health conditions to confirm that the age and health of your dog is suitable for the job and to prevent adding strains to a service animal’s health and also to its handler’s condition(s). It is also important to test your dog’s personality type to see if he or she has a good temperament for service work. Dogs who are aggressive or easily scared may not work as service dogs until their public temperament improves. 

Step 2: Find a Trainer You Trust or Train Your Dog Yourself! You can either adopt a trained service dog from a reputable trainer or bring your dog to a Trainer. Did you know that you can train your dog yourself under service dog laws? In the United States, there is no required ADA certification for service animal training. The community is self-regulated and includes minimum government-regulated standards for training. If you find that you would rather train your dog yourself, you are not only welcome to it, but it can also help increase the bond between you and your service dog.

Step 3: Training Your Service Dog. Most of your time will be spent here. Putting in enough time to train your future service dog is a crucial step. While the United States has no minimum requirement, International standards suggest approximately 120 hours over six months. It is recommended that at least 30 of those hours should be time spent in public to help train the dog in moments of distractions and any surprises that may come their way. The most important task for you to teach your service dog is tasking or learning the specific skill they will be performing to help assist with your disability. Some tasks may include sensing a medical alert, tactile stimulation during a panic attack, or grounding/blocking in public areas.

Step 4: The Public Access Test. Once you feel your service dog is trained, it’s time to put them to the test! Below is a quick list of the most important criteria for your service dog to pass:

  • No aggressive behavior
  • Cease sniffing behaviors unless released to do so
  • No solicitations for food or affection

•           Over-excitement and hyperactivity in public

The Public Access Test is provided by the ADI via PDF form for your convenience. 

Step 5: Certification and Equipping. In the United States, service dog certification and service dog identification is not a requirement. Unfortunately, many public employees and places will still require it. For your own convenience, it’s good practice to offer to present documents that can help show that your dog is a trained service dog. This will help prevent situations where you are met with hostility when traveling with your service dog. Electing to carry a custom service Dog ID card and Service Dog Vest might be a simpler solution for you and your service dog. You may also choose not to carry the ID card and stand your ground on principle when you encounter people ignorant of service dog rights. After you verbally confirm that your dog is a trained service dog or documentation is shown, reasonable accommodations must be legally made for service dogs. Service dogs provide help for those facing a physical or mental disability so they are granted access to public places such as hotels, restaurants, and malls. It’s important to understand these steps to help you or those around you. 

What Can Be Asked:

Is the dog a Service Animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? 

What Cannot Be Asked:

Documentation cannot be requested. The dog does not have to demonstrate its tasks. If the disability is obvious, the person cannot be asked what his/her disability is. 

I hope this information gives you some good insight into not only the work that goes behind training a service dog, but also the benefits and rewards with successful work. Remember, when you see a service dog and it’s barking without a reason to assist its match, then it is most likely not a true service dog. Properly trained dogs are polite, quiet, excited to help you, and love their assignments.  


Ellen Lenox Smith has emerged as a leading voice for patients living with pain in Rhode Island and the country. She suffers from two rare conditions, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and sarcoidosis. She enjoyed a career, predominantly in the field of education, before having to resign due to health. She devotes much of her time to advocacy. Presently, she is a co-director for Cannabis Advocacy for the US Pain Foundation, along with being on their board, runs Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, and was appointed by the governor to both the Adaptive Telephone Equipment Loan Program and the RI Medical Cannabis Oversight Committee representing patients, and helps run the RI EDS Support group. A proud mother of four sons and five grandchildren, Ellen is also an organic gardener, and prior to her disability, was a master swimmer and high school swim coach. She was a staff writer for National Pain Report and 1000 WATTS Magazine before they shut down, was a former staff writer for Pain News Network, and with her husband speaks out to educate others about her condition and pain management. She has spoken to: the FDA, Brown Medical students, Blue Cross nurses, and physical therapy students in RI and CT, along with speaking at the EDS national conferences. She is also the author of two books: It Hurts Like Hell!: I Live With Pain -- And Have A Good Life Anyway and My Life as a Service Dog!   

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