Facts about service dogs: what every person needs to know

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Facts about service dogs: photo of a service dog with a disabled person in an electric wheelchair

Service dog facts: what every person needs to know

Facts about service dogs: what every person needs to know. It’s the end of the day, and you’re exhausted. You stumble in the door, and your dog – eagerly awaiting your arrival – immediately runs to you and covers you with the sweetest wet kisses.

At that moment, you aren’t worried about the stress of work or the dishes in the sink, and instead, just feel the love and support from your loyal companion.

But for some of us with disabilities, these beautiful animals provide far more than wet kisses and loving companionship.

For some of us, they are a complete necessity to our physical security, health, and wellbeing. On top of the daily stress of work and dishes, I also have the additional worries that come along with my medical condition: What happens if I pass out in public or if I am too weak to get a water from the kitchen?

Because I’m not able to pay for a caregiver to be there 24/7, working with service dogs has given me around-the-clock confidence that I’m still able to be independent, supported, and safe.

Another facts about service dogs is that, just like other individual pets, they provide disabled people with therapeutic emotional support.

An additional fact about service dogs is that they are trained to specifically cater to their owners and to assist them with their unique disabilities. Service dogs can support disabled individuals in their daily routines and respond in emergency situations.

If I pass out in public, my service dog can be trained to get help, or even to put me back in my wheelchair. If I’m too weak to get up, my service dog can fetch a water bottle from the fridge.

Service dogs are often the catalyst of independent decision making for us disabled folk. 

This is a close up photo of a service dog sitting on the ground next to their disabled owner in a wheelchair.
Fun facts about service dogs include providing emotional support to their owners!   | ©24K-Production / Adobe Stock​​

What are Service Dogs?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) service animals are defined “as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

In the US, service animals – most commonly service dogs – are protected by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Yet, because very few people know the hard facts about service dogs, they are commonly undervalued, misunderstood, and discriminated against in public spaces. And when service dogs are discriminated against, so are their owners.

When we disregard the necessity and rights of service dogs, we are perpetuating the marginalization of their disabled owners.

We all need to work towards a better understanding and appreciation of service dogs, so that people with all different disabilities may find increased independence and quality of life.

Here are four interesting facts about service dogs everyone should know

Service dog facts #1 - service dogs serve disabled people

Service dog fact #1 – service dogs serve disabled people. Service dogs, by definition, are trained to serve their owner’s specific disability. These service dogs are always connecting and learning from their owners to anticipate their needs.

Many of us might have animals that we love and cherish. They are probably considered a part of our family and are instrumental to our well-being.

Service dogs, similar to pets, take on these roles that can be life-changing for their owners. Further, they are trained to ensure the safety and increase the independence and quality of life for their owners.

With this service dog partnership, doors are quite literally being opened for wheelchair users, for example.

Service dog facts: a white service dog is opening the door for a disabled man in a wheelchair
Another interesting fact about service dogs is that they can open doors for their disabled owners in wheelchairs. | ©24K-Production / Adobe Stock​​

For blind or visually impaired people, their guide dogs may assist them in navigating obstacles.For b/Deaf and hard of hearing people, their hearing dogs are trained to respond to the sounds around them.

For other disabled people, service dogs can be trained to provide a plethora of services.

Another one of the interesting facts about service dogs is that can routinely remind their owners to take a specific medication or respond to seizures that can happen anywhere and anytime.

Service dogs have saved their owner’s life by responding to unexpected medical emergencies and reducing panic for all involved.

While doctors may prescribe an emotional support or companion animal that is helpful to their owners, these dogs do not have the same rights in public as trained service animals do.

One of the key facts about service dogs people need to remember is that they are not pets. Service dogs are specifically trained to serve their owner’s disability, we need to know what these rights are and how to best respond to them in public.

Disabled people who use service dogs deserve equal access to social spaces with as much ease, respect, and safety as everyone else. Remember: when we disregard the necessity and rights of service dogs, we are perpetuating the marginalization of their disabled owners.

Service dog facts #2 - respecting the owner of the service dog matters

Service dog fact #2 – Responding respectfully to the owner of the service dog matters. I want to pet every cute dog I see (with the owner’s permission, of course)! I love talking to animal lovers because it’s easy to make conversation. And I can’t help but use my high-pitched baby-animal voice at the first sight of fuzzy thing!

Even though my love of animals prompts me to respond affectionately, one of the facts about service dogs I have to remember is that they are never to be treated as someone’s pet.

Distracting the service dog with petting, offering treats, or any other ways we might try to get a dog’s attention can lead to detrimental consequences.

The dogs are trained to work. They respond to their owner’s commands and can often anticipate their owner’s needs.

If we interfere in any way, we are erasing the disability and taking away the owner’s control of the situation, and putting both the owner and the dog at risk.

Asking about someone’s service dog might seem like a friendly way to make conversation, but this attention is not beneficial to the owner, or the dog.

Just as you shouldn’t acknowledge someone’s wheelchair before their humanity, you shouldn’t ask about or bring attention to the service dog.

Non-disabled privilege often gets in the way of us connecting with others on a personal level. 

We immediately notice the differences between us and want to do something “nice” to compensate for them.

In reality, the best way to be an ally to a disabled person with a service dog is to respect the owner’s and the service dog’s boundaries and self-agency.

Read more: My disability does not define me

It’s easy to spot a service dog versus a pet when they’re wearing a work vest.

Many organizations that train service dogs choose to train their dogs in these vests to establish clear boundaries for the dog and their owner.

When the dog is working, they wear the vest. And when the vest comes off in private, the dog might be allowed to play or rest without being as attentive to their owner.

Some vests will be clearly marked as a “working service dog” with reminder statements like “do not pet.”

One of the legal facts about service dogs worth remembering is that service dogs are not required to wear a vest, but they must be leashed at all times unless the leash prohibits the dog from a particular service or assistance.

That is all that is required of the service dog to have the same rights to be in a public space, including restaurants or taxis, as their owner under the ADA in the US.

The Fair Housing Act permits disabled people and their service animals to live in places that do not allow pets – without any extra fees or consequences.

The Air Carrier Act Access Act also allows for assistant animals to ride with their owner in the cabin of an airplane, but must usually prove verification of necessity beforehand.

These legislations came after many years of disability activism, and there are still many disabled feminists working to create policy changes to better support people with disabilities.

Other legal facts about service dogs include that in public spaces, it is illegal to ask the owner or the service animal to leave just because there is a “no pets” policy.

One of the little know facts about service dogs is that if you are business owner (and even if you’re not) it’s never ever okay to ask why someone has a service dog. These confrontations are ableist, invasive, and discriminatory (and rude).

If you are a business owner or responsible for a public space, you are permitted to ask two questions about the service dog: (1) is the dog a service dog required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the service dog been trained to perform.

However, the owner does not have to provide documentation or an explanation to “prove it.” They cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, a special identification card, or training documentation for the service dog, or ask that the service dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

While training a vested service dog with my invisible disability, I was constantly questioned why I (while passing as non-disabled) needed a service dog!

It was awful being confronted by so many strangers asking “what was wrong” with me multiple times a day, often disrupting the training process or whatever personal tasks I was trying to accomplish.

Regardless if someone has an invisible disability or is a non-disabled trainer, the service dog still has the same rights, as the human, they are with, under the ADA and deserves the same respect in public.

The ADA also protects trained miniature horses as service animals, with similar conditions to dogs such as being housebroken and is under the owner’s control.

The laws protect blatant discrimination against disabled people and their service animals in these instances, but we must do our part to continue to do our feminist work intersectionality to continue providing equitable access and opportunity.

A service dog is opening a metal gate for their disabled owner. The dog has a rope in their mouth that is attached to gate
Fun facts about service dogs include their ability to open and close gates for their disabled owners in wheelchairs. | ©24K-Production / Adobe Stock​​

Service dog facts #3 - they are expensive

Service dog fact #3 – they are expensive. While service dogs can be very beneficial to their owners, living with a disability and having a service dog includes many additional challenges besides facing discrimination in public.

Another fact about service dogs is that most service dog training organizations expect their disabled applicants to fundraise. Some ask for “at least $15,000” to meet the high costs of training a service dog.

Depending on the organization, owners might be required to cover additional costs of food or any medical problems the dog might have. This reality can be devastating.

For example, many times individuals cannot afford veterinary bills and are forced to put down their service dog due to costs. Not only do the individuals lose their original investment in training this dog, but they are also losing their sense of security, independence, and partnership with their service dog.

There are some organizations that are able to provide service animals to their disabled applicants at no cost and will continue ownership of the dog to cover any unforeseen medical expenses throughout their life.

The process for any organization to train and match a person with their service dog varies from a few weeks to a few months, and a person might not find their right fit for a service dog the first time.

Other organizations can help a disabled pet owner train their dog to become a service dog.

We must continue to support disabled people to make the best choice for themselves – regardless of their socioeconomic status.

We can find ways to support by volunteering on-site at service dog training facilities, donating to grassroots fundraising efforts, or even fostering or volunteering to help train service dogs.

Service dog facts #4 - any breed can be a service dog

Service dog fact #4 – any dog breed can be a service dog. You might be surprised to find out that all dogs are eligible to be service dogs if they can demonstrate proper training and obedience. All sorts of dog breeds have been trained as service dogs, including Pomeranians to Mastiffs. 

Just because a disabled person's service dog is not a Labrador, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds, the dominant breeds trained as service dogs, doesn't mean the service dog isn't real. 

While service dogs are ultimately trained to benefit their disabled owner, even non-disabled people who work to understand the importance of service dogs can help to deconstruct some of the mainstream perceptions about disability and what we consider “normal.”

While disabled people face many additional challenges service dogs can help alleviate some of them. We must all respect and protect service dog rights so that we can support our disabled friends!

How much does it cost to get a service dog?

While the services provided by a service dog may be invaluable to a handler, the financial cost can be burdensome. The National Service Animal Registry estimates that a service dog costs a minimum of $17,000. The total cost of training the dog is typically upwards of $40,000; however, most organizations can assist with fundraising or grant applications for those in need. Unfortunately, those programs typically have long wait lists, so the access to a service dog is not immediate.

Source: Integrity INC
An infographic showing a series of facts about service dogs in the US. Fact 1: less than 1% of disabled Americans use service dogs. Fact 2: 500,000 service dogs help people. Fact 3: 50-70% of service dog candidates fail training. Fact 4: It takes 18 months to train a service dog. Fact 5: Training a service dog costs between $10,000 to $20,000. Fact 6: the average wait time for a service dog is three years.
Facts about service dogs in the US |​​  Infographic via Hepper.com

When we disregard the necessity and rights of service dogs, we are perpetuating the marginalization of their disabled owners.

Facts about service dogs: what every person needs to know was originally published on Everyday Feminism

Article by
Sara Whitestone

As a disabled feminist, Sara proudly advocates for accessibility issues and other students with disabilities.


Disabled people who use service dogs deserve equal access to social spaces with as much ease, respect, and safety as everyone else.