Breed Profile, True Stories

Types of Service Dogs Overview


The phrase “man’s best friend” is known by all to describe a member of the canine family, the dog. At no time in history has that phrase been more appropriate than today. Let’s take a look at the many muzzles of “service dogs” and the amazing ways they assist us daily.

Service Dogs – by definition

Technically, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as one specifically trained to perform tasks for a disabled individual who would otherwise have trouble completing those tasks. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), there are six distinct types of service dogs:

Guide Dog – assists visually impaired people of all ages

Hearing Dog – alerts a hearing impaired person to important sounds like:

  • doorbells
  • telephones
  • smoke alarms
  • a crying baby — and many more…

Medical Alert Dog – trained to detect, alert and attend his human in case of an oncoming, potentially serious medical event like:

  • Blood sugar issue from diabetes
  • Epileptic attack
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack

Autism Service Dog – trained to alert his handler of certain behaviors and help to calm the person and minimize inappropriate responses.

  • Provides stability and focus with his presence
  • Improves abstract and concrete thinking for the handler
  • Handler’s attention span increases
  • The goal is to afford his human more independence and assist in integrating them into the community.

Mobility Dog – performs supportive tasks for his owner like:

  • Opening doors
  • Retrieving items
  • Pushing buttons
  • Physically supporting his owner when walking
  • Helping his owner to maintain balance while getting from place to place

Psychiatric Service Dog – assists with a person’s mental disability. Note – these dogs NEVER leave their handler’s side! Examples of tasks:

  • Helps a person go out in public (agoraphobia)
  • Mitigates panic and/or anxiety attacks
  • Supports people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Useful for other mental disorders too

Service dogs undergo extensive and extremely specific training programs that are tailored to their handler’s very specific needs. Most training is at the very least six months and can be much longer, depending on the tasks that the service dog will perform. Service dogs are allowed to attend their human in all public spaces.

The wonderful organization, Rebuilding Warriors, has provided Service dogs to honorably discharged veterans at no cost.

While any dog could be trained as a service dog, you’ll see fewer mixed breeds in these positions. Purebred dogs are bred specifically for certain temperaments, traits, and physiques which tend to make it easier for particular breeds to learn and perform the very specialized tasks required.

In general, the combined qualities that make a terrific Service dog are:
  • An innate desire to learn new things and please their people
  • Midrange energy – capable of extensive physical exertion, and also ready to sit quietly
  • Physical strength as appropriate for support functions
  • A mix of vigilance and calmness, strength and tenderness
  • Eager to problem solve when necessary
  • Brave, extremely intelligent, and self-assured

Here is a shortlist of top-rated and easily trained breeds that make great Service Dogs:

  • German Shepherd
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Golden Retriever
  • Standard Poodle – especially suited for situations where allergies to dander are an issue
  • Pomeranian – small and mighty, these dogs can be perfectly suited to help with conditions like PTSD, autism, epilepsy or diabetes

Contrast Service Dogs with Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are not expected to help their handler (although they are just naturally great company!). They are primarily tasked with cheering up other people.

Therapy Dogs help people in the following ways:

  • Reducing anxiety and fear in those who are coping with some type of traumatic issue like:
  • Visiting hospitals and cheering up patients and visitors who are nervous and stressed
  • Working in airports allowing travelers to spend quiet time petting them.
  • Visiting the elderly and offering love and connection

Animal Planet offers a list of best Therapy Dogs. check out their top 5 picks:

  • Chihuahua
  • Poodle
  • Corgi
  • French Bulldog
  • King Charles Cavalier Spaniel

Wondering if your dog could be a Therapy Dog? Check out the AKC Therapy Dog Program

Contrast Service Dogs with Working Dogs

Working dogs learn and perform extremely specific tasks that improve human lives. Examples of various types of canine functions include:

  • Detection
  • Hunting
  • Herding
  • Search and rescue
  • Police work
  • Military work

Working dogs have been by man’s side for centuries, assisting with essentials like fishing, hunting, and tracking. Today we hear regularly of heroic tasks performed by canines in war conditions and successfully apprehending criminals in police chases.

Additionally, working dogs perform these other amazing functions, all requiring a keen sense of smell. Note, these are only a few examples of breeds that may be used.

Bed bug sniffing – these dogs work to find the awful, tiny critters, and then follow-up to be sure that the extermination was complete.

  • Beagle
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Belgian Malinois

Search and rescue (SAR) – these dogs are used in situations ranging from missing persons to natural or manmade disasters.

This extensive training begins in puppyhood. These canines use a scent in the air or the scent of a specific object to locate who they’re seeking. After completing the training, these dogs are tested and certified by SAR organizations. Dogs are chosen for their intelligence, strength, size, obedience, eagerness, temperament, and gentleness.

Breeds often used are:

  • German Shepherd
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Bloodhound

Explosives detection – these dogs warn their handlers of explosive devices and work closely with police, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the military.

Breeds that excel in this work:

  • German Shepherd
  • Belgian Malinois
  • Vizsla

Cancer detection – Scientists have trained Labrador Retrievers to sniff out cancer in the patient’s breath.

In one case, the Lab correctly diagnosed cancer in 98% of people scanned. A commonly used screening test for cancer only found cancer 10% of the time!

Allergy Alert – these dogs help to alleviate parent’s fears when their child has life-threatening allergies like peanuts.

These dogs, trained similarly to police dogs that track scents or drugs, can detect an allergen and/or residue and alert their owner. These dogs shine at schools, social activities and social events.

Breeds that most commonly work as allergy dogs are:

  • Poodle
  • Golden Retriever
  • Portuguese Water Dog

Contrast Service Dogs with Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional Support Animals (ESA) seem to be everywhere these days. Most importantly, they will exhibit an extremely affectionate and sweet-natured temperament. Additionally, intelligence and a willingness to stay focused on the emotional state and whereabouts of their handler are necessary components of an emotional support dog.

Some ESAs merely hang out with their people, asking for rubbing and being sweet. Other dogs will actually intervene should their person seem anxious or fearful by jumping up on their lap and offering kisses and affection. This loving behavior helps the owner to relax and feel safe. Many people find great comfort in just petting their canine friend in a stressful circumstance.

The list of mental and emotional conditions that may be helped by having an emotional support dog is extensive. The National Institute of Mental Health shows that more than 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some form of mental disorder. Check out a list of applicable conditions here.

Why register your dog as an ESA?

When your dog is registered as an ESA, he can accompany you almost anywhere you will go. Your dog can travel with you at no additional charge. Many times, breed and size restrictions on living spaces may be overlooked. Of course, depending on your situation, various forms of documentation may be necessary.

Today registering your dog to be an ESA is relatively easy and inexpensive it seems. However, due to the increasing popularity of ESAs, additional regulations and restrictions are inevitable. Emotional Service Animals must be easygoing and friendly in public, getting along well with other humans and pets. Since specific training is not required, it is crucial that the owner is realistic about their dog’s abilities to behave as good citizens. The AKC offers a program called Canine Good Citizen (CGC) which will help an owner evaluate if their dog has the potential to be a Service dog or ESA.

If you’d like to learn more about Service dogs of all types, check out the following references. With regard to ESA certification, Vital Planet does not recommend any particular organization. We suggest you ask your veterinarian about what is advisable in your area.

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