Types of Service Dogs and How They Help Their Humans

April Saylor
By April Saylor. Reviewed by Tara Hansen, DVM on Jun. 12, 2024
white dog lying down and wearing a red service dog jacket

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In This Article

What Are Service Dogs?

Service dogs play an important role for individuals living with disabilities and medical conditions. These highly trained companions offer support, independence, and assistance, and they perform life-saving tasks that help their handlers stay healthy and safe. 

But how is a service dog different from a well-behaved family pet?

Beyond their extensive training, service dogs must perform a specific task that helps their handler who’s living with a disability.

In addition to their task-oriented work, service dogs must also be adaptable, friendly, and professional when confronted with distractions on the job. 

What Are Service Dogs?

Service dogs perform specific tasks that help their handler live independently. While they are also known as assistance animals or helper dogs outside the U.S., the official Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements state that the animal, regardless of breed or size, must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.

Service dogs are skilled companions who are not just pets—they are considered working animals and must undergo extensive training to perform specific activities that benefit their handlers.

How Do Dogs Become Service Dogs?

It takes a lot of work to become a service dog. Most dogs begin their extensive training as a puppy, with a puppy raiser who provides socialization opportunities and teaches them basic obedience skills.

If their temperament and trainability are the right fit for life as a service dog, pups will go onto more advanced training, which is tailored to task-specific behaviors for their human’s needs.

Common Service Dog Breeds

There are no breed requirements that exclude any dog from becoming a service dog. Mixed breeds who are friendly, focused, and love having a job to do can also make wonderful service pets.

While service dogs are not defined by breed, there are a few types of dogs that are commonly selected for service dog roles thanks to their temperament, intelligence, and physical traits. These include:

Types of Service Dogs

man sitting on a couch with a german shepherd in front of him, the german shepherd is wearing a service dog vest
Photo by Fly View Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Not all service dogs are created equal. In fact, different types of service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks that assist their handler with any number of mental or physical disabilities.

Training a service dog to perform the tasks associated with their handler’s needs is an extensive and expensive process that can take up to two years, and it’s highly individualized based on the handler’s needs.

For example, medical alert dogs are trained to use scent detection to notify their handler of oncoming medical episodes, while allergy detection dogs detect allergens.

Others, like mobility assistance dogs, provide support such as opening doors or retrieving items, while guide or hearing dogs help their handler navigate independently.

1. Allergy Detection Dogs

Allergy detection dogs are trained to identify specific allergens and alert their handler of dangers that may be present in their food or environment.

With up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose, dogs can sniff out trace amounts of allergens that pose a risk. Allergy detection dogs provide a valuable early warning for people at risk of allergic reaction to common allergens (such as peanuts or gluten), which for them can cause severe health complications.

2. Autism Service Dogs

Autism service dogs are trained to provide support to individuals on the autism spectrum. These pups learn tasks designed to help their handlers manage issues like sensory overload or to facilitate social interactions.

For example, some autism service dog tasks might include recognizing and interrupting self-harming behaviors, or responding to signs of agitation by performing a calming act (like leaning against their human when they’re anxious). 

3. Guide Dogs

Guide dogs foster independence and safety for people with visual impairments or blindness.

They must train extensively to learn to navigate their handlers through obstacles, streets, and public spaces. Also known as seeing-eye dogs, these pups keep their humans safe en route to their destinations.

Guide dog training can take about two years and costs $40,000 or more, though many guide dog schools provide free services to individuals who qualify. Guide dogs are also trained for intelligent disobedience, meaning they understand not to obey commands that may be unsafe for their handler.

4. Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs serve individuals who are deaf or hearing-impaired by alerting them to sounds and signals in the environment, such as voices, fire alarms, doorbells, oven timers, or approaching vehicles.

Hearing dogs are trained to alert their human to the sound through contact, such as a gentle nudge or paw, then lead them to safety or to the source of the sound. 

5. Medical Alert Dogs

Medical alert dogs are trained to detect and respond to specific medical conditions such as diabetes, seizures, and other health-related issues.

Diabetic alert dogs can sense changes in blood sugar levels, while seizure alert dogs can anticipate a seizure. This gives their handlers time to take necessary precautions (like taking medication or getting to a safe space) or to call for help if needed.

6. Mobility Assistance Dogs

Mobility assistance dogs are skilled companions that empower their handlers to navigate daily activities with confidence and independence. Also known as mobility support or physical assistance dogs, mobility assistance dogs aid individuals who have mobility limitations or physical disabilities.

These dogs are trained to perform tasks like object retrieval; opening/closing doors; balance support; and other everyday activities like dressing and undressing. 

7. Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to assist individuals with mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression.

They learn to identify the signs of oncoming mental health episodes and can be a grounding influence during anxiety attacks; waking their handlers from nightmares; or creating a physical barrier in crowded spaces to alleviate anxiety.

8. Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and support to people in clinical settings, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas.

Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs, as service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. But therapy dogs must also undergo obedience training and temperament testing to learn to interact with all types of individuals in stressful situations.

Are Emotional Support Dogs Service Dogs?

While emotional support animals can provide comfort and improve their handlers' well-being, they are not protected under the same legal protections as service dogs, even if they’re prescribed by a medical professional.

Emotional support dogs differ from service dogs in that they do not undergo the same level of specialized training needed to perform specific tasks related to a disability or medical condition. 

Federal law protects a person's right to use a service animal in any public place. The same protection does not apply to emotional support dogs or therapy dogs.

Federal law protects a person's right to use a service animal in any public place. The same protection does not apply to emotional support dogs or therapy dogs.

Service Dogs and Community

In addition to the physical support and safety they provide, service dogs allow their humans to create deeper connections to their community.

Ninety-four percent of respondents in a 2020 survey of people with service dogs reported psychosocial benefits after being placed with a service dog, noting that the dogs create confidence, provide peace of mind, and facilitate social interaction they may not have otherwise had without their dog companion.

Service dogs are essential companions for the individuals they serve. When you see a service dog in public, let them do their job. Do not pet or approach a service dog—distractions can put the life of their handler in danger.

The best way to show a service dog your admiration is to respect their boundaries and advocate for their protection in public spaces.


April Saylor

WRITTEN BY

April Saylor

Freelance Writer


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