Defining the world of service dogs

WHETHER YOU HAVE A DOG or will be getting one, your research will leave you knee-deep in a world with its own language. Recognizing and understanding words, phrases and acronyms surrounding the world of service dogs will take some of the mystery out of the process and hopefully speed you along your way.

Alert. A trained response to a specific phenomena. Example: a diabetic alert dog can respond to downward trending blood sugar level with a nose nudge.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The federal law that gives people in the U.S. the right to take service dogs with them to public places. This law is administered by the Department of Justice. Beginning on March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals, with one exception. There are new and separate regulations regarding miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Here’s a link to the ADA as it relates to service dogs and to the Justice Department’s FAQs.

Assistance Dogs International (ADI). A member-based organization where nonprofits pay a hefty fee to join. Individual service dog trainers and for-profit organizations are not eligible to belong to ADI. ADI does not place service dogs.

Assistance dogs. Another term for service dogs.

Autism service dogs help individuals on the autism spectrum gain independence and confidence. They can also help with activities of daily living, calm the individual, interrupt repetitive behavior and intervene in difficult social situations. Autism dogs are service dogs.


Breeder. A person who intentionally mates dogs to produce puppies.

Board-and-train. A service offered by some dog trainers. A dog typically resides in a trainer’s home until specific training goals are met. Time-frames vary from a few days to a few months.

Canine Good Citizen (CGC). The American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Program is designed to recognize dogs who have good manners at home and in the community. This test can be a measure of a service dog team’s readiness to take the public access test. A dog need not be a purebred to take either test.


Commands. Also known as cues, these are signals from the dog handler that the dog recognizes and responds to immediately with a consistent behavior. They can be verbal cues, hand signals, body language cues, and even sign language. Examples of commands: Stop, heel, down.

Companion dog. A family pet. Companion dogs are not service dogs.

Diabetic alert dogs are trained to tell (alert) a diabetic, caregiver or family member when the diabetic’s blood sugar is going up or down. Diabetic alert dogs are service dogs.

Dog handler. A person who works a dog to the standard required for the dog’s job.

Examples: service dog handler, police dog handler.

Dog trainer. A person who works with individuals and families to help them train their dog to be well mannered. Dog trainers offer a variety of services including obedience classes, in-home training and board-and-train.

Emotional support dogs (ESAs) offer companionship and affection to a person. The proposed definition of emotional support animals from the Department of Justice is: “The Department is proposing new regulatory text in § 36.104 to formalize its position on emotional support or comfort animals, which is that ‘[a]nimals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or promote emotional wellbeing are not service animals.’ The Department wishes to underscore that the exclusion of emotional support animals from ADA coverage does not mean that persons with psychiatric, cognitive, or mental disabilities cannot use service animals. The Department proposes specific regulatory text in §35.104 to make this clear: ‘[t]he term service animal includes individually trained animals that do work or perform tasks for the benefit of individuals with disabilities, including psychiatric, cognitive, and mental disabilities.’ This language simply clarifies the Department’s long-standing position.”

Facility dog. A trained dog who works with a handler in a health care, visitation or education setting. A facility dog is not a service dog.

Gear. In the world of service dogs, gear includes collars, leashes, vests, harnesses, backpacks, booties, ear protection and all of the other paraphernalia used in a service dog’s working life.

Guide dogs lead blind or visually impaired people around obstacles, up and down stairs, across streets, etc. The handler directs the dog based upon skills acquired through team training. Guide dogs are service dogs.

Hearing dogs alert individuals with hearing loss to specific sounds like a ringing phone, a smoke detector, the doorbell, etc. Hearing dogs are service dogs.

Microchips are implanted by a veterinarian, breeder or rescue as a way to identify a dog who becomes separated from his people. Should the dog get lost, the microchip can be scanned and the dog identified through a registry created by the companies that make the microchips.

Mobility dogs are trained to help people with physical issues that affect a person’s ability to move around easily in their environment. For a person who is wheelchair-bound, the mobility dog can pull the wheelchair, retrieve dropped items, turn light switches on and off, pay for merchandise at the store by putting front paws on the checkout counter and handing the clerk the handler’s credit card or wallet, open and close doors, assist the handler in transferring to and from a wheelchair, etc. For people who can walk, mobility dogs help with stability and balance, bracing to help a person rise from the floor (if they have fallen) or slow/steady forward motion to help a person rise from a chair. They can also help with some of the same tasks as mobility dogs for people in wheelchairs like retrieving, opening and closing, tugging off clothing, bringing a cane, dragging a laundry basket, etc. Each dog’s set of tasks is customized to the handler’s needs. Mobility dogs can be trained for people with a wide range of disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, etc. Multiple disabilities can also be accommodated, such as when a person needs the support of a mobility dog and the alerting skills of a hearing dog. Mobility dogs are service dogs.

This video shows Allison practicing a mobility dog behavior with her girl. When Peabody is between her legs, Allison can better maintain her balance.

Mutt Muffs are ear protection for dogs.

Novice handler. An inexperienced person learning to work with a dog to the standard required for the dog’s job.

Obedience training is the process of teaching a dog to perform specific behaviors on cue. A service dog should master all of the standard obedience skills plus advanced task-based behaviors required for his job. And it starts the day you get your dog. “Sit” is the most basic and arguably the most important obedience skill a dog can have. If a dog is sitting, she’s not jumping on anyone or anything. Add eye contact (focusing on the handler) and you’re off to a great start.


Prospect. A puppy or dog being considered to begin training as a SD.

Psychiatric service dogs assist individuals with a wide range of psychiatric disorders with tasks like bracing for a person whose medication makes him dizzy, waking a person who is heavily medicated, clearing a room and/or turning on lights for a person with post-traumatic stress, blocking a person having a dissociative episode from a dangerous situation like walking into traffic, leading a disoriented handler to a specific person or place, etc. Psychiatric service dogs are service dogs.

PTSD dogs are trained to assist people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. PTSD dogs are service dogs.

This is PTSD service dog in training, Mulligan.

Public access refers to the right of a person with a disability or a life-threatening illness to be accompanied by his or her service dog in public places. In the U.S. this right is provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Public access training happens in all kinds of places. Cody demonstrates focus on a pedestrian bridge over the James River.

Public access test is a test used to evaluate a service dog team’s ability to work together in the distraction of a public place. During the public access test, the handler is prompted by the evaluator to demonstrate specific trained skills with his/her dog. Typically, the evaluator and the service dog team meet in the parking lot of a shopping mall. The test begins when the evaluator observes the handler getting the service dog out the vehicle. As important as good manners and good obedience skills during the test, the evaluator will look at the relationship between dog and handler. It should be a partnership based on mutual respect. Here’s a sample public access test.

Public access certification is recognition that the handler has successfully demonstrated the ability to manage his service dog safely and appropriately in public and has passed the public access test. An experienced service dog trainer or a service dog organization provides the certificate of completion.

Puppy raiser. Historically, a puppy raiser was a volunteer who raised and socialized a puppy preparing him to enter a service dog program for formal training around 18 months of age. Some service dog trainers now offer a modified puppy-raising program, based on client need. Puppies in these programs can be placed in their forever homes any time between three and 18 months of age depending on how much of the training the individual or family wants to do.

Purebred. A dog whose mother and father are from the same recognized breed. A purebred’s bloodlines usually consist of the same breed going back many generations. A purebred dog can be a quality dog or not. Some breeds have been so overbred in the U.S. that it is difficult to find a healthy one.

Rescue. As it applies to service dogs, a rescue is a dog (purebred or mixed breed) who is adopted from a group, organization or individual. A rescue can also be the dog who wanders up to your home and never leaves. Rescue can also refer to an organization that houses and re-homes homeless dogs.

Scent test. A test is given by an experienced dog trainer to determine a dog’s potential for a scent-based job like bomb, arson, search and rescue, or medical alert.

SDiT. Service dog in training.

Seizure assist dogs are trained to provide comfort and a sense of safety to a person who is experiencing or has just experienced a seizure. A seizure assist dog may learn, after being on the job for a while, to recognize the signs that his person is about to have a seizure. When that happens, he can be taught to alert the individual to find a safe place to sit or lie down or to alert another person. At this point, dog becomes a seizure alert dog. Seizure assist/alert dogs are service dogs.

Service dog (SD). A dog specifically trained to perform one or more tasks to assist with an individual’s disability or life-threatening illness. Also known as assistance dogs.

Service dog evaluators are experienced service dog trainers who evaluate dogs to determine their potential to become prospective service dogs, service dogs in training or full-fledged service dogs.

Service dog handler. The person on the other end of the leash or harness of a service dog. The handler can be the disabled person or a parent, guardian, spouse, or other responsible adult if the disabled person cannot handle the dog.

A service dog in training is a dog being trained to assist an individual with a disability.

Service dog registration. There is no legitimate service dog registering organization in the U.S. Beware of online registries. They tend to be excellent moneymakers for their creators. They’re also handy for people with fake service dogs.

Service dog teams are a service dog and his handler.

Service dog trainers are the people responsible for ensuring the proper training of a service dog team.

Tasks are trained skills that a service dog performs on command (turn on the light) or in a specific situation (alerting to fluctuating blood sugar in a diabetic).

Temperament test. A test given by an experienced dog trainer to determine a dog’s suitability for a specific job.

Tethering is used when training a puppy or dog to be comfortable on his leash in the home. One end of the leash is snapped to the dog’s collar, while the loop end is in an adult’s hand or attached to his/her belt. Dogs should never be tethered to children.

Therapy dogs are trained to interact with people in a variety of settings. Therapy dogs brighten the days of people in nursing homes, hospitals, etc. Therapy dogs can assist with physical therapy, becoming an integral part of the treatment process and the therapy team. This kind of therapy can be provided in a variety of settings and can be for groups or individuals. Therapy dogs are also used in schools, the courts, airports and libraries, and in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Irma. Therapy dogs are not service dogs.

Fig is a registered therapy dog. Sometimes she wears her tutu on visits. ❤️

Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The federal agency that sets the standard for transportation security in the U.S. Why does it matter? Because understanding the TSA’s rules as they apply to flying with your service dog will make the process easier. Here’s the link.

Working dogs are dogs with jobs. Examples: hunting, search and rescue, service, therapy, law enforcement and military, detection (bombs, drugs, accelerants), etc.

Questions? Visit me at or email me at


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