What is a Service Animal?

Mary McMahon

A service animal is an animal which has been specially trained to assist an individual with disabilities. Common examples of service animals include guide dogs and horses, therapy animals, and animals which pull wheelchairs or otherwise assist people with mobility impairments. Service animals are an important part of life for their disabled partners, who have more independence and freedom thanks to their service animal companions. In addition, most nations have laws protecting the rights of service animals, along with people with disabilities.

A seeing-eye dog assists a visually impaired person.
A seeing-eye dog assists a visually impaired person.

In order to be considered a service animal, an animal needs to be individually trained to provide a service. Many service animals are also registered with a service animal organization and a state or national service animal registry, but this is not required. The training for a service animal represents months of work, as the animal must be trained to be good natured and obedient in a variety of situations, while also protecting its owner. Service animals are taught to perform tasks such as looking out for traffic when their owners are blind, or alerting a deaf owner to a potential hazard. At the same time, a service animal is taught “intelligent disobedience,” meaning that it will refuse to carry out an order which it believes is dangerous.

Service dogs must undergo thorough training before being allowed to work with people.
Service dogs must undergo thorough training before being allowed to work with people.

While some breeds of animal are favored more than others for service, the primary concern is the animal's temperament. Dogs, for example, are chosen for being friendly, easy to handle, loyal, and patient. Typically, a potential service animal undergoes extensive behavioral testing before being accepted into a training program. Above all, a service animal is not a pet, although the animal is probably loved by its owners. If you see someone with a service animal, always ask for permission before petting or handling it, and be aware that if the animal is working, you may not be allowed to touch it.

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In addition to service animals assisting people with obvious disabilities, such as blindness, other service animals work as comfort or therapy animals. Some of the most famous therapy animals have been unusual species, like chickens. A therapy animal can either work in a hospital or clinical location helping a large number of patients, or be assigned to work with a specific person. Studies undertaken by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States indicate that working with animals really does make people feel better, and this is the goal of a therapy animal.

People with service animals sometimes face discrimination from business owners who do not know the law. In the United States especially, there are extensive legal protections for service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, a service animal must be allowed everywhere its owner is, and shall not be treated as a “pet” by business owners. This law supersedes local ordinances, which may, for example, prohibit dogs from restaurants. Failure to admit someone with a service animal into a business or workplace is grounds for a very serious lawsuit.

Horses may be used as service animals in some situations.
Horses may be used as service animals in some situations.

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Discussion Comments


@Ana1234 - Dogs are friendly, but that is why people really need to be trained on how to act around service animals. All too often I see people trying to pat or even play with a dog that is working, whether it is the drug dogs at the airport, or a guide dog leading their person around town. Those dogs are supposed to be doing a job and they deserve to be left alone.


@pastanaga - Dogs are absolutely amazing and I'm always blown away by the different things they do for us. It reminds me of a story I heard about how the dogs searching the rubble at 9/11 were finding so few people that they started getting depressed, thinking that they were failing. Their partners had to start deliberately hiding people in the rubble for their dogs to "find" so that they would feel like they were succeeding.

There is also research that dogs can actually recognize when a person is upset and will respond to it by trying to comfort them, even if they don't know the person. Community service animals that go into rest homes and hospitals are often just ordinary dogs that respond like ordinary dogs and that's enough to make people feel happier.


There's an amazing ad I've seen online which has a soldier experiencing a nightmare flashback to his days in combat and then it shows his service dog waking him up, turning on the light and laying down next to him to help comfort him.

I think it's an amazing idea to match dogs with returned service people, especially if they don't have family to return to and might end up living by themselves.

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