Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals: History, Laws, and Training

Service dogs have a rich history of training, intelligence, and support for people with disabilities. Learn more about service animals and the rise of “fake” service dogs in this article from Ability Central.

By Ability Central

17 May, 2024

A large white dog with pointed ears and a red service dog vest stands with his front paws in the lap of a white man in a motorized wheelchair and red sweatshirt, providing support in a muddy field

There are about 500,000 service dogs helping people in the United States. While many people consider their service dogs to be part of the family, service dogs are not pets, but rather highly trained animals who help people with disabilities in very specific ways.

But when did the practice of training and using service dogs begin? And what training and certifications do service dogs and support animals need?

In this article, Ability Central addresses the top questions about support dogs, including:

  • What is the history of guide dogs?
  • What are the types of service animals?
  • What is the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog?
  • How are service animals trained?
  • What is the service dog certification process?
  • How do I get a support animal or certify my own service dog?


What is the history of guide dogs?

Dogs trained to help disabled people are depicted throughout recorded history. For example:

  • A fresco depicting a dog leading a blind man was discovered in the ruins of the ancient Roman city Herculaneum, dating back to the first century.
  • European wood carvings and Chinese scroll paintings from the Middle Ages show dogs leading people with disabilities like blindness. 

In the 1900s, people started formally training service dogs.

  • In 1916, German doctor Gerhard Stalling opened the world’s first guide dog school. 
  • In 1923, another dog training center opened in Potsdam, Germany. 
  • In 1927, Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American dog trainer, visited the training center in Germany and wrote an article about it published in The Saturday Evening Post. Morris Frank, a blind man, read Eustis’s article and reached out about bringing the guide dog program to the US.
  • In 1929, Frank and Eustis founded the first American guide dog school, The Seeing Eye.
  • By the 1970s, service dogs would aid people with other disabilities like epilepsy, diabetes, and mental health disabilities.

While guide dogs for blind people became more popular in the 1920s, service dogs were not legally recognized in the US until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. 


What are the types of service animals?

Service dogs are trained to do highly specific tasks for people who are unable to do these things themselves or would have significant difficulty doing so.

  • Mobility service dogs improve life for people with dexterity disabilities by bringing objects to people, pressing buttons on automatic doors, and helping pull a wheelchair up a ramp.
  • Psychiatric service dogs assist people who are suffering from issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), emotional disabilities, or mental disabilities. The service animals are trained to prevent or interrupt dangerous things like self-harm, anxiety attacks, or compulsive behaviors.
  • Guide service dogs help people who are blind or visually impaired. Guide dogs for the blind are trained to identify and avoid potential obstacles. These dogs are sometimes called seeing-eye dogs.
  • Hearing service dogs help people with hearing impairments. They alert their humans to alarms, doorbells, crying babies, traffic, or other noises. 
  • Diabetic alert service dogs alert people to chemical changes in their handler’s blood sugar and can help during blood sugar emergencies by retrieving food or medication.
  • Allergy detection service dogs can smell an allergen like peanuts or gluten and alert their humans. 
  • Seizure alert service dogs may be able to alert their owner of an oncoming seizure or activate an alert system that contacts emergency services. Epilepsy alert dogs are also trained to bark or get help if their human becomes unresponsive in public.
  • Autism service dogs help increase safety and sense of security for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) while reducing isolation and comforting the person when they are stressed.


What is the difference between emotional support animals and service animals?

While emotional support animals are trendy, there is a distinct difference between them and service animals.

An emotional support dog, or ESA, is an untrained pet who emotionally supports their handler. Support dogs are allowed to live in pet-free housing if their owner has a doctor’s note. In the past, ESAs were able to fly on airlines under the same regulations as service dogs. However, recent changes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other governing organizations now require ESAs to follow travel rules for pets, not service animals.

A service dog is specifically trained to do work that helps a person with a disability. Legally, service dogs are considered medical equipment, like wheelchairs or insulin pumps. 


Is a therapy dog a service dog?

One other specially trained animal is a therapy dog. Sometimes called a facility dog, a therapy dog brings calm or comfort to people in the aftermath of serious trauma or in stressful places like hospitals and courthouses. Therapy dogs are not service dogs, but they do receive intensive training. 

Most therapy dogs are chosen based on personality and their training focuses on comfort, rather than assistance. For example, if someone with PTSD were to have a panic attack, a therapy dog might lay on their lap or nuzzle against them to provide comfort, while a service dog might be trained to turn on lights, retrieve medication, and lick the person’s face to interrupt the attack. 


How are service dogs trained?

Both for-profit and nonprofit organizations train service dogs, and the cost of training a single dog can be $25,000 or more. 

The US government provides no specific certification or ID card to “prove” a dog’s status as a service dog. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require professional training. People may train service dogs themselves to offset the cost and wait times associated with professional trainers.

Regardless of a dog’s training, the dog must meet the legal definition of a service dog under the ADA: “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”

No official organization sets service dog training standards in the U.S., but organizations like the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) offer certification tests like the Canine Good Citizen and Service Dog Public Access tests. 

Some private standards for training service dogs suggest:

  • Approximately 120 hours over six months.
  • At least 30 of those service hours spent in public.
  • While not required, it can be helpful for service dogs to wear accessories that identify them in public.

Under the ADA, individual states can require service dogs to be licensed and vaccinated and offer voluntary service dog registration programs. States cannot ban service dogs based on their breed or require certification or registration of service dogs.

In addition to knowing your rights under the ADA, it is important to understand the rules within your state. A local nonprofit can help. 


Why do so few people with disabilities work with service dogs? 

While the CDC estimates that 61 million people in the United States live with disability, less than 1% of them are able to work with service dogs. Obstacles like cost, availability, and legal barriers make it difficult to meet the demand for trained service animals.

The cost and effort involved in training dogs can be exponential. Training is so intensive and specific that between 50% and 70% of service dog candidates do not make the cut (but they do go on to loving homes and forever families). 

One other reason there are not enough service dogs in the United States is the issue of legitimacy: a rise in “fake” service dogs—pets who lack the official training or registration of certified service animals, or owners who fraudulently claim their dogs are service animals to get housing and transportation benefits. 

What the AKC calls “The Epidemic of Fake Service Dogs” has confused the public and affected the reputation of legitimate service dogs. Misrepresenting poorly-trained, fraudulent service animals—which is illegal in many states—can be a danger to the public and true service dogs. 

Many certified service dogs are trained to handle stressful, high-pressure situations, and if something goes wrong because of the influence of a fake service dog, the results can be disastrous. 

This has forced new legislation to reduce the number of fake service animals and protect the rights of people with legitimate service animals. In 2018 alone, 48 new measures were introduced to stop the rising number of fake service dogs. Among recent legislation is the decision to no longer let emotional support animals fly on airlines as service dogs. Instead, ESAs now have to follow the same travel rules as pets, like cabin carrier restrictions and cargo rules.


How do I get a support animal or certify my own service dog?

The ADA does not require service animal certification to gain access to public areas, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) does not recognize service dog certification or registration documents as proof that a dog is a service animal. 

Unfortunately, this lack of regulation contributes to the fake service animal epidemic. Scam websites claiming to “officially” register an ESA or service dog allow people to print out a certificate claiming their dog has gone through proper training.

Most of the time, these certificates are not enough to qualify a service dog for benefits like flying in an airplane cabin or living in pet-restricted housing. That’s why it’s best to have proper documentation from reputable sources: for example, doctors’ notes for prescribed ESAs or training and test results from a professional trainer.  

The costs of training a service dog can be astronomical, but luckily, multiple nonprofits and for-profit companies offer free or reduced-cost training for service dogs. Because of high demand, however, the wait for these dogs may take years. 

Organizations near you can connect you with training, registration, and certifications for service dogs. Use Ability Central’s searchable database to find a program in your area.

To learn more about support dogs or to sponsor the training for a guide dog, see Canine Companions.

Article Type: