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A service dog, under U.S. federal law, is a dog individually trained to assist a person with disabilities. This can include a seeing eye dog or dogs trained to alert the deaf, pull wheelchairs, protect a person having a seizure or other special tasks. A service dog is a working dog, not a pet. The American Disabilities Act requires businesses to allow service animals to accompany their owner in any area accessible to customers. There is not a national certification for service dogs. There are certification programs offering general training as well as special task training applicable to a specific disability.
Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers are the most common service dogs, and with good reason. A good service dog is from a breed that is people-oriented, confident, easy to train, not protective and not overactive. Other breeds can make excellent service dogs, too, according to Service Dogs America, although there are common traits that might make it difficult. While dogs from the working group are easy to train, they might be too overprotective to make the grade. Small dogs will have difficult picking up bigger objects. Larger dogs have trouble fitting into tight spots. It's obvious that meeting all the proper requirements can be challenging, no matter the breed.
American Disabilities Act Recognition
There is not a national service dog certification awarded by the ADA. The ADA is very clear in its recognition of service dogs trained either professionally or by their owners. To qualify as a service dog and receive the full protection of the law, the owner must be legally defined as disabled and the dog must be trained to perform specific tasks to assist with that disability. Federal law does not require a service dog to be certified, but each individual state may have its own laws regarding this.
Length of Training
Guide dog training usually starts with a puppy raiser and is overseen by a guide dog training school working on socialization, good manners and obedience. After 12 to 18 months, the dogs identified as good candidates will be transferred to the guide dog training school for advanced training. This training can take another year to complete. Dog training for hearing dogs is a different process. Hearing dog training does not have to start as a puppy. Therefore, rescued mixed breed dogs are typically used for hearing dogs. This training can take as little as six months if the dog is not needed outside the home. Training for a hearing dog outside the home or a service dog usually takes 18 to 24 months to complete.
Service dog training includes three main areas–manners, obedience with public area skills and task training. In addition, a service dog must be taught to relieve himself on command; ignore food found on the ground or left unattended; and to ignore people while working. Each service dog must also be able to perform three tasks to assist with his owner's disability.
Your service dog can be certified after his training is complete. Again, certification is not required, but having your service dog identified as "certified" with the tags and harness can be helpful in public places. The Delta Society (see the link in Resources) offers a list of training and certification programs. When choosing a program, ask lots of questions, observe a training session or certification evaluation and speak with others who have used this program. The certification evaluation should include: the proof of your disability; testing your dog's manners, obedience and socialization skills; and demonstration of at least three tasks beneficial to your specific disability. Any certification program that does not include these standards could be unreliable.