Service Dogs: Ethics and Education

Written by Barbara Handelman

Most Americans are familiar with the presence of service animals.[1] From the standard-bearer guide dog for the blind to the much photographed but rare service mini-horse, their stories are more and more visible. Sometimes we tell those stories in order to laud an impressive act of bravery or kindness, and other times to mock or cast doubt on a more suspect public pet. Each time we unexpectedly see someone in public with an animal, many people ask, “How come they’re allowed to have an animal here?”

And really, who wouldn’t want to take her dog with her everywhere? It’s easier than boarding him when you go on vacation or leaving her behind when you run to the store. It’s much cheaper to buy your dog a vest that says “service dog” than it is to pay a dog walker or day care.

It really is that easy. Anyone can buy service dog identification online, put it on their pet dog, and go forth into the world.[2]  For a price, and the answers to a few generic questions, even “certification” for a service dog can also be purchased online, without the dog having ever been seen by the certifying entity.[3] No matter what accessories he uses to adorn his pet, a person who pretends to have a disability or represents his pet dog as a service dog flouts the law. He also endangers the rights of citizens with disabilities who not only properly train their service dogs, but also rely on them for their wellbeing and safety.

At the same time that these pet owners endanger the rights of people with disabilities, there is a growing demand for trained service dogs. For example, there are thousands of men and women returning from war missing limbs and suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and many other debilitating conditions. There is growing evidence that their lives can be greatly improved by the help and companionship of a trained service animal. Unfortunately, too many people trying to provide breeding and training services for these returning veterans are unqualified to do so.

Yet, it might seem hard to fault the pet owners who disregard these risks, because disregarding them is so easy. There is no centralized authority or system for certifying working dogs. Some of this lack of regulation exists for good reason. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) no one can be asked to provide evidence of a disability in order to receive accommodations, access, or services. These laws provide important protections for citizens with disabilities, especially because many disabilities are not visible. One cannot know from looking at people whether or not they meet the ADA criteria for disability, nor can one see an emotional disorder.

This lack of certification requirements and centralized authority has created a chaotic system of names and rules that is ripe for abuse. It is no surprise, then, that there are some people who take advantage.

 What is a service dog?

Equipment and evidence of certification do not in themselves transform pets into working dogs. Just because she is wearing a vest, a dog won’t suddenly know how to behave appropriately on public transportation, in airplanes, in restaurants, at museums, or in other places of public accommodation.

Some dog owners do attempt to go beyond mere accessories in preparing their pets to accompany them in public. Some may decide to get their dogs certified as Canine Good Citizens (CGC). According to the American Kennel Club, their CGC program “teaches good manners to dogs, and responsible dog ownership to their owners.” To pass the basic CGC, dogs must, among other challenges, tolerate handling from strangers, and move through crowds on a loose leash. There are now multiple levels of the CGC certification. They are worthy goals and a significant accomplishment for pets and their owners. Well-socialized dogs with basic obedience training are more likely to live out their lives in loving homes, and are less likely to be rehomed or surrendered to shelters. CGC training is undoubtedly beneficial, but it still does not qualify a dog to accompany a pet owner into places where pet dogs are not allowed to go. Service dogs are not pets; they are highly trained working animals.

For service dog candidates, passing a CGC test is an important benchmark from which they must continue with further acclimatization to novel environments and intensive obedience and task training. That is to say, the CGC is an excellent end goal for a pet, but it is only the beginning for a working dog.

Throughout this article I offer photographs of dogs at work. You will see service dogs representing a variety of breeds and breed mixes, from a tiny Papillion to a giant Anatolian Shepherd. These pictures illustrate the extraordinary circumstances that service dogs encounter in their daily lives – they enter environments to which pet dogs are rarely exposed and would likely find unsettling, frightening, or over-stimulating.

Service dogs, assistance dogs, emotional support dogs (ESDs), and therapy dogs are all working dogs, but not all are allowed access to public places. Each is covered under different statutes and held to different standards of training, despite the fact that at times they appear indistinguishable from one another when moving through the community with their handlers.

There is no standardized set of training requirements for working dogs, nor is there a single recognized certifying body that legitimizes their status as working dogs. [4], [5]

The labels “service dog” and “assistance dog” are used interchangeably to refer to dogs that accompany handlers who have disabilities covered by the ADA. An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

The ADA does not grant rights to dogs. It is a civil rights law that protects people who have disabilities who might be blind, hard of hearing, or mobility challenged, and those who have diabetes, seizures, a traumatic brain injury, or another disabling physical conditions. The ADA also protects and grants rights to people with psychiatric diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism spectrum disorders, clinical depression, and pervasive anxiety disorder, among others.

In granting rights to citizens with these conditions, the ADA acknowledges service dogs as a form of assistance necessary for the individuals with a disabling condition to achieve equal access to places of public accommodation (places where pets are not allowed). According to the ADA’s definition: “service dogs are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The dog’s skills must mitigate some aspect of the person’s disability”.[6]

Selecting and training service dogs

How do dogs become service dogs? Becoming a service dog is an ongoing, highly selective process. Approximately 50 percent of all dogs bred, socialized, selected, and trained by owners or agencies to become service dogs either fail to complete training or must retire after a short career. Physical and behavioral reactions to cumulative stress are the most common reasons that dogs fail to become service dogs or must retire prematurely. Assistance Dogs International (ADI) has outlined minimum standards of training and behavior expected of a service dog.

Moon was the first dog the author selected and trained to be a service dog.  He retired at the age of 3. He was too small to do mobility assistance, and temperamentally unsuited to work around children in crowds.  Barbara and Moon went on to have a fun career as agility competitors, and he helped to raise his successors, Luca and Pan.

Training for a service dog is highly specialized. Dogs must learn myriad skills to meet the specific needs of people with a wide range of disabilities. The average cost of breeding, raising, and training a service dog is $20,000 to $30,000. The process takes an average of two years. Such rigorous preparations go far beyond the requirements for a CGC test.

Selecting an appropriate candidate for service dog training is the single most important element of preparing a dog for a working career. Temperament evaluations are essential, and do help weed out obviously inappropriate candidates, but offer no guarantees. In addition, some dogs will pass a temperament evaluation only to demonstrate their unsuitability later in the process after much time, money, and love has been invested in their apparent promise.[7]

Early enrichment opportunities and careful socialization to a wide variety of places, people of all ages and ethnicities, noises, smells, and other stimuli in myriad environments help to set dogs up for success in a working career.

Riggan Shilstone, long-time instructor for the Assistance Dog Club of Puget Sound, and author of service dog–related materials, wrote:

“There is no question that assistance dogs are expected to function at an extremely high level of reliability in surroundings that are very abnormal from a canine perspective. We ask them to disregard their genetic and evolutionary wiring: don’t touch food within easy reach; don’t run away from new or scary things; ignore enticing smells; don’t chase birds or squirrels; don’t bark or growl at someone who appears threatening. We place them in stressful environments foreign to the average dog: crowded shopping malls, noisy restaurants or concert halls, medical facilities filled with odors that must be overwhelming to sensitive canine noses. Yet, I truly believe that some dogs can live a happy and fulfilling life in the role of assistance animal.”

Shilstone is correct; we demand a lot of service dogs, but they are invaluable to those they can help. Allowing service dogs time to simply be dogs – play fetch, run and play with other dogs, and nap in the sun – enables them to de-stress in ways important to all dogs.

Service dogs are clearly doing many people a lot of good, so it is no surprise that they are currently in high demand.[8] The need for service dog candidates far exceeds the number of suitable dogs being knowledgeably bred, raised, and trained by experienced professionals. New training programs and private dog trainers with little experience in the specialized field of service dog training are rushing to provide dogs. With the best of intentions, these new entrants into the field may actually disappoint, and even endanger their most vulnerable clients – especially veterans recently home from war. Sadly, others are jumping on board to reap exorbitant fees for dogs that are selected without adequate knowledge and placed with little basic training and virtually no specialized training to meet the needs of the recipients.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that approximately 30 percent of the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[9] As many as 400,000 troops are possibly returning with the symptoms of PTSD. Dog partners have a tremendous stress reduction effect on their human partners as measured through cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. These dogs can quite literally become a serviceman’s or servicewoman’s best friend.

Quality programs offering professionally sound methods to recruit and train service dogs for veterans do exist. However, it may be hard for someone newly seeking a service dog to discern which programs offer beneficial services, and which are scammers out to capitalize on the needs of vulnerable potential clients.

Family pets are being recruited for service work without sufficient evaluation for suitability, and shelter dogs are being selected as candidates with increasing frequency and inadequate evaluation. When inappropriate dogs are chosen as service dog candidates it can be a recipe for extreme emotional and financial hardship. It also means people end up “making do” with temperamentally unsuitable dogs – dogs with fearful or aggressive behavior and other behavior problems.

Jeanne Hampl, former executive director of the Prison Pet Partnership Program, supervised the training of service dog candidates by prison inmates, placing the successful dogs with applicants. According to Hampl, the success rate for shelter dogs selected by professionals for service dog training is still only 15 to 20 percent.

Service dogs require unflappable temperaments. They must have both emotional stability and physical endurance to tolerate the day-to-day stressors service dogs encounter. Meeting the needs of their handlers is a demanding job. Hampl is often quoted as saying “service dogs are not rehabilitation projects.” A service dog must not have any behavioral issues such as fearfulness, shyness, reactivity, or aggression.

Service dog skills are not static. Working dogs require ongoing training and consistent refreshing of skill training. They also must learn new skills that adapt to changes when their handler’s disabling condition progresses or the person ages and his or her needs for assistance change accordingly.

Assistance Dogs International (ADI) has published the Public Access Test (PAT). The PAT offers a baseline overview of the skills a generic service dog should have. As with temperament tests, the PAT is simply a window into the dog and handler’s skills and partnership on a single day, in only one environment. It cannot assess how those skills might appear in different situations, without the overlay of anxiety inherent in a test milieu. For example, the PAT includes an encounter with a “neutral dog.” In fact, service dogs at work must remain non-reactive when confronted by dogs that not only are not neutral, they also might bark and lunge at the working dog in a public place. A team can prepare for such encounters, but to include a reactive dog in the certification test might mean setting the handler and dog up for failure. Avoiding a reactive dog might require space and alternate routes not available in a test setting.

It is unethical to expect some dogs to perform as service dogs. These dogs include: ones with a shy or fearful temperament, those whose natural exuberance and high energy are not easily channeled to stay by the side of a sedate human, and others who are hyper-vigilant or aggressively protective. These dogs would ultimately suffer in the behaviorally restrictive role of a working dog.

This puppy was in training to become a psychiatric service dog.  Sadly, he did not have a temperament evaluation until after he began growling and snapping at people. He was far too stressed to become a working service dog.

Similarly, and thus unsurprisingly, most pets are not qualified for this kind of work either. And yet, as mentioned before, more and more pet owners are exploiting the rights accorded to people who have disabilities in order to bring their inadequately trained dogs with them as they shop, eat, and travel.


There are other all too common instances in which able-bodied pet owners take advantage of the rights granted to the people with disabilities. They do so in order to make their own lives easier. They make imposters of their dogs and risk doing great harm to the rights and well-being of members of their community who have disabilities.

Why are imposter dogs a problem? Poorly trained dogs appearing in places of public accommodation make the lives of people with disabilities more difficult. Putting service dog identification on a pet dog makes the dog an imposter, not a service dog. Posing as a person with a disability is plainly unethical and, in sixteen states in the U.S., it is even illegal. That being said, these violations are ethical failures that cannot be stopped simply by implementing regulation and certification procedures.

When some imposter dogs are brought into places where pet dogs are not allowed, they increase the likelihood that individuals with disabilities will be questioned. Imposters and their pet dogs increase suspicion from businesses, because pet dogs are less likely to behave well in public. Unruly dogs, even those whose handlers have disabilities, may legally be asked to leave a place of public accommodation. A dog causing a disturbance such as barking, relieving himself, threatening staff or patrons, or disrupting the flow of business should be asked to leave. Such behavior, understandably, makes people less welcoming and hospitable to patrons with dogs.

People with non-visible disabilities, for example veterans and others with TBI or PTSD, are especially vulnerable. They are most likely to be questioned about their service dogs and may even have their symptoms triggered or worsened by such questioning. Such questioning risks drawing undue attention and embarrassment.

In addition, badly behaved pet dogs are more likely to react to other dogs, including those who are working. Pet dogs who bark at service dogs, charge toward them – or worse, attack them – may cause a person with a disability who is accompanied by a service dog to fall, feel personally threatened, or need to protect his or her service dog – possibly incurring bodily injury or injury to the service dog under attack in the melee. Such attacks may also traumatize a service dog so he is no longer able to work.

Service dogs are working dogs, expertly selected and trained. The dogs require stable temperaments able to withstand stressful situations encountered on a daily basis. They receive highly specialized training to aid their handlers. Sometimes, they must also accompany their handlers to extraordinary events that may be impossible to simulate during training.

The huge influx of wounded returning veterans in need of service dogs has greatly increased the demand for trained dogs. Trainers committed to proper selection and training cannot keep pace with the demand. The best training programs may not even be taking applicants for dogs at this time. These facts leave the field open to scammers: unqualified organizations and private trainers who offer dogs at exorbitant prices. Some even offer to train unsuitable household pets or help clients select and train dogs from a shelter. They promise a fully trained dog in a matter of months, while professional standards recognize that it takes two years or more to select, socialize, and train a dog able to withstand the rigors of service dog work. Meanwhile, pet owners who intentionally violate public access regulations, further complicate the lives of people with disabilities.

Barbara’s discussion of these problems, and how they might be solved, continues in our next issue.


[1] Working dogs exist in other countries as well.

[2] All manner of service dog equipment: vests, harnesses, tags and patches can be purchased online by anyone who has the money.

[3] Do a Google search on any topic related to service dogs; the first links to pop up will inevitably be for bogus service dog registration. For example, at this site, one can answer a few generic questions and, for a fee, receive a registration certificate.

[4] For further clarification of the classification for working dogs and the laws pertaining to them, go to the Michigan State Univeristy Animal Legal and Historical Center website.

[5] People with emotional support dogs have access rights for rental housing under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). They may also fly with their dogs with them in cabin as regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). People with ESDs do not have rights to access in other places of public accommodation, such as hospitals, restaurants, or public transportation.

[6] A complete guide to laws applying to service dogs can be found here.

[7] Ethology and Behavior Lecture Series: March 2016.

[8] This excellent video gives an intimate view of the role service dogs play for a returning veteran with PTSD.

[9] While researching service dog training programs I discovered one that met all the criteria I respect in a legitimate training programs. Not surprisingly, in their website’s section on apply for a dog, I also found this notation: PLEASE NOTE: We are currently not accepting applications for wounded warrior recipients at this time due to the overwhelming demand for At Ease Service Dogs that exceeds the number of dogs we can supply.

Barbara Handelman, M.Ed., CDBC is the author of Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, and creator of the DVD series Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog. For more information about where these are available: email

All photos and video copyright Barbara Handelman.