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What Disabilities Qualify for a Service Dog? - A Complete Guide

Service dogs are typically trained to assist individuals with disabilities that substantially limit their ability to perform major life activities. Common qualifying disabilities include visual impairments, mobility challenges, hearing impairments, seizure disorders, diabetes, and various mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Susana Bradford
April 3, 2024
April 14, 2023
10 minute read
Updated By
Matt Fleming
April 3, 2024
Expert Reviewed By:
April 14, 2023
August 18, 2021
10 minute read
April 3, 2024
Service dogs can provide benefits for individuals with a variety of disabilities. Find out who qualifies and how to get a service dog with Pettable.

If you're someone with a disability, a service dog can be a game-changer in terms of gaining more independence and improving your quality of life. But how do you know if your disability qualifies you for a service dog? In this article, we'll explore the different types of disabilities that may be eligible for a service dog, the tasks these dogs can perform, and the process of obtaining one. Whether you're considering getting a service dog for yourself or simply curious about the topic, this article will provide you with the information you need.

Qualifying Disabilities for Service Dogs: At a Glance

Service dogs can provide valuable assistance for individuals with a variety of disabilities, but not all disabilities may qualify for a service dog. Common disabilities that may qualify include physical disabilities, such as blindness or mobility impairments, and psychiatric disabilities, such as PTSD or anxiety disorders. However, each individual's situation is unique, and the decision of whether to use a service dog should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional and a reputable service dog organization.

What Disabilities Qualify for a Service Dog?

People with a wide range of physical and mental health disabilities can benefit from service dogs.

Mental Disabilities

You may qualify for a mental health service dog if you have a diagnosed mental health condition, such as:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder 
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

A licensed mental health professional must diagnose you with a mental health disorder — and specify how your condition interferes with at least one aspect of your life — before you can qualify for a psychiatric service dog.

Physical Disabilities

Many people with physical disabilities can also benefit from service dogs. The following are some of the most well-known conditions that service dogs assist with:

  • Arthritis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Chronic fatigue or pain
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Narcolepsy
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Stroke
  • Vertigo

A physician or another professional can help you decide if a service dog will benefit you and what specific tasks they can perform. They can also offer resources to help you obtain a service dog.

Types of Service Dogs

Several types of service dogs are specialized to assist with a variety of mental or physical disabilities. The type of service dog you get will be heavily dependent on your specific needs. Here is a list of the most common types of service dogs:

  • Psychiatric Service Dogs: These dogs focus on helping individuals living with mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and more.
  • Physical Disability and Mobility Assistance Dogs: This type of service dog is trained to support individuals with physical disabilities or mobility issues. Helpful tasks range from retrieving and picking up items, opening doors, stabilizing balance issues or dizziness, and much more.
  • Guide Dogs: Visually impaired or blind individuals rely on these canine companions to see the world around and ahead of them. They help navigate city streets, assist with climbing and descending stairs, and provide protection.
  • Hearing Dogs: Much like guide dogs, these assistance animals help the deaf and hearing impaired by alerting them to important sounds, such as doorbells, alarms, or intruders.
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs: These professional pups are trained to sense sudden peaks or drops in their owners’ blood sugar, fetch insulin, or contact emergency services. 
  • Seizure Alert/Response Dogs: For people living with epilepsy or otherwise experiencing seizures, these dogs can sense the imminent onset of an issue before their humans. They also intervene in cases of emergency and contact help from neighbors or using a special device.
  • Autism Support Dogs: Both adults and children who are on the autism spectrum can benefit from the mental and emotional support that these dogs provide. The sheer joy and companionship can create an unbreakable bond, making life easier in many ways.
A guide dog helping their handler walk on the sidewalk.

What Tasks Can a Service Dog Perform?

Whether you have a psychiatric service dog, a physical guide dog, or a medical assistance animal, it can be trained to perform a myriad of tasks, including:

  • Fetch important medications: These can range from mental health meds, insulin, heart medication and more.
  • Provide emergency assistance: In the case of a crisis, such as a seizure or collapse, service dogs can respond by intervening, providing essential attention, and contacting emergency services.
  • Harmful behavior intervention: For people struggling with mental and emotional health issues, a service dog can interrupt destructive actions or behavior, including physical self-harm, suicidal ideation, or drug use/overdose.
  • Navigating public life: Service dogs help individuals with impaired vision or hearing, physical disabilities, or mobility issues get around in public, navigate crosswalks, and interact with other people.

How Does a Service Dog Help Their Handler?

Service dogs perform a wide range of tasks for their handlers. The following are some of the most well-known service dog tasks they may carry out:

Physical Support

Service dogs provide numerous physical support tasks for those with limited mobility — such as those in wheelchairs or those who use walkers and other assistive devices. Examples of physical support tasks include:

  • Opening and closing doors
  • Turning lights on and off
  • Picking up objects off the ground
  • Retrieving items from different locations
  • Providing balance assistance as the owner transitions from their wheelchair to another position
  • Unloading laundry from the dryer
  • Paying cashiers
  • Pressing buttons (elevator buttons, handicapped accessible buttons, etc.)

Seizure Support

People with epilepsy and other seizure disorders can benefit from service dogs. These dogs may perform the following tasks:

  • Alerting owners before a seizure occurs so they can get somewhere safe
  • Seeking additional help after the episode is over
  • Lying close to the person having the attack or positioning themselves under the person’s head

Diabetes Support

A service dog can help people with diabetes know when their blood sugar levels have changed so they can administer an injection or take the appropriate medication. They can also be trained to retrieve a phone or use a dog-friendly telephone to call an ambulance or someone else who can provide help.

Guide Dogs

Guide dogs help those who are blind or have impaired vision. They act as their owner’s eyes and guide them through public places, making sure they can cross the street safely, navigate stores and other locations, etc.

Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs assist deaf and hard-of-hearing people. They respond to specific audio cues and alert their owner. For example, they might let them know that someone rang the doorbell or that a fire alarm is going off.

Psychiatric Support

Psychiatric service dogs can retrieve medication and call for help, just like service dogs trained to help those with physical disabilities. They can also provide deep pressure therapy and tactile stimulation (licking the owner’s hand or face to help them calm down).

Psychiatric service dogs often perform crowd-control tasks, too. They may circle their owner to keep people from getting too close or lay down in front of the owner to act as a barrier. 

A service dog crossing the street with their handler.

What Is a Service Dog?

A service dog is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a dog of any size or breed that performs a particular task for someone with a disability (physical or mental health-related).

The ADA offers service dogs specific protections and privileges that other dogs (including emotional support animals) do not get.

For example, service dogs can accompany their owners into restaurants, stores, and other public places. They can also fly with their owners on airplanes and are permitted in apartment buildings that don’t allow pets. 

How to Qualify for a Service Dog?

To qualify for a service dog, you must have either a mental or physical disability that interferes with at least one aspect of your life that the animal can help to alleviate. You may also need to get an official diagnosis from a healthcare provider (such as a physician or licensed therapist).

What Documentation Do I Need for a Service Dog?

It might come as a surprise to learn that you don’t need any type of official documentation, identification, or registration to have a service dog. Legally, the dog must be trained to perform tasks specific to your disability, but beyond that, documentation is useful but not required. It may help to keep documentation from your health provider indicating that you need your service dog for specific reasons. Also, proof of training is typically needed in air travel situations.

Do I Need to Register My Service Dog?

Despite what some companies assert, there is no official federal or state registration for service dogs or emotional support animals. Your service dog is not required to wear a special vest or carry an ID card to accompany you, either. Any company or organization attempting to sell you such products or services is peddling unnecessary goods.

A man petting his guide dog

How to Get a Service Dog

There are a few ways one can go about getting a service dog. They may purchase a puppy bred specifically for service dog tasks, or they may buy or adopt a puppy or older dog.

For a dog to act as a service dog, it must go through extensive training to ensure it can reliably perform a particular behavior whenever its owner needs their support.

The following are some of the most common options for getting and training a service dog:   

Online Service Dog Training

During online service dog training, an owner and their dog will work with a trainer remotely, communicating via phone and video chat. During the training program, the trainer will observe the dog and help the owner teach them specific tasks related to the owner’s disability and unique needs.

In-Person Service Dog Training

In-person service dog training, as the name suggests, takes place in person. The trainer might come to the dog owner’s house or ask the owner to come to them at a training facility or another location.

Purchase a Trained Service Dog

Purchasing a trained service dog is the most expensive option. However, it also reduces the amount of training the dog owner has to do.

Of course, the owner must continuously work with the dog to build a relationship and ensure the dog can consistently perform specific tasks. Still, the dog will have already mastered the basics beforehand.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) provides a wide array of protections from discrimination against disabled individuals in public, at work, in housing, and beyond. As a powerful federal law, the ADA permits service dogs to accompany their owners in public accommodations, such as restaurants, shopping centers, medical facilities, government buildings, and more. It also prohibits housing providers and landlords from discriminating against disabled individuals and their service dogs — as well as emotional support animals, which are otherwise not covered.

Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Dogs

An emotional support animal or ESA is different from a service dog. ESAs provide their owners with comfort and support during stressful times. However, it’s their presence that is comforting and supportive, rather than any specific tasks they perform.

Since ESAs don’t go through the same rigorous training as service dogs, they don’t have the same privileges and protections. For example, ESAs aren’t allowed in as many public places, such as certain stores and restaurants.

However, with the proper documentation, ESAs can stay with owners in apartments that don’t typically allow animals. They may also be allowed to fly in the airplane cabin with their owner instead of being stowed in the cargo area. 

Online Psychiatric Service Dog Training with Pettable

If you’re interested in online service dog training, Pettable can help. We offer online psychiatric service dog training with licensed professionals. Get in touch today to learn more.

04/03/2024 Update: Article was reviewed for accuracy by Jennifer Bronsnick, MSW, LCSW.

Meet the author:
Susana Bradford

Susana is an avid animal lover and has been around animals her entire life, and has volunteered at several different animal shelters in Southern California. She has a loving family at home that consists of her husband, son, two dogs, and one cat. She enjoys trying new Italian recipes, playing piano, making pottery, and outdoor hiking with her family and dogs in her spare time.

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