A service dog is trained to do specific task(s) to help a specific handler with a specific problem(s). There is no official certification for a service dog, because of the almost endless possibilities of jobs that the dog could do. Note: Any website or service claiming to certify your service dog is worthless. Such "certifications" are not legally recognized. A service dog has public access rights to go pretty much anywhere the public is allowed. (Certain restrictions are made for sterile environments and other places where the dog's presence may contaminate the area.) Service dogs also have housing rights under the federal Fair Housing Act.
An emotional support animal, or ESA, helps simply by their presence, no special training is required. (Obedience training is always recommended though, whether you have a working dog or a pet.) ESAs do not have the same public access rights as service dogs. Their access rights are limited to housing rights under the federal Fair Housing Act and airline access as granted by the Air Carrier Access Act.
Therapy dogs are trained to help provide comfort to a wide range of people in a wide range of situations. These are the dogs you see at nursing homes, hospitals, schools, disaster areas, etc. Therapy dogs are not granted specific access rights. Access is specifically agreed upon between the handlers and the location ahead of time. There are a number of organizations that help train and certify therapy dogs.
I would argue that any dog can be trained to do the tasks of a service dog, but it takes the right personality of dog to be great at it. Take Pepper and Ganon, for example. Pepper was selected for specific personality traits ideal in a service dog, and she is a rockstar at her job. Ganon has a very different personality; he is very hyperactive and rarely calms down. So while he's trained for service work in case I need a backup (and because it's very good discipline), he wouldn't be great doing the job everyday because of his personality. He also wouldn't enjoy the work as much because it requires long periods of sitting/laying still. He's much more suited to a job that requires a high level of energy.
Ideal traits in service dogs are:
Whether you are getting a dog from a breeder or a shelter, it is important to ask questions of whoever you are getting the dog from. A responsible breeder or shelter should be willing to start a dialogue with you about what you're looking for in a dog, and to help you determine what dog would be the best for your needs and be happiest in it's job. I personally prefer to use purebred dogs for working dogs, because you can know the dog's genetic history and they often come with a health guarantee. When looking for a breeder, I sent out a list of questions to a number of breeders, basically interviewing them like you would a potential employee. The end result was finding an amazing breeder who I have gotten multiple dogs from, and has become like family. Feel free to use this list of questions as a starting point when looking for a breeder or shelter, but make sure to tailor it to your specific needs.
What types of service dogs are there?
There are quite a range of possible jobs that a service dog can do, and some may even do multiple jobs. The most common type of service dog most people think of is a guide dog, used by a blind or vision-impaired person. Service dogs also exist for anxiety, PTSD, autism, diabetes, mobility issues, hearing, seizures, and allergy detection. There are a very wide range of possibilities. My best advice is to do some research on the specific type of service dog you're interested in, and see what's been done before.
"You're so lucky you get to take your dog everywhere!"
Setting aside the act that you've just told someone they're lucky to have a major, life-altering disability that causes them to be unable to function normally without the help of a service dog, having a service dog is actually a huge responsibility. I often compare it to having a very well-behaved toddler strapped to me at all times. I have to make sure I always know where the dog is, that they're safe, etc. I have to make sure that the dog has access to food, water, and an appropriate place to potty as they need it. I carry a number of extra items with me at all times including an extra leash, treats, dog food, water dish, and puppy pads.
Service dog, emotional support animal, therapy dog. What's the difference?
While many people use these terms interchangeably, they have distinct legal meanings. See above for more information on these distinctions.
Could I get a service cat/pig/monkey?
Under ADA law, only dogs and miniature horses can be classified as service animals. Dogs are far more common because they are easier to obtain, train, and take care of.
Can I train my own service dog?
Yes, you can! Remember that it takes a lot of time to train a service animal, so unless you really love training your dog, you may become unhappy with it. If you think you're up to the task, see my information above on ideal traits of a service dog. Research the type of service dog you want to train to get an idea of what tasks would be most helpful for you. Also make yourself familiar with the laws covering service animals in training. While fully trained service animals are covered under the ADA, service animals in training are covered under state law, and may or may not be granted the same access rights. If you're in the Springfield, IL area, I can also help you train your service dog.
Do service dogs ever get to be "off the clock"?
Yes, absolutely! When my dogs aren't working they love to play with toys, play with each other, play with humans, play with anything really. Pepper is always keeping an eye on me in case something happens, but once that vest comes off, she knows she's (usually) not working anymore and there's a visible change in her body language.
Is there any reason a service dog can legally be kicked out of a public place?
Yes, ADA law lists two specific reasons that a handler can ask to remove a service dog from a public place: "(1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken". The handler must be allowed to return to the public place without the service animal, however.
What should I do if my I have wrongfully been denied service somewhere because of my service dog?
File an ADA complaint with the US Department of Justice. The information needed can be found on the ADA website. The complaint can be filed online, by mail, or by fax. Make sure to keep a copy of the complaint for your records. If you have questions about the complaint process, contact the ADA information line at 800-514-0301 (Voice) and 800-514-0383 (TTY). You can also contact an ADA lawyer for advice and to help you with this process.
For any other questions, please check the US Department of Justice's Frequently Asked Questions About Service Animals and the ADA web page. You can also contact the ADA information line at 800-514-0301 (Voice) and 800-514-0383 (TTY). Or feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com.