A History of the Service Dog

The relationship between humans and dogs has remained strong throughout the ages. While there is no concrete evidence to show when, where, or how the first canine (possibly a wolf) managed to overcome its fear of humans and accept them as companions or friends, it probably happened during the phase when human beings were primarily hunters and food gatherers which was long before the Cleveland Indians won their last World Series!

In the early stages of this relationship, dogs must have stayed on the outermost periphery of human life, surviving on the food left behind by humans. The ability of dogs to foresee danger and sound off on it, made them a vital hunting companion and vital companion period. Now early adult human beings knew their families were safer because of this four legged furry friend/s. This relationship continued to grow and evolve over the ages for mutual benefit.

Dogs protected human beings by alerting them to any incoming danger or harm, while human beings fed their dogs and provided them shelter. Historical records indicate that ancient Egyptians regarded dogs as their treasured pets and they even mummified their dogs in the same manner a human was preserved for his afterlife. That is more respect than the gangsters in Baltimore had for their pitbulls in that show The Wire!

A fresco excavated from the ruins of ancient Rome shows a scene where a dog is leading a blind man. Ancient Chinese scrolls also depict similar scenes where dogs are helping humans. According to some historians, Native Americans had only one domesticated animal – the dog – until Christopher Columbus’s arrival. They had no knowledge about domesticating other animals such as goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, or horses.

Humans have also used dogs for military purposes since the glorious days of the Roman Empire. Records from the 18th century show that dogs helped humans during wars by carrying messages to the frontline and by tracking down wounded soldiers. Having such an intimate relationship with humans and serving them selflessly over the centuries, no wonder dogs are regarded as a man’s true ‘friend’. Their role as a ‘service’ animal is now widely acknowledged.

We should pay tribute to these ‘service’ dogs as well as their trainers, who have assisted humans in countless challenging operations throughout the course of history.

Formal Role of the Service Dog

Although dogs have served human beings in various capacities since times immemorial, their service role was not formally documented until 1990. The service dogs assisted human beings as companions in mission-critical areas such as the military, but their services were not legally defined.

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) attempted to define the services of dogs with a legal code. The Act describes service dogs to include guide dogs, signal dogs, or other animals that are specifically trained to assist a person with a disability. Before 1990, except for Seeing Eye dogs, the roles and job description of the service dog was only vaguely defined.

In the US, dogs have served as a guide to the blind for nearly a century, even though their role as a service dog has been formally acknowledged only in recent decades. From the 1960s, the role of the service dog was extended to other areas apart from guiding the blind. In the early stages, there was no system of formal training for the service dogs, but as the idea of the ‘service’ dog gained momentum, a formal set of guidelines has gradually emerged.

In 1996, the formal role of service dog came to include ‘social’ dogs for kids affected with Autism. For the last five years, their role also includes serving the veterans who are suffering from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorders resulting from combat trauma. The standards for training, placement, and other guidelines for service dogs continue to be expanded with every new addition in their job description.

The 2017 movie called Megan Leavey depicts how vital dogs are to the US military.

Pioneering Work by Bonita Bergin

It is a proven fact that a guide dog enhances a blind individual’s capacity to become more independent and reduces their need for help from others. “The Seeing Eye” is a first-of-its-kind training center in New Jersey, which focuses on training dogs to become a guide for the blind. This school was opened in 1929 in the US, and for many years it remained the solitary training center for service dogs in the nation.

The American canine researcher, Dr. Bonita Bergin, has done remarkable work in the field of service dogs. She was the first one to propose the use of dogs as a service animal for people with disabilities other than blindness. A close observation of donkeys that are used as service animals made Bergin think about the role dogs could play in assisting humans with disabilities. She then worked in kennels for extended periods of time to understand the features and characteristics of different breeds of dogs.

In fact, Bergin coined the term ‘Service Dog’ to demarcate the difference between a dog systematically trained for service and any other dog who is kept as a pet or is used for assisting people in hunting and other activities.

She testified before the Congress in 1989 and helped in defining two specific roles of dogs – “Service dogs” that are exclusively trained to assist individuals facing mobility issues and “Assistance dogs” that are meant to help individuals suffering from a wider range of disabilities. Bergin’s testimony before Congress also helped in clarifying various facets of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Dr. Bergin’s enormous body of research in this sector enabled experts as well as the public to recognize the unique bond shared between an individual and their service dog. This recognition has resulted in the mainstream acceptance of service dog in society.

Protected by Law

To eliminate prevailing obscurities and ambiguities rising from undefined terms, the Justice Department has published an updated guidance document defining “Service animal”. Released on September 15th, 2010, this official document defines a service animal as a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for persons with disabilities.

This document also provides examples of such tasks and work. Some key tasks include providing guidance to a blind person, alerting deaf individuals, helping with a wheelchair, and shielding an individual who has a seizure so no one steps on this person and you get the picture. It also includes tasks such as reminding a mentally ill person to take their medicine, and calming individuals suffering from PTSD during a stress or anxiety attack.

The document clearly states that a service animal is a working animal and must not be regarded as a pet. It also states that the service dog must perform tasks that are related directly to the disability of the person. The document excludes dogs that are solely meant to offer emotional support as service dogs, and does not qualify them as a service animal within the ADA definition.

The revised definition of “service animal” under the Act says that, “Beginning on March 15th, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA.” Some state laws provide extended protection to people affected by disabilities in public places, such as pressing criminal charges or imposing penalties on account of injury to a service animal (this is just plain common sense – it is amazing there are not much more formidable laws on the books protecting these animals). The definition also provides a resolution for a situation when one law provides lesser protection than the other. In such a case, the law with the most protections to the concerned person stands applicable.

Any service dog can always provide emotional support and comfort to its human partner, but to include the dog in the realm of the federal definition of a ‘Service dog’ it must assist its human partner in performing tasks that are directly related to their disability. Such tasks include protecting a blind or a visually challenged person from obstacles, picking up objects for a disabled person, altering a deaf individual to the sound of an alarm clock, helping in flipping light switches for a partner who cannot do it due to the lack in dexterity, and offering specific deep-pressure therapies to people suffering from psychiatric problems.

While the ADA offers a highly specific and rigid definition for service animals that are permitted in public places, various other federal laws provide expansive definitions of the service animals. These include the Fair Housing Act, which makes it mandatory for house owners or landlords to allow service animals that include animals that offer comfort and emotional support. In the same manner, the Air Carrier Access Act enacted by the Department of Transportation allows passengers of commercial airlines to fly with ‘dogs and other service animals’.

One notable point here is that the American federal law requires no legal certification of service animals. This ensures that employees or staff of the federal government can only ask limited questions to the individual carrying a service animal.

For example, if the task or the service offered by a dog is not clear, then the staff can ask questions only in two specific areas: (a) Whether the concerned dog is a service animal used because of a disability (b) What is the nature of the task or work performed by the dog? It must be noted that while asking these questions, the staff cannot enquire about the person’s disability and they are also prohibited from asking for any medical documentation. Furthermore, they are not permitted to demand any special identification or training card of the dog, nor can they demand a demonstration of the work performed by the dog.

The dog is not a circus performer which has basically been outlawed anyway.

According to the law, a service dog must be provided entry into all places which are accessible to its owner or into any building or location where the owner has the right to enter. Service dogs can enter educational institutions and offices. They can also travel along with their owner in the passenger portion of an airplane, and during their travel they are not required to pay any extra fees.

All these laws have come into force since the 1990s. However, the public still has little knowledge about these laws, and there is a need to properly educate them about these laws. In particular, employees working in public places, such as movie theaters, shopping centers, transport hubs, restaurants and other public areas, must be made aware about the laws pertaining to service animals.

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Differentiating a Service Dog from a Pet

The role of a service dog is different from that of a pet. A service dog receives dedicated training and specializes in offering particular services to its human partner. They are trained to perform tasks, such as notifying the human about specific sounds, picking up dropped items, opening doors, giving an alert about obstacles, and easing the fears of a child with autism.

By performing all these activities, the service dog enables its human partner to lead an independent life. These service dogs not only serve as an assistant or a companion, they truly transform the lives of their human partner with their specific skills, and eventually become a family member.


Service dogs have a harness, backpack, or vest on them so that they are clearly and easily identified. These vests or backpacks have different colors to indicate different types of dogs. For example, blue color is used for a service dog that is assisting an individual with a disability.


Specific breeds of dogs are selected as service dogs. The intensity of the training depends on the particular breed of the dog. According to a recent study, four breeds of dogs produce a high performance as a service dog, they are a:

  • Labrador Retriever
  • Golden Retriever
  • German Shepherd
  • Labrador or Golden Retriever cross-breed

The study also revealed that Labrador and Golden Retriever cross-breeds and Labrador Retrievers can be trained in a relatively shorter period of time, while German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers become more effective when they are trained for a longer period instead of a typical 4-month period.


Nutrition is an essential factor in maintaining a service dog. The guide dogs or the service dogs need to perform several activities and tasks, and to deliver a successful performance, they must consume a healthy and nutritious diet. They should not have a steak for every meal like Napoleon Dynamite did! Moreover, the type of diet varies for different dogs, and will generally depend on the kind of services the dog performs.

Sprinting dogs require protein, fat, and high-carbohydrate diet to ensure they maintain the energy levels that are essential for playing and assisting others. On the other hand, the hunting or the patrol dogs such as Golden Labs and German Shepherds must consume fat diets due in order to endure long walks and perform other physical tasks to support their needy human partner.

Service Dogs for Specific Conditions

Over the last two decades, a number of service dog training organizations have been at the forefront of devising, planning and commissioning training programs for service dogs that assist children suffering from autism and other medical conditions. Innovative programs have been put in place to breed and train service dogs to help children affected by autism.

Hundreds of service dog teams have been created to engage with different service dog organizations across the globe to help them in kick starting their own programs of a similar kind. Training programs have also been launched for specialized services, such as Service Dogs for PTSD, Special Intervention, and Companion Services.

Service Dogs for Autism

A few leading service dog organizations now offer assistance to families and children affected by autism. They are engaged in the training of Golden Retrievers and Labradors to assist children suffering from autism. These trained dogs create additional layers of safety, and at the same time, suppress the bolting behavior that many children with autism share. This is achieved by training dogs to act as anchor when they are tethered to the kid.

Service Dog for PTSD

A service dog for PTSD is trained to help veterans suffering with long term PTSD. Specialized training programs have been put in place to assist veterans and help them deal with issues, such as anxiety, stress, and hyper vigilance, and supporting them so they can have a successful return into mainstream society.

Service Dogs for Special Intervention

Special Intervention training programs are designed to extend canine support to patients requiring different types of assistance. The dogs are lined up with experts from several disciplines with the intention of training them to work as partner in the patient’s therapy. This training helps in addressing the wider issues of health, fitness, and wellness in society.

Service Dogs as Companions

The special and unique bond created between service dogs and families can help achieve benefits for individuals with disabilities. The trained service dogs are kept with children who are affected by several disabilities. In addition to performing their specific skills, they also play the role of an obedient and dependable companion.

Recent Litigation

In recent times, there has been a considerable increase in the lawsuits filed by citizens claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2014, 1,939 lawsuits were filed across the country for ADA violations, which represents a 55 percent jump over the previous year.

Among the cases involving the ADA clause, one case from New York in 2009 stands out. In this case, the New York City paid $10,000 to a 65-year-old woman as she was given a ticket by two New York City policemen on the grounds of carrying a dog into a subway station.

Similarly a 70-year-old woman from Manhattan received $150,000 from MTA in 2013. The woman was denied access to transportation with her dog by MTA’s drivers, motormen, and conductors and they also improperly asked for papers. The Brooklyn Federal Court judge found MTA guilty in this case and ordered MTA to pay compensation to the woman.

In May 2014, a condominium paid one of its residents $300,000 for not allowing the resident to keep a service dog. According to the condominium officials, the resident’s demand of keeping a service dog violated the condo’s rules. But the judge termed this behavior by the condo as “absurd” and “unreasonable”.

In another important ruling in December 2014, the US Justice Department ordered Uber to follow the ADA and allow passengers to carry service dogs in Uber cars. This ruling was a result of a lawsuit filed in San Francisco against Uber.

In another case, one of the subsidiaries of Schlumberger Ltd. refused its employee to bring his service dog to work. The employee filed a case against the employer, and in March 2015 was rewarded $29,000. The San Antonio jury found the company guilty of violating ADA norms.

Etiquette with Working Dogs

The concept of ‘service dog’ is still somewhat alien to a large number of American people. Most people have not really noticed or met with a service dog in person, and therefore, have no idea about the etiquette expected when engaging with a service dog.

When people who are fond of dogs see one in public, they instinctively approach it to greet it or pet it. While this reaction is natural and there is nothing wrong with it, in case of service dogs, greeting or touching the animal without first greeting its owner is perceived as ‘disrespectful’.

As service dogs have come to be an integral part of the American life, it is now increasingly important to raise awareness and educate people about the incredible role of this selfless performer in today’s society and its contributions throughout the history of civilization.

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