Very Important Pooches: Different categories of working dogs and their purposes

By: Brittney Frazier, Found Chicago Boarding and Training Center

Dogs have been trained for decades to serve our society in ways that could otherwise never have been imagined had it not been for the extraordinary bond we share with them. Whether they are sniffing out bombs or interrupting a panic attack, dogs working in the community have demonstrated a level of intuition unparalleled to that of most human beings. In fact, even the dogs’ own trainers and handlers will sometimes have difficulty explaining just how an animal can perform the level of devotion it requires to save our lives as often as they do.

As amazing as these animals are, many members of our community lack the knowledge of exactly what type of working dog provides which type of service to its grateful recipient. Because there are currently no specifications on a service animal’s level of training expectations, this can result in a great deal of “fake” service animals making their way into local businesses. Not only does this pose a danger to those around them being that the average pet is not equipped to handle the busy hustle and bustle of say, a restaurant or grocery store, it also serves a detriment to individuals protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, who have the right to a service dog and have taken the necessary steps to acquiring a well-trained working animal.

Below is a description of some working dogs a citizen may encounter in their community, how the dog assists its human, and what type of background is typical of the dog. Please take a moment to inform yourself on the dogs who make our world a little bit safer and more bearable for those lucky enough to know their presence.

Therapy Dogs are dogs trained to serve a wide range of individuals of ages ranging from children to seniors from a variety of backgrounds and abilities. The purpose of these dogs is to facilitate the human-animal bond by way of animal-assisted activities or animal-assisted interventions, which has also been known as animal-assisted therapy. The temperament and behavior required of a therapy dog is known as “bomb proof” due to how unforgiving their work environment can be. From a well-intentioned child pulling on their tail, to a busy hospital setting, these dogs must remain calm and non-reactive to many situations the average dog would not.

A very high level of responsiveness to basic commands, eagerness to interact with all people, and comprehension in a cute trick or two to show off as a plus, should be expected of dogs in this field. Therapy dogs are usually required to pass a therapy dog organization’s certification test in order to evaluate their training and overall temperament. These dogs are only granted access into buildings they have been invited into for the specific purpose of visiting, educating, or bonding with the specified population.

Service dogs are dog trained specifically to assist individuals covered under the ADA with tasks crucial to their everyday activities. On top of a high level of basic obedience responsiveness in areas of intense distraction, these dogs may also be taught commands specific to public access, such as “tucking in” under a chair so as to not disturb others when out working. In addition to a “bomb proof” temperament, service dogs must also demonstrate a willingness to work and please a handler regardless of environment or scenario for the dog to be truly effective at their job. Examples of tasks a service dog may provide would be guiding a person who cannot see, alerting a person with anxiety to a panic attack and then interrupting self-destructive behavior, or picking up items for a person bound to a wheelchair.

Service dogs are now acquired in a variety of ways. Large organizations train dogs from birth and may place them in homes with “puppy raisers” before placing them in a training program for their service-related tasks at 1 year of age. Due to a substantial waiting list and cost of dogs in these types of programs, many individuals in need will adopt and train their own service dog using a personal dog trainer or even just reading a book. It is important for owner-trained service dogs to be provided with the same level of training and preparation as dogs from large organizations to preserve the reputation of working dogs in society. This new phenomenon developed after it was discovered that dogs can assist in many more ways than was originally anticipated when service dogs were first being trained over thirty years ago, increasing the demand for these life-saving animals drastically.

All service dogs are granted public access to anywhere their handler is granted. While disruptive behavior such as barking or eliminating indoors gives business owners the right to request the dog be removed, the handler is allowed reasonable opportunity to regain control of their dog. A more detailed description of Illinois’ laws pertaining to service dogs can be found on the United States Department of Justice’s website at

Emotional Support Dogs are also a recent development in the working dog field and serves as a combination of both therapy and service dog. These animals serve as a personal therapy dog to their owner by providing emotional support through their companionship. While there is not currently any standard for their training, I find as a dog trainer that these dogs are most effective when properly socialized and obedience trained so as not to cause undue stress for their owners. A good emotional support dog should possess a happy-go-lucky and sound temperament and enjoy the companionship of at least one human. Any dogs with difficult-to-manage behavioral concerns are not recommended as emotional support dogs due to the fact that their job is to increase life satisfaction for their handler.

It is important to note that emotional support dogs are not service dogs. While they exist to serve one specific human, they are not specifically trained to perform any tasks associated with that human. Emotional support animals are permitted to live with and travel with their handler, but are not permitted in all public areas. You may see these dogs on a plane or in your apartment building, but business owners are not required to grant them access.

While therapy, service, and emotional support dogs all have unique and important jobs, there is quite a difference in their training background and function in society. By keeping yourself informed, you can better assist as an advocate for the precious role they play in the lives of their handlers.

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