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What Should a Service Dog Act Like? A Quick Guide to Service Dog Behavior

Real Service Dogs Have Training

It’s hard to go anywhere nowadays without running into Service Dogs. Since the U.S. doesn’t require Service Dog certifications, the only way to tell a “real” Service Dog from a fake is by behavior. Read on to learn more about what a Service Dog should act like. 

Every Service Dog Team is Unique

Every Service Dog team has unique abilities, needs, and work styles. No two teams possess the same training since every disability is different. What works for one team may not work for others. However, it’s vital to note that every “real” Service Dog has one thing in common: they’re individually trained to meet the needs of a person with a disability.

This individual training specifically addresses their person’s needs. The behaviors, tasks, and work the dog does for their handler aren’t “natural” behaviors or things any dog could do. The training is precise and exact. The trained behaviors are on cue, reliable, and replicable. The dog’s response to the cue/command is predictable since it’s a trained behavior.

Service Dog Maurice Provides DPS

Service Dog Maurice, owned by Scott Hanckel, provides trained Deep Pressure Stimulation to his handler.

As an example, a Service Dog who is trained to nudge their handler’s hand when the handler becomes frozen in fear is different from a dog who naturally pushes and shoves with their muzzle. The second dog’s behavior cannot be predicted and it isn’t on cue. Therefore, it’s not a trained behavior and does not count as a Service Dog task, even if it’s helpful.

Emotional Support Is Not a Trained Task

This is why emotional support does not count as a Service Dog task. All dogs can provide emotional support. However, you can’t train a dog to provide emotional support. You can train a dog to provide deep pressure stimulation to ground the handler during a panic attack or to alert the handler to a person approaching from behind.

A dog who is not trained to reliably provide tasks and/or work that help their handler do things they couldn’t do on their own in response to specific cues or commands is not a Service Dog. Dogs in public masquerading as Service Dogs who aren’t Service Dogs do not possess the caliber of training necessary to work calmly and reliably. Fake Service Dogs create a lot of complications for real Service Dog teams. Namely, they create suspicion and access issues for well-trained teams.

Service Dog Behavior: General Manners

Service Dogs appear calm, relaxed, and able to focus while working with their partner in public. They should have good manners. They shouldn’t jump, bark uncontrollably, growl, appear out of control, or act scared of their own shadow. A dog who is afraid of everything or who is reactive cannot focus on their handler’s needs since they’re so focused on the environment.

Service Dog Behavior Autism Dog Focuses on Handler

Autism Dog Thor, owned by Lesley Reed, focuses on his handler

When you see a Service Dog, it should be obvious the dog has specialized training. They should be calm and focused on their handler. The dog should remain by their handler’s side unless their handler asks them to be somewhere else or they’re doing a trained task that requires them to be away from their handler. They should not overly engage with the environment or with strangers.

Real Service Dogs aren’t destructive, wild, or loud. Some Service Dogs bark in order to alert someone nearby that their handler needs help, but outside of trained task work, a Service Dog shouldn’t excessively vocalize. Service Dogs shouldn’t be reactive to other dogs they see out in public. They should appear calm and give the appearance of a focused professional most of the time.

Service Dog Behavior: Training

A trained Service Dog’s training is obvious. When you see a real Service Dog, most people immediately remark, “Wow, I wish my dog acted like that!” They walk well on leash and move with their handler. Service Dogs hold long stays without issue and they can relax for long periods of time. They don’t react to distractions. They’re accepting of interaction, but don’t seek it out. They perform their work well, regardless of what’s going on around them.

Some Service Dogs perform 3 or 4 tasks, whereas other teams have dozens of tasks. Every team is unique. A trained Service Dog can perform their tasks anywhere the handler needs their assistance. It’s important to remember that just because you don’t see a Service Dog working doesn’t mean they aren’t — Service Dogs spend a lot of time on standby, waiting for their handler to cue them to do something. You cannot ask to see a Service Dog’s task training, but business owners can ask the handler what work or tasks the dog performs for the handler. Handlers should have an answer that’s clear and concise.

Additionally, Service Dogs showcase specialized public access training. They don’t stand in the way or block people’s access to items. They down quietly under tables or chairs while waiting. The dog isn’t a tripping hazard or obstacle. They don’t spook or startle from common, everyday encounters like automatic doors, strollers, or shopping carts.

Service Dog Behavior in Public - Mobility Support Dog Lilymon

Mobility Support Dog Lilymon, owned by Kathleen Lourdes, works in public.

In a nutshell, a trained Service Dog acts like one. They don’t give the appearance of a pet dog out for a stroll. They aren’t causing issues, they aren’t attacking bystanding dogs, and they aren’t dragging their handler around. They’re professionals.

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