Skip to main content
San Diego Humane Society

Service Dogs and Animals in Supportive Roles

About Service Dogs

Dogs have played many roles in humans’ lives over the past century. From fearless protector to professional snuggler and everything in between, dogs fill our hearts and homes with a special kind of companionship only they can provide. In recent decades, dogs have also taken on a few new roles in our communities — as supportive working dogs.

While the terms "Service Dog," "Emotional Support Dog," and "Therapy Dog" are often used interchangeably, they each offer a unique skill set and level of training to perform their specific jobs.

What is a Service Dog?

A "service dog," under California law, is a dog trained to help a specific individual with a disability with services such as fetching dropped items, minimal protection work, rescue work, or pulling a wheelchair.

A service dog is a highly-trained working animal purposefully selected and trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate their handlers’ disabilities. Only dogs can be service animals, and in some special cases, miniature horses. From physically opening doors, to retrieving medication, to alerting when a medical emergency is imminent, service dogs are literal lifesavers when it comes to the skills they’ve been trained to do. Working as part of a team with their disabled partners, service dogs help them attain the safety and independence from which their handlers’ disabilities would otherwise limit them. While on duty, they do not engage with other dogs or people so they can be completely focused on the needs of their handler. Some service dogs may wear a special collar or vest to indicate that they are on duty. Service dogs are welcome in any public place (even where dogs aren’t normally allowed).

What Certification Does a Service Dog Require?

The ADA does not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal. The dog must still maintain a current rabies vaccination and license, but the owner is usually exempt from paying for the license. San Diego Humane Society offers licensing for residents in Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido, Oceanside, Poway, San Diego, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach and Vista.

Service Dog Training may Include:

Schooling: A service dog should be given a minimum of 120 hours of schooling over a period of 6 months or more. At least 30 hours should be devoted to outings that will prepare the dog to work obediently and unobtrusively in public places.

Obedience Training: A service dog must master the basic obedience skills (sit, stay, come, down, heel) and a dropped leash recall in a store in response to verbal commands and/or hand signals.

Manners: A service dog must acquire proper social behavior skills.

Disability-Related Tasks: The service dog must be individually trained to perform identifiable tasks on command or cue for the benefit of the disabled human partner. This includes alerting to sounds, medical problems, certain scents like peanuts or situations if training is involved.

Prohibited Training: Any training that arouses a service dog’s prey drive or fear to elicit a display of aggression for guard or defense purposes is strictly prohibited. Non-aggressive barking as a trained behavior is permitted in appropriate situations.

Trainers: Trainers function as ambassadors for the service dog movement. This includes a disabled owner trainer, a provider’s staff or a volunteer with a puppy or adult dog “in training.” It also includes a service dog partner or able-bodied facilitator helping a disabled loved one to keep up a service dog’s training.

How to Register a Service Dog

First, it is important to note, California Health and Safety Code (121690) requires all dogs to be vaccinated against rabies and to obtain a license. Once a license is obtained, this information will assist in registering a service dog with San Diego Humane Society.

Service Dog Registration

Service Animal Resources

Assistance Animal Accommodations

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Frequently asked questions questions about service animals, including the differences between types of assistance animals, training requirements and rules for public spaces.

Disability Rights California
Overview of rights to assistance animals in housing and public spaces in CA and free legal support including a guide to pursuing legal action in cases of discrimination.

Opening Doors
Quick reference document for assistance animal regulations, sample verification letters for housing and FAQ about assistance animals.

Service Animal Training and Placement

Assistance Dogs International
Especially good resource for those looking to adopt and/or train their own service animal as well as a list of organizations that provide trained service animals in CA.

Canine Companions for Independence
Provides trained service animals for people with disabilities.

Little Angel Service Dogs
Provides trained service dogs to assist disabled children and adults throughout the country.

Love Heels Canine Partners
Provides trained service animals for people with disabilities.

Pawsitive Teams
Helps train and place service and therapy dogs for San Diego residents.

San Diego Dog Trainer Directory
List of positive reinforcement trainers in the San Diego area.

Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs
Trains dogs for veterans with PTSD, TBI, or mobility issues, and individuals with autism.

Assistance Animal Funding

Assistance Dog Special Allowance (ADSA) Program
Program that provides a monthly payment to eligible individuals in the state of California who use a guide, signal or service dog to help them with their disability-related needs.

Animals in Supportive Roles that are Not Considered Service Animals

Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?

A. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.

Emotional Support Animals

What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals provide comfort and support to individuals suffering from various mental or emotional conditions. They are not required to undergo specialized training and do not have public access rights. An emotional support animal (typically a dog or cat, though this can include other animal species) can benefit a disabled individual psychologically by providing affection and companionship, but they have not been specially trained to perform tasks, medical alerts, etc. Emotional support animals may have special privileges in public places, so we recommend inquiring about the location’s policies.

State and federal fair housing laws require that housing providers make reasonable accommodations for tenants with emotional support animals. Emotional support animals are also covered by the Air Carrier Access Act. A letter from a healthcare provider is required in order to have an emotional support animal.

What Certification is Required for an Emotional Support Animal?
Special certification is not required. However, emotional support animals must still abide by the same licensing laws as all other pets. San Diego Humane Society offers licensing for residents of Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido, Oceanside, Poway, San Diego, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach and Vista.

Emotional Support Animal Resources

Therapy Dogs

What is a Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs receive extensive training, similar to service dogs, but have a completely different type of job. Their responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers, who are usually their owners. These dogs have stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personalities. Typically, they visit various institutions like hospitals, schools, hospices, psychotherapy offices, nursing homes and more. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize and interact with a variety of people while they’re on-duty. Therapy dogs are only allowed to go where other dogs are allowed, or may be invited to visit facilities that do not otherwise permit dogs.

What Certification is Required for a Therapy Dog?
Various organizations offer therapy dog certification and volunteer opportunities. Each organization defines its own criteria.


Pet Therapy Programs

If you would like to have your dog certified for therapy, contact the following organizations directly to see what the requirements are:

  • Was this article helpful?