How to Decide Whether a Service Dog Is Right for You

Service dogs require much training and responsibility, cautions a columnist

Shawna Barnes avatar

by Shawna Barnes |

Share this article:

Share article via email
banner image for

“My pet Fido makes me feel so much better. Where can I get him a service dog vest?”

You can’t. Well, you can, but unless Fido is specifically trained to perform tasks related to your disability, you shouldn’t. And I’ll tell you why.

I’ve had two trained service dogs since my medical retirement from the Army in 2011. Kane was a German shepherd trained in seizure alert and response and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I lost him to cancer in December 2019.

In 2018, I got Andy, a Great Dane and black Labrador retriever mix. He is trained in PTSD and mobility tasks. I’ve been seizure-free for five years now, and to train him in responding to this issue, I’d have to go off my medication and begin having seizures again. I don’t think so!

I’m a member of several myasthenia gravis (MG) support groups on various social media platforms, and I often see fellow myasthenics ask how to get their pet recognized as a therapy or service dog so they can take them places. While most people don’t intend to be harmful, handlers and trained service dogs can be harmed when rules are not followed or animals aren’t trained properly.

Recommended Reading
banner image for

My Quest to Name the Beast That Is MG

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between a therapy dog, an emotional support dog, and a service dog. A therapy dog usually has a gentle demeanor and is often seen in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, or disaster areas, where they can have a calming and therapeutic influence. Therapy dogs are not provided public access rights in the U.S.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide support to people with psychological disorders, such as depression or anxiety. With a physician’s note, an emotional support animal may be allowed in places pets typically aren’t, such as some apartments. ESAs don’t, however, have public access rights.

A service dog is trained to perform specific tasks directly related to their handler’s disabilities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they’re considered medically necessary and have full public access rights. There are different types of service dogs, depending on the handler’s needs.

A service dog can be a great help to people with MG. Andy picks things off the floor and hands them to me, opens and closes doors that I’ve attached pull ropes to, and provides counterbalance and mobility assistance. He also interrupts harmful behaviors and provides distraction during emotional reactions related to my PTSD.

The biggest difference between these three types of dogs is that a service dog has been trained for hundreds, if not thousands, of hours. A service dog trained in a reputable program can cost more than $25,000.

Can you train your pet to be a service dog? Absolutely, I owner-trained Kane. But it takes a lot of work — energy that those of us with MG might not have. Service dogs need to be assessed by a trainer who can determine if their temperament is appropriate. They should also be able to pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test.

There’s no federal or state certification or registry for service dogs. This has created problems, such as companies selling vests and certificates without verifying the animal’s temperament or training. notes that, “These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.”

Andy and I have been attacked by a fake service dog at a Veterans Affairs medical facility where pets were not allowed. It took weeks of retraining to help Andy get back into the appropriate mindset to work.

A great deal of responsibility comes with having a service dog. Not only are you responsible for the animal’s well-being, but you also must maintain their training (especially for tasks that aren’t frequently used) and take them out in public to ensure their behavior remains acceptable. Handlers must also recognize that service dogs have bad days, too, and it’s irresponsible to take them out if they’re having an off day.

Training your pet to be a service dog or acquiring a service dog is a decision not to be taken lightly. Who will care for it if you go into crisis? Do you have the ability to train and care for them? If you don’t have solid plans in place for these questions, a service dog isn’t for you. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to the public, and it’s not fair to the pup that just wants to love and care for its human.

Myasthenia Gravis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Myasthenia Gravis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to myasthenia gravis.


Marguerite Thibeau avatar

Marguerite Thibeau

Thanks for a great explanation of the different categories of therapy, emotional support and service dogs, Shawna. I had a therapy dog who went to nursing homes and hospitals. She loved kids so much that sticky-fingered toddlers hang on her ears didn't faze her. Wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and hospital equipment didn't bother her. I've shown dogs in breed and obedience in the US and Canada, done agility, tracking, dock diving, etc. All of these great, very steady dogs had areas that wouldn't have reached the standards necessary for service dogs. Service dogs are a very special breed that are highly trained to be bullet proof in all situations. I see people in stores with dogs in vests marked service dog, or service dogs in training when they are so obviously not trained, or being monitored. People don't seem to care the damage this does to training programs and handicapped people. There is a rising attitude that it's fake. Handicapped people are being confronted by hostile and unsympathetic strangers challenging them. Actual service dogs have been attacked and ruined as working dogs by other dogs not under control. Other countries allow dogs in pubs and stores, dogs are use to it, there are rarely problems. That isn't the case in the US. We have too many reactive people and reactive dogs. We need to support the rules of the industries that support handicapped people.

Shawna Barnes avatar

Shawna Barnes

Thanks for sharing Marguerite. Andy and I have encountered fake service dogs in our adventures and it truly does more harm than good. Not only does it affect Andy and I, but the public perception as well. The truly unfortunate thing is that the small dogs that ride around in carts CAN be actual service dogs; usually used for seizures or other types of medical alert tasks/services. But so many people have small breeds as pets and try to pass them off as service dogs, that it truly does us all a disservice.

cmcanulty avatar


Michigan started registering service dogs a few years ago and has several criteria to be met before issuing a state service dog ID and patch for the dog

Shawna Barnes avatar

Shawna Barnes

Thank you for sharing! I'm so glad to see that Michigan is doing their best to help combat the fake service dog issue. - Shawna


Leave a comment

Fill in the required fields to post. Your email address will not be published.