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Service and Support Dogs: Roles and Risks

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September 21, 2017
Edward Smith

Service and Support Dogs: Roles and Risks

Roles and Risks of Having Service and Support Dogs

I have been serving the Sacramento and Northern California community for over three decades helping people navigate issues of dog ownership, liability, and the consequences of dog bites, attacks, and fatalities. During this time, there has been increasing use of dogs to serve people as assistants. After all, the intelligence, loyalty, and domestication of our canine companions have characterized dogs’ relationships with people for many centuries. The following article will discuss the three most common types of service animals and some general information about dog bites.

Praise for Local Agency

I would first like to highlight the work of the Sacramento SPCA and the impressive ways they have served Sacramento for over 120 years. In 2016 alone, this organization vaccinated over 14,000 animals and facilitated over 3,500 pet adoptions. The SPCA offers a broad range of animal services, including training and behavioral programs. These programs can help guarantee that dogs and their owners will have a long and happy life together.

What we know

There are three main categories of “service animals.” I use this description purposely, as the term “service animals” can be confusing both legally and in everyday life. Regardless of category, it is always important to remember that dogs can bite and be aggressive. Dog attacks and bites should be reported and injuries treated immediately. An experienced dog bite attorney can help you determine important steps after treatment and reporting.

Police and Military Dogs are one of the better known and clearly defined categories of service animals. Their training is rigorous and the selection process for these dogs is quite exclusionary. They are used to subdue suspects, conduct foot pursuits, find and locate contraband and search for hidden or missing people. They may undergo several hundred hours of training and retraining. This category of a service animal has certain specific licensing requirements in Sacramento. Generally speaking, handlers of service dogs will also have legal protection in the event of dog bites or attacks that occur in the lawful performance of their police or military duties.

Guide Dogs are probably the most familiar category of service animals.  These animals perform specific, enabling behaviors allowing people with disabilities to navigate daily living. Guide dog programs tend to have fairly rigorous breeding programs, careful evaluations and training of both dogs and handlers, and usually do not charge the beneficiary but rather rely on donations to fund their programs. Certain breeds are favored by the trainers. Recipients may have 2-3 dogs over the course of their lifetime. Although any dog can bite, guide dogs are taught to “intelligently disobey” situations or provocations which might trigger aggressive behavior or injury in untrained animals.

Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are animals that provide comfort to owners suffering from a mental illness but are not trained to provide a service. Licensed ESA’s must be allowed access to public places with their owners. Travel on trains, buses, and airplanes is allowed with appropriate paperwork. In short, nearly all establishments serving the public (there are some exceptions) cannot exclude ESAs, nor can applicants with such an animal be discriminated against when applying for housing. Animals acting in an aggressive fashion or who are not housebroken can be excluded from this category. There are no current training or breed standards for ESAs, but they behave as any reasonable pet might when accompanying their owner. It’s important to note they are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

So, What’s Changed?

There is no question that emotional support animals provide direct benefits to their owners. We note that many veterans use ESAs to help cope with their service related PTSD. The biggest change has to do with an increasing number of dogs in close proximity to people in public places, particularly ESA’s that may not have undergone extensive training. This increases their owner’s exposure to liability in crowds, confined spaces, and stressful situations such as flying on a plane. This increase in close-quarter contact can result in stress for the animal and aggressive behavior, including dog bites.


Dog bites and attacks should always be reported, regardless of the animal’s category or designation. Any injuries sustained should be treated immediately by a health care professional. Dog bites can cause infection and long term damage if left untreated. Parents should not assume that a dog is “safe” for children to approach because it has a special designation cover or harness. Dogs behaving aggressively in public establishments should be reported to prevent mishaps. If there are any questions or if a dog bite occurs, injury lawyers with dog bite experience can help guide you and your family through the process of treatment, reporting, and recovery.

Sacramento Dog Bite Attorney

I’m Ed Smith, a Sacramento Dog Bite Lawyer. Being attacked by a dog can leave a person with physical and emotional injuries. If you or a loved one have been bitten or injured by a dog, please call me at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400 for free and friendly advice with no obligation. You can also reach me online at

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See some of my past successful Verdicts and Settlements here.

I am a Million Dollar Advocates Forum member. This group is composed of some of the country’s best trial lawyers who have won $1 million dollar verdicts and settlements for their clients.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Dog Guiding Blind Woman by Honza Groh. CC BY-SA 3.0
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