Can you train your own service dog?

A smiling man in a grey s-shirt and a yellow lab wearing a service dog vest sit on a bench. The man is holding the dog’s paw.

At MLG, we love all kinds of assistance animals. We’re in awe of the bond between animals and their owners and of the many ways that assistance animals help their people navigate the world.

Service dogs are a special kind of assistance animal because they are individually trained to perform work or a task for their owners. Because of this high level of training, they are allowed out in public, almost anywhere a person can go. This is what makes them different from other assistance animals, who provide emotional support at home but don’t go into the community.

Guide Dogs are not the only kind of service dog! Service dogs perform a wide range of tasks for people with disabilities. The Department of Justice gives some examples:

  • A dog that is trained to retrieve objects for its wheelchair-using owner.
  • A dog that is trained to remind their owner to take their medication.
  • A dog that is trained to lick the hand of their owner to alert them to an oncoming panic attack.
  • A dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.

Zochi, pictured above with our client Steve, is another kind of service dog, a Hearing Dog: She alerts Steve to sounds in the environment that he cannot hear.

There are many fine nonprofits that train and provide service dogs to people who need them. Canine Companions for Independence and Little Angels Service Dogs are two of our favorites! These organizations often have lengthy wait lists because it takes time and money (as much as $30,000-50,000) to train a good service dog.

That’s why the law allows any person to self-train their own service dog. MLG’s founder, Celia McGuinness, is proud to have litigated the ground-breaking case which established that right as a matter of federal law. In 2021, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service dog is any dog that has been individually trained to do work or a task for a person with a disability, regardless of how they received that training. The ADA does not require “professional” training and it does not permit anyone to ask a service dog owner to show “certification” for their animal.

This ruling came after a hard-fought trial on behalf of our client, C.L., a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder and PTSD who had trained her bichon-poodle mix dog, Aspen, to perform eight different tasks that mitigate her disability. Nonetheless, Del Amo Psychiatric Hospital refused to allow Aspen to accompany her to the hospital. (One of Celia’s previous cases established that service animals generally are allowed in locked psychiatric wards. Tamara v. El Camino Hosp., 964 F. Supp. 2d 1077 (N.D. Cal. 2013).)

At trial, a service dog expert testified that Aspen was a fully trained service dog. The hospital did not dispute that she was fully trained. But the trial judge ruled that Aspen did not qualify to be a service animal because her status had not been “certified” by any organization.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the trial judge, stating, “a service animal within the meaning of the ADA must be individually trained to perform tasks related to an individual's disability, but the animal need not be formally certified. The test is a functional one: can the dog consistently help the person with a disability meet the challenges of life by assisting in the person's activities of daily living?” C. L. v. Del Amo Hosp., Inc., 992 F.3d 901, 911 (9th Cir. 2021). Therefore, you absolutely may train your own dog to become a service dog, so long as it is fully trained to perform some task that assists with your disability, and fully trained to behave in public.

Shout out to our fierce co-counsel in that case, Chris Knauf of Knauf Associates, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and Alexandra Robertson, formerly of Disability Rights Legal Center. The case is not over! Celia argued the second Ninth Circuit appeal in that case last March and we returned to the trial court for further proceedings this year.