More is expected of service dogs (also known as assistance dogs) than of the typical household companion dog. While there are some programs that breed carefully selected dogs to have puppies to be trained for service dog work, some programs look for likely candidates in shelters and other programs are geared towards supporting owner-trained service dogs. Owners who train their dogs to become service dogs often enjoy a greatly enhanced bond with their dogs, which I found to be true with my companion-dog turned service-dog Lucky.
Traditionally, the dominant breeds for service dog work have been Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers; however, the primary concern is the individual capacity of the dog for service work, not the breed. Many other breeds are represented in the service dog world, including: German Shepherd Dog, American Pitbull Terrier, and Jack Russell Terrier, to name a few.
Most breeds tend to excel in certain categories of tasks, but what is important is the willingness of the dog to work and perceive the person's need. Sometimes, this is discovered accidentally with a specific dog, which is how I started my dog down the path of service work. While I was home alone one day, my back problems flared, leaving me unable to reach a telephone to call for help. I called to my Amstaff-Pit Bull mix - and she literally pulled me close enough to a telephone so I could call for help.
A service dog is generally trained to perform common commands, just as any other dog. They are also trained extensively for public access work so that they behave appropriately in public places, such as stores, restaurants, movie theaters and public transportation. Public access training enables a service dog to ignore the delightful food smells in the grocery store, to understand that getting on a plane means to settle down for a lengthy period of time and that although he might be surrounded by many people, his job isn't to solicit the attention of others for petting sessions.
Often, the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen (CGC) is used as a basic test to determine if a dog may be ready for public access training. The CGC is a test that the handler and dog take together. The test consists of 10 distinct parts, all of which must be passed in order to achieve the certification. As we found when we took the test, it is not unusual for 75% of the class to fail the test on the first try.
Not every service dog learns every possible service dog task; most service dogs are trained specifically to match the needs of a particular person. It took months for my dog to learn to retrieve my inhaler properly (so much so that I nearly despaired of her learning to retrieve), yet instinctively she knows how to provide mobility support when I need it.
A few states offer certification and there are several charitable organizations that train and certify service dogs. Most organizations have a core set of certification requirements in common, such as requiring at least 90% accuracy from the dog when a command is issued. Owners who self-train their service dogs often do not seek certification, as many programs only will certify dogs that were trained within their program.