Dear Inquisitive Canine,

I have a 3-year-old female cocker spaniel who is very friendly toward children and adults. I will be retiring from my job after 38 years and will have time to work on her training. I was thinking of making her a service dog so I can take her to hospitals and nursing homes, but I’m not sure what the process is. Do you have any advice on how we can get started?

Thanks for the help,

— Delilah’s dad

Dear Delilah’s dad,

Allow us to give you four paws up for coming up with such a fantastic retirement plan! Wanting to spend your newfound free time helping your community while giving your dog a chance to do the same is commendable. Your question is perfect timing for the sequel to our previous Dear Inquisitive Canine column, which offered ways people can volunteer their time with animal rescue groups. Now we can follow it up with ways you can encourage your dog to paw-lunteer, too.

What’s the Job Description?

Service, therapy, emotional support, canine good citizen, companion.

Those words are among the terminology often used by those with and without dogs of their own — but what do they all mean? As a certified professional dog trainer happy to help you and other inquisitive pet parents, let’s get started.

Service Animal

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, as of March 2011, dogs are the only animal legally recognized as “service” animals. This designation means he or she was trained individually to work or perform a specific disability-related task for a handler who has been diagnosed with a disability. A few examples of this would include a seeing eye dog for the blind; alerting the hearing impaired to smoke alarms, doorbells or sirens; or alerting someone whose blood sugar is getting too low.

Here’s a key differential: Service animals are not considered pets. You can find detailed information on service animals on the ADA website.

Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy

Animals who are socialized, well-trained in their manners and enjoy being around others are ones who fit into this category. They work with their handlers for the purpose of helping others. From what you described, this is the type of program with which you and your cocker spaniel would want to get involved. This will allow you to visit nursing homes and hospitals and, since your pooch likes children, participating in school programs would be a nice option, too.

To get started, I suggest you enroll in dog training classes that teach positive-reinforcement methods, such as Inquisitive Canine. Afterward, you’ll want to consider becoming a registered therapy animal team through an organization such as Pet Partners.

Emotional Support Animals

Again, this category involves animals who benefit their owner, not others. These dogs may provide companionship, comfort, and a sense of security or emotional support, but unfortunately, this title isn’t legally recognized as a service dog. However, if a dog is taught a specific task that assists in aiding or relieving a person’s symptoms, then that dog could potentially be elevated to service status. Please note, there are laws under the Fair Housing Act and with regard to air travel that recognize emotional support animals, with special laws allowing them to be in certain places other dogs aren’t allowed.

Canine Good Citizen

This is a program developed by the American Kennel Club to help promote good manners for dogs, along with pet-parent responsibilities. It’s often the first step taken by those who want their dogs to become therapy dogs. Click here for an outline of this special 10-step program, along with a list of evaluators.

Companion Animal

This is a fancy name for a pet. My sidekick, Poncho, would be considered my companion animal.

Paw-lunteering: Paws and Reflect

Whether you want to visit schools, nursing homes or just spend time taking your pooch to public places, you’ll want to train and maintain her good manners — sit-stay, down-stay, greeting people politely, walking nicely on leash, coming when called, leaving things alone when asked and looking at you when you ask. You’ll also want to make sure she is comfortable around these types of settings. Sights, sounds, smells and situations can vary from place to place, so we encourage you to investigate and plan accordingly. Also, since each facility is different, you’ll want to contact the places you want to visit in order to find out what their policies are.

We hope this post helps turn your canine into an ulti-mutt paw-lunteer! Whether you’re providing comfort, companionship or education, everyone — including you, your dog and those you spend time with — will certainly appreciate your compassion and efforts.

Looking for helpful links to get you started? Head on over to our Inquisitive Canine Resources page for a list of pet-therapy and service animal organizations that can start you out on the right paw!

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and human-canine relationship coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt that knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and founder of The Inquisitive Canine. She and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Joan offers training and behavior consulting services both in person and online, dedicated to strengthening the human-canine bond. If you are feeling inquisitive and have dog training questions, email and click here for more training tips. The opinions expressed are her own.