Can Small Dogs Be Service Dogs?

Girl holding chihuahua

Small dogs often get a bad rap as being yappy little dogs that cannot be trained, but that reputation isn’t necessarily warranted. People often wonder if those small dogs can be taught to perform essential jobs such as assisting humans as service dogs. We are going to look at the possibility of this and what you need to know if you want your small dog to become a service dog.

Service dogs are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Although some of these jobs require the dog to be a substantial size, not all of them do! With proper training, your small dog may be able to be a service dog.

While a small dog may not be able to assist their owner as a mobility assistance dog or a seeing-eye dog, they have proven themselves invaluable to their disabled owners in other vital ways. In this article, we will explore the different service jobs a small dog can provide as well as the benefits and disadvantages of having a petite service dog.

Benefits of a Small Service Dog versus a Large Service Dog

  1. They require less physical space when out in public. The American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for any breed or size of dog to become a service dog (with proper training) and therefore be allowed to accompany their owners in all public areas as well as live with the owner, even if pets are not allowed. However, businesses are not required to provide more space for your service dog than they provide for everyone else. That means your service dog will have to fit underneath the airplane seat or restaurant table without interfering with the rest of the patrons. People manage to place their Labradors and German Shepherds underneath airline seats and tables all of the time. Still, it is impossible to overlook the benefit of a small dog in this situation. Not only is it easier for you if you don’t have to share that small space with a large dog, but it is also more comfortable for the dog to have a bit of room to stretch out.
  2. They take up less space at home. Just like out in public, a small dog takes up less room around the house. That can make them much better suited for apartment living. 
  3. They are easier to exercise. That falls under a disadvantage too in a way, due them possibly getting tired quicker if they are required to walk long distances. Even after a long day working for their owner, dogs still need to run at least a little bit, and that is much easier to do in a confined area (such as an apartment) with a small dog.
  4. They are less conspicuous in public. If you are the kind of person that does not want a lot of attention when you are out and about, a smaller dog is much less likely to be immediately noticed in places like restaurants and airports.
  5. They are often better for senior citizens or frail people. Especially if the dog is trained to paw at or jump up to alert their owner of an impending seizure or a change in blood sugar, a small dog is a much safer option. Should the dog need to be picked up (in case of a medical problem with the dog or an unsafe situation arising), a smaller breed will be easier for a weaker person to manage.
  6. They are less expensive to care for. Small dogs eat less than large dogs, and therefore the feeding expense is lower. Small dog gear (crates, vests, beds, collars, etc.) are usually cheaper than the same items in a larger size. Another place you are likely to spend less money on a small dog versus a large dog is at the veterinarian. Surgery pricing is often size related, as more anesthesia is required for larger breeds.

Disadvantages of a Small Service Dog versus a Large Service Dog

  1. They are not physically able to do some of the service dog jobs. While working, seeing-eye dogs and mobility assistance dogs must be large enough to offer physical support to their owners. A small dog is not going to be able to do that safely.
  2. Some people do not believe small dogs can be service dogs. With the increasing number of people attempting to pass off their pets as service dogs (which is against the law in many states and unethical in all cases), you may run into more people accusing you of having a fake service dog. Larger breeds have typically done jobs performed by service dogs. For instance, guide dogs have been around since the early 1900s, but diabetic alert dogs were not used until the early 2000s. Because of this, people are just not as used to seeing small dogs performing service tasks.
  3. It may be harder to find service dog gear in the correct size. Although smaller dog equipment is usually less expensive, it is often more difficult to find.
  4. They may not be able to walk as far as a large dog. If you need your service dog to walk long distances, especially at a fast pace, your small dog might have difficulty keeping up. A little dog must take many more steps than a big dog to complete the same distance. That could result in your dog getting tired more quickly.

What Type Service Dogs Jobs Can a Small Dog Perform?

Hearing Assistance Dogs

Hearing assistance dogs are trained to alert their deaf or hard of hearing owners to sound they would otherwise miss. These dogs are often trained to jump on or touch their owners when they hear the doorbell, the telephone, or a knock at the door; they then lead their owners to the source of the sound. Hearing dogs are also taught to wake their owners and alert them to the sound of a fire alarm.  

Smaller breeds often excel at this service dog job! Since most hearing assistance dogs are taught to alert their owner by a touch, a little dog is often preferred for this job. Several organizations still utilize traditional breeds such as Labrador and Golden Retrievers. Yet, many more are using shelter dogs and non-traditional service dog breeds like Cocker Spaniels and Miniature Poodles as well as terrier mixes.

A hearing assistance dog needs to be friendly, attentive to their owner, intelligent, and have an intense working drive like all service dogs. However, due to the nature of the work, higher energy dogs are often chosen for this job. A mobility dog needs to be calm while performing tasks; however, a hearing dog is encouraged to show more excitement when alerting their owner to make sure the owner can understand the alert.  

Most of a hearing dog’s job is done in the home, but some dogs can be taught to alert to someone calling their owner’s name out in public. The dog’s natural alertness is also a signal to the owner if someone is approaching them, although there should never be any aggression toward that approach. 

Untreated hearing loss often leads to isolation and loneliness. Hearing assistance dogs are an excellent way to avoid this. 

Not only does the dog alert its owner to sounds they would have otherwise missed, but it also gives them a sense of security knowing they will receive natural cues from the dog to auditory changes in their environment.  

A small breed hearing assistance dog is a perfect remedy for an older person, especially if they are living in an apartment, to offer companionship as well as alert them to sounds they may have otherwise missed.  

Diabetic Alert Dog

Diabetic alert dogs are trained to alert their owners to changes in their blood sugar before they become dangerous. With proper training, a dog can detect both hypoglycemic (low) and hyperglycemic (high) events. This alert allows their owner to take the appropriate action (such as using their blood glucose meter to determine if insulin or an increase in glucose is needed) before advancing into dangerous levels. Trained diabetic alert dogs will even wake their owners at night if their levels change.

This job, although still done a lot of the time by medium to large dogs, can be performed by small breeds. Some people prefer to have a smaller dog for this since the alert often involves pawing or jumping on the owner to alert them.

It is unclear whether dogs detect the changes in blood sugar by smelling it through their owner’s breath or noticing minor behavioral changes before the owner realizes they are doing them. If they do determine the changes by smelling it on their breath, it could be beneficial to have a smaller dog that can jump onto its owner’s lap to get closer to their face.

Seizure Response or Seizure Alert Dog

A seizure response dog is trained to respond to a seizure its owner is experiencing by protecting them through the seizure. That could be done by alerting family members or sounding an alarm, both of which can be done by a small dog. Other seizure response dogs are trained to lie next to or over a person having a seizure to protect them from injury during the seizure. That task would require a dog of significant size, and would not be an appropriate job for a small dog.  

A seizure alert dog is one that alerts its owner before the seizure occurs. Any size of dog can perform this task. Unfortunately, it is difficult, if not impossible, to train a dog to do this if they do not show a natural ability to notice oncoming seizures. If you are lucky enough to have a dog that recognizes seizures before they happen, that behavior can be encouraged with positive reinforcement. 

However, if there is no natural tendency to do this, it is nearly impossible to train because we are not sure what cues the dog is receiving prior to the seizure.

Cardiac Alert Dog

A cardiac alert dog is similar to a seizure alert dog in that they let their owners know of a problem before it happens so the owner can take the necessary precautions. With a cardiac alert dog, they alert their owner to an increase or decrease in heart rate or blood pressure. That allows the owner to sit down before fainting, or to request necessary help before losing consciousness.

Chihuahua with man in hospital

A large dog is not required for this job. Some people actually prefer a small dog that can be carried or sit on their lap to detect heart rate changes better. It has not been scientifically proven how dogs detect the changes. It is assumed that it could be something they smell, or they may be able to hear the rate change. In any case, this is also incredibly difficult to train a dog to do if they do not have a natural ability for it. Once the dog shows a natural ability, it can be shaped into an alert to the owner and reinforced positively with food or toy rewards.

Psychiatric Service Dog

A psychiatric service dog (PSD) is a dog that assists someone with a psychiatric impairment or mental disorder. Some of these impairments can include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

A dog can be a great comfort to a person suffering from a psychiatric impairment, but offering comfort and support alone does not make the dog a service dog. They must be trained to do specific tasks that directly assist the owner with their disability.

A small dog can do many of the tasks that PSDs do! These tasks vary greatly from situation to situation. They can include such things as reminding their owner to take medication at a specific time of day, alerting other family members or nearby people that their owner needs help, or leading a person to safety when they are disoriented. 

Another task that even a small dog can be taught to do is to clear a room. That means the dog goes into a room, checks around, and then returns to the owner if there is nobody in the room; if someone is in the room, they will alert the owner. This task is often used by people experiencing PTSD.  

Hallucination discernment is another task that can be performed by a small dog. If a person believes they are hearing voices or seeing things that are not there, it can be reassuring to have a service dog trained to let them know about changes in their environment. The owner can look to the dog to tell if the voices are just in their head or if they are real, and the dog is hearing them as well. Waking their owner up from nightmares is another common PSD task, as is interrupting repetitive behaviors associated with OCD.

Physical Assistance Dog

Keep in mind; a physical assistance dog is different from a mobility assistance dog. A mobility assistance dog helps its owner to be more mobile. They often do this by helping their owner maintain stability by offering them something to hold on to. They can also assist their owner in getting up from the ground or a chair. A small dog is unable to perform tasks such as these.  

Physical assistance dogs assist their owners by performing everyday tasks that may be difficult for them to do because of their physical disability. A small dog can do many of these tasks! Some of these include retrieving dropped objects, opening drawers or cupboards, turning on and off lights (so long as the switches are within the small dog’s reach), tugging on clothing (such as socks) to help remove it, and placing in and removing clothing from a dryer.

Peek is a Papillon who does chores for his owner Debi who’s in a wheelchair.

What Qualities Must a Small Service Dog Have?

More important than the size of a service dog is the temperament of the dog. Service dogs must be intelligent and possess a strong working drive. While they must have enough energy to perform necessary tasks whenever needed, they cannot be too hyper and should have a calm demeanor.  

It is also imperative that service dogs of any size be friendly (but not overly friendly) and have no possessive or aggressive tendencies. They should be exceptionally focused on and bonded to their handler, but they cannot be possessive of their handler or overly protective. Should the owner require outside assistance from another human being, the dog must allow this without any interference.  

The task of clearing a room should only be to alert the owner to someone’s presence, NOT to protect the owner from the other person. A service dog should never be protection trained and should never be allowed to show any aggression toward a person or other animal. An excellent service dog is non-reactive to things they encounter while doing their job and able to remain focused and attentive to their owner and the job at hand.

Although there are a few service dog jobs that require a medium or large dog, there are many assistance jobs appropriate for small breeds. As long as the dog has the right temperament and personality for the job, receives the proper training, and is not put in any danger, a small dog can make a great service dog!

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