Service Dog Laws: Know Your Rights When You Own A Service Dog

Reading Service Dogs laws
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Whether you’re at the grocery store or the mall, you’ve probably seen those dogs wearing special vests that indicate they’re service animals. These animals were first seen helping to guide blind people in their surroundings in order to help them get from point A to point B without any accidents, retrieve certain items for them, and generally improve the quality of their owners’ lives.

What not a lot of people know is that service dog laws had to be put into place in order for these animals to be admitted into certain areas they otherwise wouldn’t belong. This was mostly because stores had the right to prevent access to whoever they wanted without having to give any reason. After all, who wants a dog in a grocery store?

However, this led to a period of discrimination that made it next to impossible for disabled persons to take care of their day-to-day necessities, such as getting food, buying clothes, and going to the bank, for example. So what exactly do these service dog laws entail, and if you have a service animal, how does the law protect your rights?

The Difference Between Service Animal and Companion Animal

Firstly, there is an important distinction between a service animal and a companion animal. They may seem like the same thing, as they provide the same services, but they are not the same thing at all.

Service Animal with a woman

A service dog or animal falls into a specific set of categories and fulfills different functions, depending on the status of their disabled owner. For instance:

  • Service dog: provides assistance to a person who has impairment with mobility. They provide assistance with maintaining balance and stability, helping to pull a wheelchair, or retrieving items for example.
  • Dog guide: these animals are strictly for the blind or the visually impaired. They aid in navigation and alert their owners to specific dangers, such as moving cars or other fast-moving obstacles.
  • Hearing dog: for people who are deaf or hearing impaired- the dog alerts them to certain sounds (such as the timer on a microwave or a doorbell) and the presence of other people nearby.
  • Alert/response dog: such an animal serves the purpose of alerting their owner prior to the onset of a certain medical condition, such as a seizure.
  • Psychiatric service dog: provides aid to a person who is suffering from some kind of cognitive or neurological condition.
  • SSigDOG: this stands for «sensory signal» or «social signal» dog, and is a dog that has been trained to assist a person with autism. The dog provides an alert as a distraction from repetitive movements so that the handler/owner will stop.
  • Seizure response dogs: seizures are incredibly serious, and these dogs are trained differently depending on the individual person’s needs. He may stand guard over the person while they have a seizure, or he could have been trained to look for help. Some dogs can even sense when a seizure is going to occur and warns the person beforehand so that they can move to a safe place or assume a safer position.

As you can see, the title of «service animal» covers a wide range of topics, but what they are not is a companion animal. These are what are called «therapy dogs», who provide emotional support to their owners and are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The line for this can be extremely blurry, given that all of the kinds of dogs listed above do provide some amount of comfort and support to their owners. However, there are clear delineations between these two in the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A service dog requires training from a professional to perform any of the tasks that are necessary to the handler’s specific disability. They must be able to perform these tasks without fail, in spite of the distractions or other activities that are taking place around the animal. They must behave flawlessly in public.

Companion dog helping

A companion dog, on the other hand, does not require any training whatsoever, and is usually the pet of a therapist or belongs to a psychiatric program (such as those in a hospital) that provide comfort and emotional support. They are not required to be on their best behavior in public and, as such, are no different from family pets. However, they are protected under the Fair Housing Act but are not allowed into public places under the label of «service dogs.»

Because of these differences, there are different laws for each one, detailing what kind of protection they fall under, and what rights their owners have. Keep in mind that the laws stated below are federal laws, and state laws are allowed to define these categories more broadly and provide more rights, so it’s important to check these laws in your area of residence.

The Rules Governing Service Dogs

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, any business, non-profit organization, or state/local government building that provides services to the public must allow entry to service animals who are accompanying individuals with disabilities, as long as entry is into areas where the public is allowed to go. For example, in a hospital, a person with disabilities must be given access along with their service dog to cafeterias, patient rooms, and clinics, but they are not allowed into operating rooms or burn units.

Rules of Governing Service Dogs

In order to gain access, the service dog must be leashed, tethered or harnessed. This is not required in specific circumstances where such devices would hinder the service dog doing his work or the individual’s disability prevents the use of such devices. In these instances, the individual must be able to maintain control of the animal through voice commands or signals.

It may not be visible at first what kind of service an animal is providing to their handler/owner, so in such cases, a staff member of the building is allowed to ask two questions:

  1. is the service animal required because of a disability, and
  2. what work/task has the dog been trained to perform

Other questions including what disability the person has, requiring documentation of the disability, training documentation of the dog, or asking the dog to demonstrate the tasks he has learned are not permissible. Once inside, staff is not allowed to isolate the person with disabilities and his service dog from the other patrons of the building. Complaints of fear and/or allergies are common, but they are insufficient to deny access to the premises.

However, in the event that their service animal does cause damage to the premises, the handler/owner of the service animal can be charged for damages if it is customary to charge any guest who causes damages, such as at a hotel.

Service dog in public

There are two instances in which a person with disabilities and his service dog can be asked to leaves the premises:

  1. the dog is out of control and the handler/owner does not have sufficient control over them, and
  2. the dog is not housebroken

In either event, staff members must offer the person with disabilities the opportunity to obtain goods and/or services without the animal’s presence. Lastly, staff members are not required to provide any amount of care or food to a service dog.

There is no specific set of companion dog laws in their own article of legislation. However, they are discussed in other specific areas of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Service/Companion Dogs and Employment

Businesses are prohibited from discriminating against employees or potential employees with disabilities. They are required to provide reasonable accommodations, which includes allowing access to their service or companion dogs.

In the event that the disability is not clear, employers may require documentation to establish the existence of a disability and how the presence of the animal will improve the performance of his or her job. This can include the tasks the dog knows that would help the individual in their work and how the dog is trained to behave.

Service Dogs and Employment

The owner/handler may even suggest to their employer to permit the animal on a trial basis to demonstrate their behavior in the workplace. In the case of either a support dog or companion dog, they can be excluded from the workplace if their presence poses an undue hardship or is a direct threat to the workplace.

Service/Companion Dogs and Housing

Instead of the ADA, it’s the Fair Housing Act that protects a person with disabilities from discrimination in finding suitable housing. A landlord or homeowner’s association must provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities so that they have the opportunities to have access and enjoy the use of their dwelling. Such an accommodation can include the waiving of a no-pet policy or pet deposit that may already be in place on the rental property or home.

Individuals with disabilities, however, are still required to meet the other standards set by the landlord or housing association, such as creditworthiness and providing good rental references.

Documentation may be required by the landlord to show the existence of a disability, as well as the need for the animal to assist them in their daily life, and how they actually provide assistance. However, this documentation is not required in instances where the ADA applies.

Companion Dogs and Housing rules

Companion dogs are not considered service animals under the ADA, but may still qualify under the FHA and be granted access.

The FHA does have exemptions, such as for landlords who live in a building with up to four units or who own up to three single-family homes. In these instances, they are not required to comply with the FHA if they do not use a licensed real estate agent to lease their rentals.

Landlords are also not required to adhere to the ADA or the FHA if waiving their no-pets policies would result in financial or administrative burdens. However, it is very unlikely that a court would ever rule in favor of landlords in this regard due to the small number of tenants with disabilities who qualify for rental properties.

Service/Companion Dogs and Education

From kindergarten to 12th grade, students with disabilities are permitted to bring their service dogs with them to school. The Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act allow students to bring animals that don’t meet the criteria of «service animals» as defined in the ADA if the animal is necessary for the student to receive free education.

Companion animals are rarely allowed to attend school with students, but they can be given access as determined by the Individual Education Plan or Section 504 team on a case-by-case basis.

Companion Dogs and Education

In colleges and universities, access must be given to students’ service dogs in all areas of the facility that are open to the public and to students. They are not required to ask for any documentation about the training of the service dog, but they may ask for proof of vaccination. There is no specific legislation in regards to companion dogs.

Service/Companion Dogs and Transportation

In using public or private transport, such as the bus or a taxi cab, a person with disabilities traveling with a service dog cannot be denied access, even when there is a no-pets policy in place. Individuals traveling with their service dogs cannot also be forced to sit in a particular spot and there can be no charging of additional fees. There is no legislation in regards to companion animals.

Service/Companion Dogs and Air Travel

The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow both service dogs and companion dogs to accompany their handlers within the cabin of the aircraft. There are different requirements for each kind of dog, however.

Service Dogs and Air Travel tips

Service dogs: airlines may be allowed to ask for identification cards, any necessary documentation, or the presence of harnesses, tags or leashes. When it is unclear that the dog is a service dog, airline staff is allowed to ask three questions:

  1. what tasks does the dog perform for you?
  2. what has the dog been trained to do for you?
  3. would you describe how the animal performs this task for you?

Companion dogs: in this instance, the owners/handlers of these types of dogs may be required to contact their airlines ahead of time to find out what documentation is required, as it may be asked of them to establish the presence of some disability and the reason their companion dog is traveling with them. There are six criteria that this documentation should meet in order for the companion dog to be allowed to travel with them:

  1. must not be more than one year old,
  2. documentation must be on the letterhead of a licensed mental health professional,
  3. documentation must state that the passenger has a mental health-related disability as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders,
  4. the presence of the companion animal is necessary to the passenger’s mental health/treatment,
  5. the person providing the assessment of the passenger is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under their professional care, and
  6. the date and type of license belonging to the mental health professional, as well as the state/jurisdiction in which the license was issued

Service Dogs in Training

Service dogs in training are treated much differently from full-fledged service dogs, as they haven’t completed the entirety of their training and haven’t received certification. For this reason, they do not fall under the same protection as service dogs.

In regards to air travel, they are now allowed in the cabin of an aircraft, but the policies of an airline may vary. Some airlines may allow qualified trainers to bring these dogs onto an aircraft for the purposes of training. However, permission must be obtained beforehand.

Service Dogs in training

For employment, employers may be required to allow employees to bring their service dogs in training to the workplace as a reasonable accommodation, especially if the dog is being trained how to provide aid to the employee in regard to his work-related tasks. Such a dog can be excluded in the workplace, however, if his presence causes a disruption or places undue hardship on the workplace.

In public places and facilities, service dogs in training are not protected under the ADA, but individual states can set their own laws in providing access to these animals.

The distinction between service dogs and companion dogs, as demonstrated above, is an important one and can mean definitely make the difference in having access to certain public areas, facilities, and services.

The laws on these are quite strict for the purpose of ensuring that individuals with disabilities are not treated unfairly. However, with such laws in place, there are always people who will abuse them for their own gains, just to have their dogs with them when they go out in public.

Because their dogs aren’t trained to behave properly, they set a bad example for those who do follow the rules and make it more difficult for them to bring their qualified dogs with them in public. Thankfully, there are staff members in facilities who are made aware of what to look for in service and companion dogs, and are free to have these kinds of people removed from the establishments.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.