Questions and Answers About Service Animals and the Law

U.S. law is specific on service dogs. Learn the answers to commonly asked questions about service animals in Part 6 of our special series.

Service animals cannot be refused entry to public places. By: Portland Afoot/Flickr
Service animals cannot be refused entry to public places. By: Portland Afoot/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This is part 6 of a 6-part series, “Fake Service Dogs, Real Problem.” (You can start at Part 1 here.)

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Service dogs can be the difference between life and death for someone with a disability. Pretending your pet is a service dog to avoid fees or keep your pet with you has the potential to damage the public perception of service dogs if they cause problems.

Service dogs are not pets. They are trained to be alert and on the job 24/7 unless told otherwise, and they take their jobs seriously. One bite from your faux service dog can make people skeptical or, worse, fearful of service dogs in general.

So where does the law come in? What are the boundaries or allowances when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? We’ll cover these questions and more in our look at service animals and the law in the United States.

According to the ADA, there are some (but few) regulations specifying what defines a service dog and what public entities can ask about the dog and the person.

ADA Regulations

What animals are eligible to be service animals?

As of the last revision on March 15, 2011, the law specifies that only dogs are currently recognized as service animals under titles II and III. There is a provision listed for miniature horses that are 24 to 34 inches in height and 70 to 100 pounds in weight. The miniature horse provision does list requirements for the horses.

Miniature horses used as service animals must:

  • Be housebroken
  • Be under the owner’s control
  • Not compromise the facility’s operations
  • Be able to be accommodated by the facility based on type, size and weight

Entities that serve the public are required to accommodate miniature horses as service animals based on the above provisions.

What makes a dog a service animal?

A dog is considered a service animal when it has been trained to perform work or a task that is directly related to a person’s disability. Dogs that provide comfort or emotional support do not quality as service animals under the ADA. Service dogs are not pets, and this is reiterated many times throughout the ADA’s directives.

My dog is trained to kiss me on command. Isn’t that enough to be a service animal, if she helps lift my mood when I’m feeling down?

Probably not. What you are describing fits the definition of an emotional support dog, and those are not protected under the federal law. To have a service animal under federal law, a person must be impaired by a disability. Service animals are trained to do something very specific that mitigates that disability.

My dog and I volunteer at the local nursing home. That makes her a service dog, right?

No. She is a therapy dog, not a service dog. So your pet is not entitled to any of the protections under the ADA law.

Where can service animals go, according to U.S. law?

Service animals must be allowed any place or area that the public is allowed. Areas that must remain sterile, such as operating rooms or restaurant kitchens, can exclude service animals since they are areas the public is not normally allowed to enter. This applies to state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public.

Does the service animal have to wear a vest or tag?

The animal is not required to have a vest or tag, but it must be leashed, harnessed or tethered unless such an item would interfere with the dog’s ability to perform the task or work to assist the disabled person. Even without these items, the dog must remain in the control of its owner by voice, signal or other effective commands.

Can I have more than one service animal?

There are no apparent restrictions on the number of service animals a person can have under the ADA or other resources. However, each service animal must be trained to perform work or a task directly related to the person’s disability.

Do I have to have “papers” for my service animal or myself?

Documentation certifying your service animal or your disability is not required to be carried or presented, and you cannot be asked for either as proof under the current law.

Can my service animal be placed in a bag or carrier?

The only law specifying the transportation of a service animal lists leashes, harnesses or a tether to control the animal. Airlines typically expect the animal to lie on the floor during a flight, but a carrier or bag filling the same space may be allowed.

In public places this may be an issue; if your dog is supposed to guide you or retrieve items for you, she won’t be able to do that when inside of a carrier. This may lead to the animal being denied entry since it clearly cannot perform work or tasks for you.

Do I have to reveal my disability if asked?

No, and the law prohibits anyone from asking you this question.

Can I train my own service dog?

Yes, you can train your own service dog. This can be a very challenging and long process to ensure the dog is trained correctly, and you may have to go through certification processes to confirm the dog is able to perform the work or tasks to assist you.

Public Entity Responsibilities

Entities that serve the public have requirements and restrictions when it comes to service animals and disabled persons. Some questions are acceptable, while others may land you in legal trouble.

My business serves the public. When the job of the service animal is not obvious, what can I ask?

You can ask only two questions according to the law:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What has the dog been trained to do?

You can’t ask for proof of the service animal’s certification or ask for medical documentation from the person. In fact, there are many questions you can’t ask:

  • What is your disability?
  • Do you have medical documentation for your disability?
  • Can I see the dog’s identification card?
  • Do you have proof the dog was trained or certified?
  • Can you have the dog demonstrate his work or task?

Someone in my business is allergic or scared of dogs. Can I remove the person and his animal, or move them to an area without customers?

Isolating the person with a service animal is against the law. He or she cannot be asked to leave because of another patron’s allergy or fear. If there are multiple public areas for use by customers, it might be feasible to move the patrons to different areas from each other. You are not allowed to treat the service animal’s owner any less favorably or charge higher fees than those charged to other customers.

I have always had a “no pets” policy. Do I have to allow service animals?

If your entity serves the public, you are required to allow service animals by law. You cannot refuse entry to a person with a service animal. Refusing entry or isolating a person with a service dog can not only result in legal issues, but also may result in you being arrested as seen in this video:

My local government lists only guide dogs as service animals that can be permitted in my business. Can I refuse entry to those who are not blind?

No, you cannot refuse entry to any person with a service animal regardless of what the state or local government lists. The ADA overrides state and local statutes.

I charge pet deposits or fees for anyone with an animal. Can I charge for a service animal?

Absolutely not. Service animals are exempt from customary fees that apply to other animals.

Can I charge for repairs if the service animal creates damages on my property?

If you normally charge customers for damages by their pets, you can charge a customer for the damages incurred by his or her service animal.

Do I have to allow service animals in my transportation service?

Yes. You cannot deny transportation to anyone with a service animal or charge higher fees because of the animal.

Do I have to provide food, water or restroom facilities for the service animal?

No. You are not required to provide anything for the animal. This is the responsibility of the owner/handler. If he or she does ask for assistance you should do what you can to help.

If the animal needs to relieve itself and the only area available is not accessible by the owner because of a disability, you may be asked to provide assistance to the dog.

What can I do if the dog exhibits aggressive or disruptive behavior?

Service dogs must work without threatening violence. Any service animal that poses a threat to the health and safety of others may be removed upon exhibiting such behavior. However, excluding breeds on the belief or previous experience that they are aggressive is not allowed.

If you do ask to have a service animal removed for this reason, you must also offer the owner/handler the option of remaining in the facility without the dog.

What can I do about a disruptive dog that isn’t aggressive?

Disturbing a normal business function can be grounds for removing a service animal, such as a dog continuously barking during a movie. The same applies for service animals that are not housebroken and relieve themselves in the premises.

How do I know if the dog is truly a service animal?

Since you can’t ask for documentation as proof, you can observe the animal’s behavior. If the animal appears to be wandering around, playing, jumping, barking or relieving itself, it’s possible this is not a service dog. Keep in mind that you can’t request removal of the animal unless it is disruptive to your business operations or poses a threat to the health and safety of others.

Be observant and understanding. The method of verifying the legitimacy of a service dog is severely lacking, but you also wouldn’t want to face legal issues in the event that you denied access to a trained service animal. Unfortunately, service animals are easy to fake, handlers can’t be asked for proof, and many certifications are purchased off the internet with no verification. Until new guidelines or requirements are added to the ADA that provide a way to confirm certifications, being accommodating is the best approach.

Interacting With a Person and His or Her Service Dog

It’s never a good idea to approach someone’s dog without their consent, and service animals are no exception. You shouldn’t approach or touch the animal without asking the owner first. Service animals are not guard dogs; they are working dogs that are on the job 24/7. Distractions or offerings of food or treats may not be welcomed.

Talk with the person, but don’t ask about his or her disability. While some people may freely discuss their disability, others may see it as an invasion of privacy (or just plain rude).

Another important point to remember: Just because someone looks okay on the outside doesn’t mean he or she has no disability. Many people with medical conditions and psychological disorders can appear just like you and me. We don’t notice them normally because we can’t see anything wrong with them.

Having a service animal puts a spotlight on people with disabilities; they are now publicly visible as being “disabled” in some way. While their dog may be a cherished form of support, they may be scared, insecure or shy about being in public or interacting with you. Treat them as you would anyone else, and feel free to strike up a conversation.

Traveling With a Service Dog

U.S. airlines can’t prevent your service animal from accompanying you on a flight. They may not be able to accommodate multiple service animals on one flight due to capacity and may move you to another flight, and it’s always a good idea to contact them before your flight to review their policies on service animals.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), airlines in the United States cannot refuse entry to someone with a service animal:

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has rules (14 CFR part 382) (PDF) that require airlines to allow passengers to fly with their service animals in the cabin on all U.S. airlines. Service animals are not pets. They are working animals that assist persons with disabilities. There is no limit to the number of service animals that can be on any flight. Service animals do not need any health certificates to travel and they do not need to be confined in a container or cage.

Airlines recommend providing identification cards or written documents that certify the service animal, but they may also allow access based on observations. As long as the dog doesn’t cause a disruption or pose a threat to others, it is unlikely to be rejected for boarding. Vests or tags on the animal are helpful but not required.

If the animal is too large to fit under your feet or in a carrier, the airline may require the animal to fly in the cargo hold (weather permitting). Some airlines will allow emotional support animals to fly in the cabin, and you should review the airline’s policy before flying to see if it applies to your animal.

If you’re flying to another country, there may be additional restrictions required by foreign governments and airports. Check with the airline and the destination’s government to know exactly what you need to prepare so your service dog is not rejected upon boarding.

Hotels can’t turn you away for having a service animal; nor can they charge you pet deposits. You will, however, be responsible for any damage caused by your service animal. If you require a low or bottom-level room, notify the hotel in advance. The law applies not just to hotels and airlines, but any establishment that is open to the public.

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Service animals provide an invaluable service to people with disabilities. It is sad to see people without disabilities taking advantage of the vague legal requirements and faking their service animals in an effort to bring their pets along when out on the town or traveling. I do hope the ADA tightens the requirements and considers the feasibility of introducing a registry of legitimate service animals to protect those who rely on them every day of their lives.

Free report on service dogsFree Report From Petful

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  1. “Service animals.” Americans with Disabilities Act. July 2011.
  2. “Understand new ADA service animal regulations.” Michael R. Masinter. Disability Compliance for Higher Education. October 2010.
  3. “Service animals: Frequently asked questions.” Northwest ADA Center. October 2010.
  4. “Special assistance.” JetBlue.
  5. “Pets in the passenger cabin.” Federal Aviation Administration. October 2009.

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, is an author, poet and pet lover from Louisiana. She is the author of the book One Unforgettable Journey, which was nominated for a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. In addition, she was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. Kristine has been researching and writing about pet behaviors and care for many years, with her articles appearing in various publications. She is the CEO of a large mental health practice in Louisiana and holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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