ADA Service Dog Laws: Basic Requirements and Restrictions 

Published June 7, 2022
service dog with disabled person

Service dogs are specially trained to assist people with disabilities. Due to their extensive training, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that service dogs have all the public access rights that a person with a disability has. This includes the right to live in "no pets" apartments, visit restaurants, and take public transportation.

How the ADA Protects Service Dogs

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination and allows them to access public places without being turned away. Service dogs fall under ADA protection, as long as they meet the criteria for service dogs. A dog's training must meet the legal requirements of each country they are allowed in. In the United States, most dogs have formal training through one of three organizations: Assistance Dogs International (ADI), Dogs for the Deaf Inc., or Therapy Dogs International (TDI).

Advocates for the disabled say that service dogs are essential for many people who have mobility problems or mental illness, allowing them to live independently and travel more freely. While other countries like France have laws similar to those in the U.S., Canada does not have legislation concerning guide or assistance animals.

What Is a Service Dog, Exactly?

The ADA defines "service animals" as dogs who are, "trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities." Service dogs may help people with physical disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, mobility impairments, and cerebral palsy. They also help people with psychiatric disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, and depression.

One of the most iconic tasks service dogs perform is to act as guides for people who are blind or visually impaired. These dogs are trained to help owners navigate safely, and address obstacles such as curbs and stairs, and reliably cross streets. These dogs are literally life-changing companions for their owners.

However, this isn't all service dogs do for their humans. Psychiatric service dogs help veterans cope with posttraumatic stress disorder. These dogs help their owners cope with depression, alert them to pending panic attacks, and even call for helps or emergency services. Some service dogs are trained to detect an oncoming seizure before it happens, giving their human partner time to take medication or prepare for an attack. Because these are classified as legitimate medical necessities, psychiatric service dogs have the same access and protections all service dogs enjoy.

Locations Service Dogs are Permitted

Service dogs are allowed anywhere their owners can go. They must be allowed in all public locations, including hospitals and doctor's offices, where members of the public are allowed to enter. Service dogs may be excluded from a few facilities by law if they are too large or pose a safety risk to other patrons or employees, such as inside hospital operating rooms, where public access may be restricted.

However, in most cases, denying access to service dogs is against the law. For example, service dogs that assist people with hearing impairments can not be excluded from public places because they are not "seeing eye" animals and do not wear collars identifying them as service animals. The ADA states that any public institution, including government buildings, businesses, and nonprofit organizations, must allow service animals to accompany their owners anywhere in the facility accessible to the general public.

The ADA is not the only legal authority governing service animal access, where service animals can live, and what their owners are allowed to do to accommodate their service dogs. Depending on where you live, your state may have additional laws about what kinds of modifications you can make to adapt spaces for your dog's use when it is not readily apparent that they are a working animal.

Service dogs can be taken anywhere their owners go, including to work. The ADA makes it illegal for employers and businesses to discriminate against service animals, which includes refusing access to service dogs in the workplace. This means you can take your dog with you on an airplane or train without paying extra fees, and you don't need to ask permission from a flight attendant before sitting down with your dog.

Requirements for Service Dogs Under the ADA

Access for service dogs is protected by the ADA, but this doesn't mean owners may not face restrictions on how their dogs behave, or how they are handled. There are two conditions under which a service dog may be denied entry, or may be asked to leave after entry. According to ADA rules, service dogs must be under control at all times. Also, your dog must also be potty trained.

In practical terms, this means your service dog must be kept leashed, harnessed, or tethered in some way while enjoying public access. The ADA recognizes that this requirement is not always reasonable, however, and stipulates that service dogs do not have to be leashed or harnessed if it prevents these dogs from safely and effectively performing their tasks.

For example, if a person's disability prevents them from safely tethering or otherwise restraining their dog, they may keep their dog off-leash. In this case, the owner is still required to maintain control over the dog through verbal command or some other signaling system.

This is why service dogs are so highly trained. They must be able to navigate public spaces, keep their owners safe, and assist their owners to live more fulfilling lives, all while showing exemplary discipline and consideration. Social situations can test service dogs, and their right to access comes with the owner's responsibility to maintain control at all times.

Entering Publicly Accessible Businesses

In general, public places include businesses such as restaurants, stores, and hotels (as long as they meet certain criteria). This means that if you work at one of these places or are just visiting, you can bring your service animal. People with service dogs cannot be asked to leave a public place that has a "no pet" policy.

The news has been filled with reports of dog owners trying to pass off their pets as service animals. Disputes around the differences between a service dog and an emotional support dog have led to many jurisdictions, including California, to restrict access for emotional support animals. Business owners are understandably confused about how to determine whether a dog is fulfilling a legitimate purpose for a disabled person.

The ADA puts specific restrictions on what business owners, operators, and staff are allowed to ask if they are unsure about a service animal's access rights under the law. When a service dog's status is not obvious to business operators, they can only ask two specific questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What service or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Anything beyond these questions is prohibited. Employees and business owners are not allowed to ask what a person's disability is, require medical proof of the disability, or request proof the dog can perform a particular task. Service dog owners are not required to provide any documentation, dress their dogs in identifying apparel, or otherwise present documentation proving their claim of disability.

Denying Access to Service Dogs

Businesses and public institutions cannot turn service dogs away or deny services, except under specific circumstances. Businesses that serve food to the public must grant access to dog owners and their service animals, even if this would otherwise violate health and safety codes. Businesses -- as well as government facilities and nonprofits -- cannot exclude or segregate service dogs or their owners, single them out for special treatment, treat them poorly, or charge extra fees for access.

The business must wave any fees normally applied to other pets. Even if other patrons or staff are allergic to dogs, the ADA requires businesses to try to accommodate both parties. This means they must give service dogs unrestricted access, and offer those with allergies seating, rooms, or other areas away from service animals.

Under ADA rules, there are only two circumstances in which staff may ask an owner to remove a service dog:

  • If the dog is out of control, and the owner doesn't take corrective action to bring the dog back under control
  • If the dog is not potty trained

Even if one of these conditions is met and a disable person is asked to remove their dog from the premises, the business must offer service to the disabled person after the dog has been removed. However, owners are still liable for any damages their dog may cause, and employees or staff are not responsible for watching or providing care for service dogs.

Renting a House or Apartment

The Fair Housing Act requires landlords to allow tenants to keep service animals in rental properties unless the landlord has a legitimate reason for denying entry. Landlords and property managers cannot deny renters who have service dogs.

As a renter, you cannot be charged pet fees (even if the property normally charges a fee to keep pets) or asked for a security deposit for your pet. Landlords may ask for an explanation of how your service dog helps you, but they can't refuse to rent to you if you have one. They also cannot make you keep your dog on a leash at all times when in common areas, such as the lobby and hallways, or force service dogs into crates outside of their apartment when no one is home.

In general, landlords are not allowed to ask any questions about what type of disability a person has, who trained the dog, or how long the person has had their service animal. They can only ask if the animal is required due to injury or illness and what tasks they perform for them.

Airlines

Airlines are required to accommodate service dogs on flights. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to accommodate service dogs on flights. If you have a service dog and you want to bring them with you on your flight, the airline must allow it unless there are safety concerns or other extenuating circumstances.

Of course, there are some restrictions on where your service dog can travel. Airlines can deny access if:

  • A service dog is too large to safely travel in the cabin
  • The dog poses a direct threat to the safety of other passengers
  • the dog is not under control, or causes a significant disruption before or after boarding
  • Transporting the dog would violate health requirements, such as if a dog is barred from entering a specific U.S. territory or foreign country

The most important factor is if your dog can fit under the seat in front of you. Dogs -- even service dogs -- are not allowed to block isles or exits, because of concern for other passengers' safety. This means that if you're flying coach or business class, this will likely be an issue, but not necessarily a problem. You may be able to request an upgrade at no extra charge by talking directly with an airline representative at check-in or when making reservations, and by letting them know ahead of time.

If this isn't possible due to cost or other factors such as advance booking window limits during peak times, such as around Christmas, consider reserving two seats rather than one so that both parties can sit together without having their legs constantly kicked by strangers' feet during takeoff or landing maneuvers, and have space enough between each seat so that even large breeds like Labradors can stretch out comfortably across both rows without disturbing anyone else's seating arrangements.

Emotional Support Animals

If you have an emotional support animal (ESA), you don't qualify for ADA protections, but you might have other rights under housing laws. An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development defines an ESA as any animal that provides emotional comfort, well-being, or companionship to an individual with a mental disability.

Emotional support animals have no legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they do enjoy some rights under housing laws. If you have an ESA and are unsure whether it qualifies as "support" or "companion," check with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Bring Your Service Dog

Unlike emotional support animals, service dogs are protected under U.S. federal law and have the right to accompany their handlers in all public places. Service dogs are different from therapy dogs, who visit people in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. While service dogs are legally permitted to access any public space, many people are confused about service dogs. As a responsible owner, maintain your rights, but also understand your responsibilities under the ADA as you enjoy public access with your service dog.

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ADA Service Dog Laws: Basic Requirements and Restrictions