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Frequently Asked Questions - Laws

The answer to this question may be more complicated than you expect. First, there are different definitions of disability in different federal laws. The definition for Social Security Disability Income is not the same as that in the Americans with Disabilities Act (which determines whether you qualify to use a service dog in public places where dogs are not generally permitted). It is possible for an individual to qualify for SSDI and not qualify for a service dog and vice versa. You must evaluate your situation separately for each context.

The definition of disability under the ADA is a legal, not medical, definition. Since a lawyer generally can't diagnose medical conditions and a doctor generally can't interpret the law, you may get stuck somewhere in the middle trying to figure it all out.

We've made a flow chart that incorporates the elements of the definition of disability contained within the ADA to try to help you sort through this question systematically.

You may want to review the legal definition as written by Congress for yourself, or review the entire Americans with Disabilities Act which includes some additional fine points you may notice in our flow chart in other sections.

Ultimately, what we recommend is that you take the flow chart or the written definition with you and discuss it with any doctor who is treating you or has treated you for your disability to get his opinion and to have his opinion entered into your permanent medical records.

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Flowchart to help determine if you qualify for a service dog176.76 KB

YES. While businesses are generally permitted only to ask whether the dog is a service animal required because of disability and what the animal has been trained to do, there are instances when more extensive proof can be required.

If you file a complaint about discrimination, proof of disability and proof of training will be required. If you appear in court and you claim to be disabled and claim your dog is a service dog as part of the case you are involved in, then you will have to provide proof that your claims are true. A court will not simply take your word for it.

If you are arrested for trespass for bringing an animal into a place where pets are not permitted, your affirmative defense may be that the animal in question is a service dog, but again, you will have to prove that is the case.

Proof may include:
Medical records from any medical providers treating you for your disability or for aspects of your disability.
SSDI determination.
SD certification from a recognized/accredited program.
Training logs if owner-trained.
Independent evaluation of your dog's training by a qualified trainer.
Certificates attesting to training and temperament, such a training class completion certificates, an obedience title or certificate, a CGC certificate, etc.
Video demonstrations of the dog's training.
In person demonstrations of the dog's training.

See also: http://www.adagreatlakes.org/Publications/Legal_Briefs/BriefNo015Service...

On July 23, 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder signed final regulations revising the Department’s ADA regulations, including a revised definition of “service animal.” This final rule was published in the Federal Register September 15, 2010, and the effective date is six months after that publication (March 15, 2011).

Read more about the changes here:
http://servicedogcentral.org/content/node/297

The Codes of Federal Regulation for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 state,

"Service animal means any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling awheelchair, or fetching dropped items."

This definition is currently under review. The U.S. Department of Justice issued a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" indicating the Department's intent to modify this definition to read:

"Service animal means any dog or other common domestic animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, fetching items, assisting an individual during a seizure, retrieving medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and assisting individuals, including those with cognitive disabilities, with navigation. The term service animal includes individually trained animals that do work or perform tasks for the benefit of individuals with disabilities, including psychiatric, cognitive, and mental disabilities. The term service animal does not include wild animals (including nonhuman primates born in captivity), reptiles, rabbits, farm animals (including any breed of horse, miniature horse, pony, pig, or goat), ferrets, amphibians, and rodents. Animals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or to promote emotional well-being are not service animals."

As of July 2009, this change has not been made officially and has not gone into effect.
Some other laws, especially some state laws, may use a different legal definition of "service animal." Consult a qualified attorney to learn which law and which definition apply in your specific situation.

There are several qualifications to having a service dog.

1. You must be disabled. Under ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; OR (2) has a record of such an impairment; OR (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

2. Your dog must be very good with basic obedience and be able to pass a Canine Good Citizen test or similar.

3. Your must be able to pass a Public Access Test (PAT) to show that they can behave in public and not bark at skateboards, vacuum up the floor, etc. These are available at www.iaadp.org and other service dog websites. They can be administered by a dog trainer (more qualified) or by a friend(less qualified).

4. Very important-your dog must be specially task-trained to mitigate your disability. A list of tasks can be found at www.iaadp.org but it is not an exhaustive list. Giving comfort and kisses are not tasks, these are natural things dogs do. Tasks may include guiding the blind, alerting the deaf to noises, mobility work, alerting to blood sugar drops, picking up items, pulling a wheelchair, alerting to panic attacks and many more.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "The term service animal includes individually trained animals that do work or perform tasks for the benefit of individuals with disabilities, including psychiatric, cognitive, and mental disabilities." However, "[a]nimals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or to promote emotional well-being are not service animals."

So yes, there are service animals for people with mental disabilities but like all other types of service dog they must be trained to perform tasks in order to qualify as service animals.

Remember that just having a mental illness doesn't make a person disabled. An impairment such as mental illness must substantially limit a person's ability to function in order to be considered a disability.

According to Service Dog Central, "It is not enough to have a mental illness to qualify as a person with a disability under the ADA. According to the NIMH, 26.2% of adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental illness in any given year, but only 6% are severely mentally ill. So more than three quarters of those with a diagnosed mental illness are not disabled by that illness and would not qualify to use a service animal even if they would benefit from one."

No. The Americans with Disabilities Act applies to state and municipal courts, but not to federal courts. Each federal court judge may decide whether to permit a service animal to enter his or her court.

U.S. federal law recognizes an animal as a service animal once it is trained to perform tasks that mitigate the disability of a disabled owner, without regard for how that animal got trained. It is therefore possible to train a service dog without a license. However, in some states only licensed trainers from recognized programs are afforded the same public access rights as people with disabilities with fully trained service dogs. Consult your state's Attorney General for information on whether private trainers have public access rights for training. If not, you may only train in facilities that have given you permission.

In the U.S., yes, but in most other countries, no. Regardless of who trains the dog he must be correctly trained. Few pet owners would have the level of skill required to produce a true working dog.

A service dog must receive adequate training in three areas: obedience, tasks, and public access. He should be reliable in obeying commands at least 90% of the time on the first command.

He should sit, down, come, stay, and heel properly. Dogs must show manners including:
no aggression
no inappropriate barking
no biting
no snapping/growling
no inappropriate jumping on strangers
no begging
no inappropriate sniffing of people.

Many people don't understand what proper heeling is, and it's actually the hardest thing to train a dog to do properly. It doesn't mean pulling a dog around on a leash. It means the dog knows where he is supposed to be relative to the person and maintains that position with a loose leash, or with no leash at all. Typically this position is next to the handler's left leg, with the dog's ear at about level with the leg and without varying more than 24 inches in any direction from that position regardless of how the handler moves (starting, stopping, turning, stepping back, etc.).

By legal definition, he must be trained to perform tasks which mitigate his handler's disability. In order to mitigate the disability, these tasks must be something the handler cannot do because of his disability. For example, opening doors for a person unable to use her hands. Any dog, no matter how well trained, who does not perform tasks that mitigate his disabled owner's disability, is not a service dog. Note that the owner must be legally disabled. That means they have an impairment that substantially limits their ability to function in things considered to be of central importance to people's lives, like seeing, hearing, thinking, walking, and using their hands.

Finally, the dog's training must be proofed and generalized so that he continues to work reliably, obeying commands on the first command at least 90% of the time when working in distracting environments, such as stores or restaurants. Proofing (distraction training) is actually the bulk of service dog training and it starts at home and at the dog training facility with distractions like food, toys and noises. Once the proofing is solid the dog is taken to various venues for generalization, or learning to apply what he has learned in different locations.

The ADA does not give public access rights to trainers. That means that unless your state gives public access rights to trainers and also recognizes private trainers or owner-trainers (as opposed to trainers for recognized programs), then you must ask permission of a store or restaurant before entering with a service-dog-in-training. See link below for information on state laws concerning service animals.

Minimum Standards for Service Dogs
IAADP Minimum Standards for Public Access
Minimum Standards for Training Service Dogs

A psychiatric service animal is individually trained to perform tasks that the owner cannot perform because of a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Psychiatric service animals, like all other service animals, assist their disabled handlers by performing these tasks. However, while the owner of an emotional support dog must also be disabled, the emotional support dog is not trained to perform tasks to mitigate the owner's disability.

Therapy animals are sometimes confused with psychiatric service animals or emotional support animals. However, therapy animals are something entirely different. A therapy animal is one that is trained, tested, registered, and insured to visit people in hospitals and nursing homes. A person with a therapy animal has no particular right under the ADA to take their animal anywhere pets are not permitted. If the owner wishes to visit a facility like a hospital or nursing home, they must first seek out and receive the permission of administrators at the facility they wish to visit.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, which regulates and enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
"The Department is proposing new regulatory text in § 36.104 to formalize its position on emotional support or comfort animals, which is that ''[a]nimals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or promote emotional wellbeing are not service animals.'' The Department wishes to underscore that the exclusion of emotional support animals from ADA coverage does not mean that persons with psychiatric, cognitive, or mental disabilities cannot use service animals. The Department proposes specific regulatory text in § 35.104 to make this clear: ''[t]he term service animal includes individually trained animals that do work or perform tasks for the benefit of individuals with disabilities, including psychiatric, cognitive, and mental disabilities.'' This language simply clarifies the Department's longstanding position."
The ADA gives the disabled owner of a service dog the right to be accompanied by his or her service dog to most places where the public are permitted, even if dogs are not generally allowed. However, the owner of an emotional support dog has no particular right to public access and must ask permission of the management to enter with an emotional support animal.
Under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, a qualified person with a disability may request a reasonable accommodation in the form of a modification of rules against the keeping of pets in order to keep EITHER a service animal or an emotional support animal.
Under the Air Carrier Access Act, a qualified person with a disability may be accompanied in the cabin of an air craft by either a psychiatric service dog or an emotional support animal if they have the proper documentation from their doctor.

Check that country's Consular Information Sheet to find contact information of who to ask for that specific country. You can also check Service Dog Central. See links below.

Service Dog Central's collection of international assistance dog laws
Consular Information Sheets
Service Dog Central's information on international travel with a service or assistance animal

Service animals are those which are individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate the disability of a disabled owner. If the owner is not disabled or the dog is not trained to mitigate the owner's disability, then the dog is not a service dog. Additionally, animals with attack training can be barred from any facility that bans weapons, concealed or otherwise.

Certification means that the dog has been tested and shown to meet certain minimum standards.

Most countries only recognize service animals from approved programs. In those countries the programs certify their own dogs.

There are no standards or procedures for certifying a service animal under U.S. federal law. Certification is not required as a condition of using an animal as a service animal. However, the person using the animal must meet the legal (not medical) definition of "disability" and their dog must be individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate the owner's disability. They must also have sufficient training to behave appropriately in public (no barking, making unwanted contact with other members of the public, or disrupting business by misbehaving). Service animals who pose a direct threat to others by growling, lunging, or otherwise menacing people can be barred from public access.

Fake certification is for sale over the Internet. You can check whether a certificate is from a legitimate service dog program or a scam business selling fake certification by doing a Google search on the name of the certifying agency. If it's a scam, it will be apparent from a quick review of their website because they will sell their certification to anyone for a fee without ever actually training or evaluating the dog themselves. These organizations prey on the disabled, selling them something they don't need for $40-$250 that they could produce at a copy center for under $5 (if they did need it, which they don't). They are a haven for pet owners wanting an easy way get a pet into motels, on planes, or to take Fifi shopping on a lark. These businesses do a great disservice to real service dog teams by bluffing business owners into accepting ill-behaved pets as trained service animals and by taking money out of the pockets of the disabled themselves. These fakers in turn diminish the reputation of real teams by behaving inappropriately.

Real service animals don't need certification. A business may verify an animal is a service animal by asking whether it is required because of the person's disability and what the dog is trained to do to mitigate that disability. They may ask this regardless of whether a dog is "certified," and an owner who refuses to answer can be barred from the facility.


A license is something that all dogs are required to have. Individual states, counties or cities may provide licenses in accordance with their own laws or ordinances. Service animals are not exempt from any licensing requirements of local authorities. If dogs residing inside the city limits are required to wear a city license tag, then this also applies to service dogs. In some states, counties, or cities, special service animal licenses are available in lieu of a regular dog tag, but they cannot be required as a condition of access. Some localities also waive the licensing fees for service animals, but this varies.


Service animal registration is a scam. It is a for profit business. It's purpose is to make money at the expense of gullible people with disabilities and those who just want it easier to break laws. Registration means nothing because the dog is never evaluated, never even seen by the agency issuing the registration. It's just a piece of paper that any idiot can buy for between $40 and $250 dollars and that could just as easily be printed on a home computer for a few cents. Registration scams exist primarily to help pet owners pass off their pets as service animals so they can get them on airplanes, into motels, and into stores with them. Real service animals don't need this kind of registration.

It depends on what you mean by "work." If you mean specific behaviors or a set of specific behaviors, that the dog is trained to perform that mitigate your disability, such as guiding, then the dog may be a service dog.

Unfortunately, some people look for loopholes to excuse them from actually having to qualify either as disabled or as having a trained service dog. They try to convince themselves that the training requirement doesn't apply if the dog does something that benefits them, such as getting them out of the house for exercise. However, wishing something doesn't make it so.

The ADA generally applies to the public areas of schools. There are exceptions, including schools owned by religious entities that do not receive federal funding.

Public areas of schools generally include administrative offices, the gymnasium during a public sporting event, the auditorium during a public exhibition, or the cafeteria during a public fund raising pancake supper. The class rooms themselves are generally not considered public areas of the school and therefore would not be covered under Title III of the ADA.

If a parent wishes his or her child to attend public school with a service animal, the first step would be to add the service animal to the child's IEP (Individual Education Plan), under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). If the school is not willing to permit the service animal, the parent(s) can appeal to the Department of Education.

Official IDEA site
reference to guide dog
Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Complaints against public schools should be addressed first to the local school district and then to the state department of education.

Colleges and universities (and other postsecondary education institutions such as vocational-technical schools) operate with considerable autonomy and with some state supervision. Therefore, you should start by contacting your state department of higher education to find out how they can help you resolve your problem.

How to File a Discrimination Complaint with the Office for Civil Rights

Title I of the ADA applies to the workplace. It's not exactly the same as Title III which applies to public accommodations in that access is not necessarily automatic. You may have to provide your employer with proof of your disability and need for a service animal in the form of a letter from your treating physician. Other state and federal laws may also apply in some instances.

Additional Reading:

A Guide for Restaurants and Other Food Service Employers
Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Issues involving employment and service animals should be directed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

To find the EEOC office near you, check the EEOC web site at http://www.eeoc.gov/offices.html.
You also can call the EEOC at 1-800-669-4000/1-800-669-6820 (TTY).

You can find these items with a simple internet search, but before you do, consider this:

Special gear like harnesses, vests or capes, or special ID or notes from doctors do not make a dog a service dog. Trying to pass off a dog that isn't actually trained as a service dog and actually working for a person with a disability or faking a disability is illegal and may result in prosecution, fines, jail time and/or loss of future benefits.

The U.S. Department of Justice defines disability in the Codes of Federal Regulations:

"Disability means, with respect to an individual, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment."

The "third prong" is "being regarded as having such an impairment."

The premise is that even if a person isn't disabled, if they can convince others to think they are, perhaps by telling them so and using a service dog, then that makes the disabled under the ADA and they actually do qualify for a service dog. Yes, it's circular logic and not actually true.

Several courts have ruled that a service dog must be individually trained to perform tasks that mitigate the disability of their handler. Without an actual disability, there is no disability to mitigate, and no tasks that can be trained that mitigate the non-existing disability. Without trained tasks that mitigate the disability, the dog is not a service dog.

The ADA wasn't meant to create a privileged class that has rights over and above those of other citizens. On the contrary: it was created in an attempt to give those with fewer rights than other citizens a leg up to a more equitable existence. A blind person who uses a guide dog is using that dog to compensate for his lack of sight. A guide dog is a poor substitute for actually being able to see, but it is one of the better compensations available. Legitimately disabled people would gladly retire their service dogs to pet status in exchange for being able to do for themselves the simple things in life that everyone else takes for granted.

People mean-spirited enough to dig for a ridiculous loop hole like this one deserve every legal consequence of impersonating a person with a disability in order to gain rights or benefits not due them. Fortunately, there are laws in place to punish such people with fines, prison terms, and/or loss of future benefits (such as Medicare, Social Security Benefits, Food Stamps, etc.).