A service dog and its handler have a deep connection. Service Dogs make it possible for people with disabilities to function better in the world. They keep people safe and, depending on a person’s disability, can mean the difference between life and death.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) governs Service Dog use nationally and clearly states the laws about Service Dogs. Despite the ADA laws regarding Service Dogs, many people and organizations are not familiar with the ADA laws, which can sometimes make it challenging for Service Dog handlers. Restaurants, hotels and airports are typically better informed about Service Dog laws. However, places like the beach, movie theaters and schools, may be less informed about Service Dog rights.
It’s important to note that the ADA covers Service Dogs—dogs that have been trained to perform a specific task or function to assist a person with a disability—not emotional support animals, which are not specifically trained, but provide a calming presence. (Want to help give access to a Service Dog to someone in need?)
Where are service dogs allowed?
Service Dogs, under the ADA, must be allowed to accompany their handlers in all areas of any facility where the public is allowed. There are exceptions, such as excluding a Service Dog from a hospital operating room where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment. A Service Dog must be under the control of its handler and harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless the individual’s disability prevents using these devices or these devices interfere with the service animal's safe, effective performance of tasks. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.
Exceptions to the law
There are some institutions that do not have to comply with ADA laws that allow Service Dogs and specific requirements in places that do:
- Churches and other religious areas (your state or city might have specific laws that do require religious institutions to allow service animals).
- Federal agencies like the VA.
- Shopping carts (you can bring your animal in any store, but they must remain on the floor and must walk or be in your personal wheelchair).
- Restaurant chairs (your animal may be in the restaurant with you, but they cannot sit at a chair and they cannot eat food off of the table).
- Swimming pools (your service animal can be on the deck or in any area surrounding the pool, but they cannot swim with you. If you are in distress, the animal will have ADA protection to jump in the pool and save you).
- Airplanes (airlines have a variety of rules for service animals flying. While the ADA does not protect animals on airlines, most airlines have policies to allow service dogs).
Answers to common questions:
Are people allowed to ask why I need a service dog?
No one is ever allowed to ask you specifically about your disability. They may only ask you two questions regarding your Service Dog.
1) Is that a Service Dog (if you choose not to have your SD wear a vest)
2) What service(s) does your Service Dog provide? (They may not ask you to demonstrate your dog’s service)
Do I need a Service Dog vest?
No. A Service Dog does not legally have to wear a vest. Some people choose not to have their Service Dog wear a vest because it is uncomfortable for the dog and distracts them from performing their task. Others choose not to have their Service Dog wear a vest because they are not comfortable with broadcasting that they have a disability. Not all disabilities are visible, and no one should be judged for trying to improve their lives. If someone demands that your dog wears a Service Dog vest, inform them that the ADA does not require that your Service Dog wear a vest and even specifically prevents companies from requiring this.
Do I need a Service Dog license, and do I have to carry it with me?
No. There is no requirement to get a certification for your dog to be a Service Dog, however, you must still register, vaccinate and license your dog unrelated to the service it performs.
If you experience discrimination, take a deep breath.
Challenges may occur because people and organizations are not educated about the law as it pertains to Service Dogs. If you’re experiencing discrimination, you have several options:
- Don’t look for a fight. Stay calm.
- Ask for a manager.
- Educate the person and give them a copy of the law.
- It’s rarely necessary but you can also file an ADA complaint online with the Department of Justice.
Providing support to raise and train assistance dogs can change the life of a person living with a disability. It can mean the difference between a life of dependency, living in isolation and being independent and self-sufficient. Your financial contribution or commitment as a volunteer can create miracles!