What is a service dog?

Service dogs are defined by the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (ADA) as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” In some instances, this can also include miniature horses. In order to qualify for a service dog, the person must have a physical or mental disability that affects one or more major life activities. Tasks are actions the dog takes that assist their handler in activities they struggle with or are unable to complete. Examples may include retrieving a low item for a handler with limited mobility, alerting a diabetic to unsafe levels of blood sugar, or guiding a handler with limited vision. Tasks must occur on cue (which could be verbal, action, environmental, scent) and directly mitigate the handler’s disability, so a person without mobility issues cannot use retrieving as a task. Service dogs do not have to be trained by a professional trainer. Owners have the right to train their own service dog, though it is recommended they seek professional guidance if they are not experienced with service dog training.

Service dog handlers have protected public access under the ADA. It is important to note that the animal does not have protected access, the handler does. While some states grant access to teams in training, the ADA only covers teams that are fully trained. Businesses may not refuse access or service to service dog teams based on breed of dog or disability. There are very limited times a business may exclude a service dog, such as if the dog is not under direct control or if the animal is not housetrained. If the service dog would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the business, they can refuse access to the team, such as an operating room at a hospital, as the environment must be biologically sterile.
While most service dog teams use gear such as harnesses or vests that identify them, the ADA states that businesses may not require these things. Businesses also may not ask for training logs, registration, certification, or the nature of disability. There are two questions a business may ask. The first is, “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” The second question is, “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” This is not about the disability, but the tasks the dog has been trained to perform. They do not have to say, “I am diabetic.” Instead, they could reply, “My dog is trained to alert me prior to the onset of my symptoms by (pawing, nose targeting, etc) so that I can take action.” The ADA also states that registration, ID cards, or certification is NOT proof that the dog is a service dog. These are often used by people to illegally gain access with pets.

Service dogs undergo training for manners and advanced obedience, task training, and public access. Dogs should be screened prior to being considered a Service Dog in Training (SDiT) to ensure they have the appropriate temperament, health, and structure for the job. Some dogs do not have the temperament to effectively perform their tasks in public but are able to perform them at home. Those dogs are often called, “at-home service dogs.”

As noted above, the only other species accepted as service animals are miniature horses that are task-trained as a dog would be. There are a few reasons one may choose a miniature horse, such as allergies to dogs or the size of the horse being better suited for mobility assistance. Service horses are trained to the same standard as service dogs. Dogs (or other animals) that only serve to comfort or provide emotional support are not service animals and not protected under the ADA.

Emotional Support Animals

The key difference between service dogs and emotional support animals is that emotional support animals’ (ESA) sole purpose is to provide comfort to the handler. Handlers of ESAs do not have protected public access with their ESA. As such, ESAs are not to be in public places where pets are not allowed, such as restaurants and grocery stores. ESAs are defined by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as “assistance animals” and “trained or untrained animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities.” While this definition is much broader than the ADA,, HUD does not apply to public places, only housing. ESA handlers may be required to present documentation from a treating physician or mental health professional that states the animal is part of a treatment plan for a mental or emotional disorder. While there are registrations, certifications, and ID cards for ESAs, they hold no legal value or protection. Some of these have phrases like, “Full access required,” but this is legally inaccurate. ESAs also have no training standards, so ESAs may have little to no training. Some ESA handlers choose to pursue training, but this is not required by law.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are not defined or protected by any government agency. The job of a therapy dog is to go to hospitals, schools, airports, etc. to visit people in those facilities. General standards for therapy dogs are calm temperament, enjoying going different places and meeting new people, and ability to adapt to changes in their environment with the support of their handler. Therapy dogs go through obedience/manners training to ensure they can work around distractions they may encounter. Organizations have tests the dogs must pass in order to be part of the organization.
Unlike service dogs and ESAs, therapy dogs are typically certified by their organization for insurance purposes. This does not grant any public or housing access to the team. They must have permission to enter the facilities they visit and may have to provide certification and shot records.

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