Service Dog Laws | Locals Laws and the ADA

By USSA

Service Dog Laws

Service dogs do wonderful things for their handlers. Disabled people that regularly need assistance with some tasks can dramatically increase their quality of life by having a service dog with them. It’s life-changing or many people.

Because service dogs are animals, there are a lot of questions about where you can go and what you can do if you have a dog with you. To help clear up the issues, we’ve outlined many of the main service dog laws that will apply to you as the handler and your dog. 

How the ADA Defines Service Animals

Only specific dogs can be labeled as service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as follows:

“A dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

This means service dogs have to be trained to perform a specific action on command or when the circumstances prompt them to do it. Examples of these kinds of tasks are signaling a deaf handler about unnoticed threats, alerting a diabetic that their blood sugar is irregular, or seeking out help for a handler who needs medical assistance.

Whatever task the dog is trained to perform, it will be oriented around a single person’s disability. As the dog’s handler, the person with the disability must have a real need for assistance in their everyday life. Service dogs are not trained to serve groups of people or strangers. They are exclusively trained for the needs of their handler.

There is no registration requirement or certification process for service dogs. The ADA states that any required registration or certification would be considered a form of discrimination. Service dogs don’t have to have any form of identification labeling them as a service animal.

Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs

Service dogs are differentiated from therapy dogs and emotional support animals. While these other supportive animals do provide valuable services, they don’t have the task-focused training that addresses the needs of a specific person. Because of extensive training, service dogs can perform essential tasks that their handlers are unable to do which are necessary in their everyday life.

If the dog’s main task is to simply be present for emotional support and comfort, they are not meeting the training requirement for service dogs. Some service dogs are specifically trained to help those with psychiatric conditions, including comfort. However, these dogs always have a particular task they’re trained to do for the person, such as anticipating an anxiety attack and acting in a way to lessen the impact of it.

Even though psychiatric service dogs can act in similar ways to emotional support animals and therapy dogs, they’re fundamentally different. A dog cannot be considered a service dog with legally protected rights unless it meets the task training requirement.

Locals Laws and the ADA

There are federal and state laws that apply to disabled handlers and their service dogs. Rights laid out by the ADA trump local laws in every case. Many states and counties have their own rules about animals in public places and businesses, but these do not apply to recognized service dogs.

Regardless of where you are in the USA, no local laws can override the rights laid out in the ADA. Service dogs and handlers may have additional rights granted by local laws, but they may not be discriminated against based on the disability or the presence of a service animal.

Laws that apply to dog welfare and health requirements usually have to be upheld by the handler. If a certain state requires all dogs to be registered and to receive specific vaccines, service dogs are not excluded from these laws. However, states and local counties may not require service dogs to be registered specifically as service animals. If a regulation applies to all dogs in the jurisdiction, then it also applies to service dogs, unless it creates a circumstance of discrimination.

One such case of laws that cannot be applied to service dogs is the case of breed bans. Some dog breeds are banned in certain local areas. This cannot be applied to service dogs, who can legally be any breed.

The only time a state or local area can take specific action against a service dog is if that specific dog has shown that it poses a safety threat to others. In this case, it’s not that the breed itself is harmful but the specific service dog in question must have committed some act that demonstrates it’s a threat.

Public Health Laws and Service Dogs

Some public health laws that are applied to all dogs will also apply to service dogs, such as prohibiting dogs inside public pools (the pool area is not prohibited, only the pool itself). However, the service dog must be able to accompany its handler into other public spaces with few limitations.

In some states, state laws actually grant more rights to the handler and service dog. This is permissible, as long as no registration, certification, or another form of discrimination is required for it to be applied.

Voluntary Registration

If a college, university, city, state, county, or other entity has a strictly voluntary service dog registration program, this is not illegal. The handler must have a choice to opt out of registering themselves or their dog for the program to be legal.

Some registration programs exist to help emergency workers, entity employees, and other relevant parties identify a service dog if times of crisis. While these may be helpful programs for a handler and dog, they’re not legally allowed to be mandatory for anyone under any circumstances. 

Rights Granted to Service Animals & Handlers

The ADA grants the most rights to service dogs and handlers nationwide. However, some supplementary laws also provide additional rights. These are the main rights given to service dogs and handlers:

Right to Enter Public Spaces

Any place the handler is allowed to enter, the service dog is allowed to accompany them. This is the main privilege granted to disabled handlers and their service dogs. Some exceptions exist, but it’s a general right that applies to public spaces and private places of business alike.

Your right to entry extends to places that normally wouldn’t allow dogs, including theaters, restaurants, public transit, and others. You should not be refused entry because of your service dog.

Beyond the right to enter and receive service as normal, you also cannot be charged an extra fee because of your service dog. Places that normally charge a pet fee for dogs are required to waive the fee for service animals. No extra charge can be placed on the handler because of their service dog, even if some things need to be adjusted to make reasonable accommodations for the handler and dog.

Handlers should receive normal service and should not be discriminated against because of their service dogs.

Housing Rights

Any housing run by federal or state governments is not legally allowed to discriminate against you in any way because of your service animal. You cannot be required to pay a pet fee for a service dog, nor can be you excluded from any specific housing because of them.

While the ADA does not cover private housing, other federal and state laws do. In most of the US, a handler and service dog have the same rights in private housing as they do in public housing in regards to discrimination.

Religious Organizations

The ADA does not give handlers the right to enter religious organizations with their service dog, but many state laws do. Pay attention to the state laws where you are or when you’re traveling in the country to see if they give you this right.

Religious organizations may still allow you to enter without a problem. However, in a state or local county where that right is not given by law, they could also refuse to allow the service dog to enter their facilities.

Air Travel Rights

While air travel domestically in the US is not explicitly allowed by the ADA, other laws have allowed handlers to take their service dogs on flights in the main cabin. These laws apply to the US only and don’t extend to international air travel. You may not be allowed to fly internationally with a service dog, depending on the airline and country of travel.

Possible Areas of Exclusion

There are places that service dogs are not allowed. If a service dog would fundamentally change the nature of the service being provided, they may be excluded from entering a business or public space.

One example of when this might happen could include a petting zoo area where animals may turn aggressive because of the presence of the service dog. Or, a service dog would not be allowed to enter the kitchen of a restaurant, though they would be allowed in the dining room area with the handler.

In situations where dog allergies are a problem, the facility itself is expected to make accommodations rather than the service dog’s handler. This happens most often in long-term use facilities such as college or boarding school dormitories. For these circumstances, the facility would likely be expected to pair only non-allergic dormmates with the handler.

Questions You Can Ask Service Dog Handlers

There are only two questions you’re legally allowed to ask handlers in regard to their service dogs.

  1. Is the animal required to help with a disability?
  2. What is the dog trained to do?

Further questions about the person’s disability, the dog’s certification or registration, the dog’s history, and otherwise are not permitted. You’re not allowed to ask a handler for anything that identifies the dog as a service animal, as there is no official registration or certification in existence.

It’s illegal to ask the handler to demonstrate the abilities or training of the dog, even if you don’t see the dog perform its task. The handler also does not have to produce any proof of the dog’s training, and you are not allowed to ask about it.

Working Dogs Vs. Pets

Distinctions are made for service dogs because they aren’t pets. They are considered working dogs, which is why they have rights that a pet dog wouldn’t. Because of this distinction, service dogs are not allowed to be considered as pets in establishments that normally make separate arrangements for people with pets.

In practice, this means that hotels, apartments, restaurants, supermarkets, public transit services, and other providers are not allowed to place extra fees or restrictions on people with service dogs. Any business that charges a fee for pets must waive that fee if the animal is a recognized service dog. 

Handler & Service Dog Laws

There are some expectations placed on the handler and their dog as well. While they do have rights, these are the main things that service dog laws say for handlers:

Keeping Control of the Dog

The ADA requires that the handler always keeps control of their service dog when in public spaces. For most service dogs, this means they should be wearing a leash, harness, or other restraint. But, if the restraint would affect the job the dog is trained to do, they don’t have to wear one. Instead, the handler must use voice, signal, and other commands to keep the dog under control.

If a service dog is not under control, it may be removed from areas that it would normally be allowed, but only if the lack of control is creating problems. Service dogs are highly trained, part of which includes training to remain calm and controlled in unpredictable, busy public spaces. If a service dog is creating problems in one of these areas and the handler is not in control of the dog, they may be asked to remove the dog from the facility.

A handler cannot leave a dog by itself in a business facility or public space, as that would mean the dog is not under the handler’s control. This applies in many different ways, such as preventing the handler from leaving the dog in a hotel room alone or leaving the dog at a table while they use the restroom.

Responsibility for Dog Care

The handler is solely responsible for the care of the service dog. Even when in a public place or when in a business facility, they must care for the dog themselves or make arrangements for them. No facility, business, or organization is expected to care for the dog’s needs.

In situations like medical emergencies, the medical staff must allow the handler to make arrangements for their dog. They may not immediately remove the dog from the hospital area for boarding and must let the handler or the handler’s family or friends have time to take care of it. If the dog is not interfering with the treatment of the patient, the dog should be allowed to stay in the room with the handler.

Food and beverage facilities may sometimes offer complimentary food or water to a service dog, but they’re not expected to by law. Facilities are also not expected to clean up after the dog if it makes a mess, or to take it outside to relieve itself. This is the handler’s responsibility, though some facilities may assist them if they choose to. 

While the ADA is the main law that governs the use and treatment of service animals, there are rights afforded to disabled people by many federal and state laws. Service dog laws give rights to handlers while also laying out their responsibilities in various situations.

If you or a loved one are considering getting a service dog, or if you already have one, it’s important to know your rights. Get familiar with the laws that surround service animal use and how they affect you.