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What is a Service Dog and What rights do their Handlers have in the United States?

This blog post will give a brief overview of the three different regulatory acts that define a Service Animal / Assistance Animal in places of public accommodation, housing areas and airline travel, and explain the civil rights and rules regulating those animals in each situation.

  1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the federal act that allows for the use of Service Animals in places of public accommodation where pet dogs are not typically allowed. Examples are shopping malls, restaurants and grocery stores, state or federal public housing, public or private universities.

  2. The right to have an Assistance Animal in housing falls under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

  3. Airlines are required to provide access to persons with disabilities and their trained Assistance dogs under the regulations in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The recent update was published in the Federal Register on September 15, 2010.

Why am I using the terms Service Animal and Assistance Animal? Well because the United States government likes to make things complicated and each of these acts uses different language. The ADA and ACAA both use the term Service Animal which includes Service Dogs but define it slightly differently, again confusing but I will explain the differences below. The FHA uses the term Assistance Animal which is a much broader term that encompasses Service Dogs.

A Service Animal as defined by the ADA

“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

A keyword in that definition is trained. Dogs (any breed) can be trained by an organization, an individual trainer or by the owner, but the task they perform cannot simply be a naturally occurring behavior. On occasion dogs naturally respond to a disability by a change in behavior. In these cases the dog's natural change in behavior can be shaped into a trained behavior which would then qualify the dog to serve as a Service Dog.

Another key aspect of this definition is “dog”. Service Animals are exclusively dogs with only one exception in the United States; miniature horses. There is a separate provision under the ADA that allows the use of miniature horses as service animals but there are special rules regarding miniature horses and what constitutes reasonable accommodation when using a miniature horse. This article focuses only on dogs as Service Animals so I will use the term Service Dog when appropriate.

So to qualify as a Service Animal a dog must be trained to perform a task/behavior that helps a disabled person mitigate their disability. Task training is the minimum requirement but there is also an expectation of good behavior in public. According to the ADA the dog must be under control of the handler at all times and must be housebroken. If the dog is not completely under the control of the handler, the handler may be asked to leave because access is no longer protected by the ADA. Examples of not being under control of the handler would be having an elimination accident, pulling (the exception being if a handler is being pulled/led as a trained task as the dog would when leading a blind handler or leading a person with PTSD out of a crowded area), barking excessively, growling or behaving aggressively, being far away from the handler like at the end of a long leash unless activity performing a task, or soliciting attention from other people or dogs in public. These are only examples and there are other situations where a dog could be deemed out of control.

The ADA does not apply to religious organizations, private homes/housing, or air travel. In cases where state and local laws differ from the ADA the least restrictive law/regulation is to be followed according to the ADA. For instance, Service Dogs in Training (SDIT) are NOT considered Service Dogs by the ADA and therefore their handlers or trainers are not afforded the right to be in places of public accommodation by the ADA. Some states however have enacted statutes that allow handlers and/or trainers to take SDIT into places that do not allow dogs. Since the state law is less restrictive than the federal ADA, the handler and or trainer would be able to have access with the SDIT. The language in the state statutes can vary widely however, and so it’s important to thoroughly read and understand the statutes for the state involved.

It is very important that you familiarize yourself with your local laws. This is a very helpful website provided by Michigan State University that provides links to each states’ statutes. (

Identifying a Service Animal in Public

There is no legal requirement for certification or registration for Service Animals in the United States. Many online companies are happy to take a person's money to provide paperwork that their dog is a Service Dog but this paperwork is a scam as it has no legal standing. Some programs or trainers provide a certificate of completed training and this is wonderful to have and be proud of but it is not required and does not guarantee access. Service Dogs are not required to be identified as a Service Dog with a cape, vest or any special markings on their leash or collar. Many Service Dog training organizations and individuals choose to vest their Service Dogs as this often reduces the questions handlers are asked and it can be a signal to the dog that they are working, but it is not required.

If a business and /or establishment is unsure if a dog is a Service Dog, they can legally only ask two questions:

  1. Is the dog a Service Animal required because of a disability?

  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Staff are prohibited from asking what the person’s disability is, for proof of training, registration or certification and they cannot ask the owner/handler to make the dog perform its trained task. If at any point the Service Dog is not under control of the handler the staff may direct the handler to remove the dog from the premises immediately.

A Service Animal as defined by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

According to the ACAA which regulates Service Animals for air travel, a Service Animal is defined exclusively as a dog (any breed) that performs a task to help mitigate the disability of a disabled person, Service Dogs must be under control of the handler at all times and behave in a non-aggressive manner. Two significant updates in the regulation (December 2020) are that Psychiatric Service Dogs are now considered Service Animals by the ACAA and in line with the ADA regulations emotional support dogs (dogs that provide comfort but have not been individually trained to perform a task for their disabled handler) are no longer eligible to fly in cabin, unless they are small enough to meet the airlines pet transport rules and the pet fare is paid in which case the dog may not leave the carrier for the duration of the flight.

Some additional rights, restrictions and regulations under the ACAA that Airlines are required to follow or in some cases are allowed to enforce:

  • Passengers may be required to fill out and submit the new U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form prior to travel.

  • Dogs must fit in the feet area of the passenger.

  • Dogs must be on leash at all times in the airport and on the flight.

  • The total number of Service Dogs per individual disabled handler can be limited to 2 dogs.

  • Disabled handlers may now utilize online check in procedures

  • Disabled handlers may submit the DOT Service Animal Form prior to travel online, if the airline requires it.

  • Service Dogs will not be charged a fee to accompany their disabled handler on the flight.

  • Dogs that are not under control of their handler will be deemed as pets and the airlines can charge pet fees and require the animal to be restrained in a crate throughout the flight or prevented from boarding a flight.

A Service Animal as defined by the Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The Fair Housing Act covers most housing but the Act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family houses sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent, and housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members. The FHA differs from the ADA and the ACAA in that it uses the term Assistance Animal vs. Service Animal. An Assistance Animal according to the FHA:

“An assistance animal is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability. An assistance animal is not a pet.”

The two big differences here are that Assistance Animals are not restricted to a dog and that providing emotional support is sufficient to qualify as an Assistance Animal but does not qualify dogs to be Service Animals under the ADA or ACAA. The FHA does however distinguish Service Dogs from Assistance Animals which is their broader term that Service Dogs fall under.

An brief overview of rules and rights provided by the FHA for Assistance Animals:

  • A disabled handler must request a reasonable accommodation from the housing provider for an Assistance Animal they will be living with.

  • Handlers must prove a need for the Assistance Animal if it is not obvious.

  • Handlers do not need to pay a pet deposit for an Assistance Animal.

  • Handlers may have an Assistance Animal at a property that has a no pet policy.

  • If housing providers can prove that allowing an assistance animal would cause undue financial burden, would affect the essential nature of the housing area or that the assistance animal would pose a threat to the health and safety of the property or other people then the request for reasonable accommodation can be denied.

Every Service Dog Handler or person considering getting a Service Dog should familiarize themselves with each of these acts, their rules, rights and regulations as well as the rules, rights and regulations in their state. The citations and links below provide access to each act in its entirety.

If you believe your life could benefit from a Service Dog, I provide private consultations and would be happy to discuss this option with you.


Service animals. (2020, February 24). Retrieved February 18, 2021, from,public%20are%20allowed%20to%20go.

Frequently asked questions about service animals and the ada. (2015, July 25). Retrieved February 18, 2021, from,the%20handler%20at%20all%20times.&text=The%20service%20animal%20must%20be,prevents%20use%20of%20these%20devices.

U.S. department of TRANSPORTATION ANNOUNCES final rule on traveling by air with service animals. (2020, December 2). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from

Assistance animals: / U.S. Department of housing and urban Development (HUD). (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2021, from

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