Service Dog Law for Dog Trainers

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Service dogs are a source of great confusion, not only in the general public but among professionals whose work touches on them and similar animals. Dog trainers may be particularly interested in how the laws affect the training of current or potential service dogs. This article concludes by explaining the role of dog trainers and the relevant law, but that requires first explaining what a service dog is, the roles they play, and the challenges they face.

Common questions

  • What makes a dog a service dog?
  • What about emotional support animals, other service animals, psychiatric service dogs?
  • How does a service dog get certified?
  • What proof does a service dog owner need to carry?
  • What rules cover where service dogs can go?
  • What can I ask to figure out whether it’s really a service dog?

What Is A Service Dog?

“Service dog” is a term with slightly different meanings under different laws (and some laws use other terms to refer to what are generally called service dogs). This article is limited to United States federal laws, with some attention to state and local laws. Most people encounter service dogs in public places, where the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, applies. It says that a service dog is one that is individually trained to perform a task or work for a person with a disability, and such task or work relates to the disability. “Disability” in turn means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s life activities. Title III of the ADA generally applies to public places not under federal control, while Title I addresses employment and Title II deals with state and local government.

The ADA does not cover every place in the United States, nor every aspect of life. Air travel rights for people with disabilities come under the Air Carriers Access Act, or ACAA; their housing rights in most multi-dwelling units and homeowners’ associations are covered by the Fair Housing Act, or FHA; and their rights in most federal facilities and federally-funded programs are covered by the Rehabilitation Act. All of these are federal laws, with a consistent definition of “service dog.” State laws also may apply, and while they cannot restrict federally recognized rights, these laws can expand those rights or extend them in various ways. State laws may also use a broader definition of “disability” or “service dog.” For example, California law removes the word “substantially” from the definition of disability, thus broadening the scope of persons with disabilities, which means more people in that state may have service dogs.

Note that the definition of service dog given above focuses as much on the owner of the dog as on the dog itself. The dog must be (1) individually trained (2) to perform a task or work that is (3) related to the person’s disability. Because the disability can be any of a broad range of physical or mental impairments, the federal definition of “service dog” applies to not only seeing-eye/guide dogs for the visually impaired and signal dogs for the hearing impaired, but also to those that assist people with any other kind of disability that a trained dog can ameliorate. The trained work or task might be pulling a wheelchair, picking up dropped items, warning of an impending seizure, detecting a diabetic person’s insulin level by smelling breath, confirming there are no intruders in a room, or virtually anything else related to a disability. “Psychiatric” dogs are legitimate service animals and are not generally singled out for distinct treatment, except under the ACAA (an airline may ask for more evidence of the dog’s status).


Under the ADA, only dogs, and in some cases miniature horses, can be service animals. Until 2010 a service animal could be of any species, but that proved unworkable. There is, however, a similar category still open for other species: Emotional Support Animal, or ESA. These are animals whose presence or ordinary behavior helps a person with an emotional or psychiatric disability, but the animal is not a dog individually trained to perform a relevant task. It can be an untrained dog, or any other species with or without such training.

The protections of the ACAA and the FHA extend to owners of emotional support animals, but other federal laws do not apply to them. (A caveat: federal laws that prohibit discrimination against the disabled in employment can require employers to permit ESAs as an appropriate accommodation.) Owners of ESAs are therefore permitted to bring them on commercial airplanes (subject to carrier restrictions) and to live with them in any housing to which the FHA applies. The author does not know of any states that recognize ESAs or provide additional rights for their owners, but some cities or counties do, sometimes by a different name such as “support animals.”

Although this article does not consider “working dogs” such as guard animals, police or military K-9, or search-and-rescue teams, there is one other category similar to service dogs: therapy animals. These are animals of any species that work for their owner/handler for the benefit of other persons. Some are used by therapists to distract or focus their patients, or by volunteers who visit hospitals, homes for the elderly, airports, and other stressful settings. The term “therapy animal” is also not universal, and is sometimes mistakenly applied to ESAs. Therapy animals have no general legal protections, and their presence where pet animals are forbidden must be by permission of whoever controls the location. Many require the therapy team to have insurance; the largest U.S. provider of such coverage is Pet Partners, Inc.

What Must An Owner Do to Obtain Legal Service Dog Status?

Different measures are required in different situations to protect a service dog handler’s rights. When in public places – that is, those covered by the ADA – the owner need only be a person with a covered disability, with a dog trained to do work or perform a task related to the disability. No registration, certification, or documentation is required, and possession of any of these is not evidence that the dog is a legitimate service dog. Many commercial websites offer to sell different types of documents, tags, harnesses, et cetera, but none of these confer any special status under the ADA. Some service dog owners do prefer to put a “Service Dog Vest” on their dog to indicate it is working and should not be distracted by other people; in addition, many people who want to take their pet dog into places that forbid them use such vests to imply that the dog is legitimately permitted (and in fact, may not be excluded). So the presence of a vest, or of documentation, is not proof either way of whether a dog is a legitimate service dog.

In some other settings, such as air travel and housing, a service dog (or ESA) owner may be required to present documentation of medical need for the animal’s presence, provided on letterhead and dated in the past year, from a licensed healthcare provider who has the person under their care. A service dog must still have relevant training, as under the ADA. Again, there is no legal registry or database for either people with service dogs or ESAs, or their animals.

What Rights Are Associated with a Service Dog?

One common error lies in describing service dogs (or ESAs) as having rights under state or federal laws. Any rights recognized in those laws belong to the people who own such animals – or, in some cases, to those who train them.

Under the ADA and equivalent state laws, service dog owners may bring them to any place where the general public is entitled to go, as well as a few where the public can go only upon invitation, such as doctors’ private offices. The general principle is that persons with disabilities should be able to live as full a public life as anyone else, and to the extent that they must bring medical equipment with them to do so, that is permitted. From this standpoint, service dogs are functionally equivalent to wheelchairs or other devices needed for medical reasons.

Employees are permitted to have service dogs and ESAs at their workplace on a case-by-case basis under the same principles that govern other accommodations for persons with disabilities. The specific nature of the workplace and of the person’s work must be evaluated to determine whether the animal’s presence is reasonable.

Owners of service dogs and ESAs may fly with them on commercial airlines (under the ACAA) and live with them in most rental housing and residences subject to a home owner’s association, or HOA (under the FHA and equivalent state laws). Airlines require 48 hours’ advance notice, can limit the number of animals on any given flight, and may forbid certain species of ESA. The FHA permits landlords and HOAs to exclude animals on a case-by-case basis if they cannot reasonably be accommodated. Airlines, landlords, and HOAs can also contact healthcare providers to verify information provided by the owner.

The Rehabilitation Act applies the same principles as the ADA to federal property and programs run or funded by the federal government. It does not extend to every aspect of the government; notably, military bases, Congress, and federal courts are not covered, but the national parks are.

What Are the Legal Obligations of a Service Dog Owner?

Before allowing the entry of a service dog in a place where pet dogs are forbidden, the ADA allows whoever controls the location to ask two questions if the answer is not immediately apparent (e.g., a blind person with a guide dog in a harness): (1) Is this dog required because of a disability? (2) What work or task is the dog trained to do? They cannot require answers to other questions, such as the nature of the disability or how the dog was trained, or a demonstration of the dog performing its task. If the owner responds with a task that is not a trained behavior – for example, “licking my face to cheer me up” – it is appropriate to point out that this is a normal behavior of many dogs, not one specifically trained to address a need resulting from the person’s disability.

Service dogs must be on a leash unless this is inconsistent with either the person’s disability or the nature of the work the dog does. Similarly, they should stay on the ground – not in a grocery cart, or in a chair at the restaurant table – unless there is a specific reason otherwise. (For example, dogs trained to signal if their diabetic owner’s breath indicates the wrong insulin level are often carried in a harness on the owner’s chest so they can constantly monitor the breath.)

Service dogs must also be under their owner’s control at all times. If they behave improperly, a proprietor may require the owner to assert control, and either terminate or clean up after the behavior. The owner is always responsible for any problems or damage the dog causes, to the same extent that an owner of a pet dog would be held responsible. If the owner cannot control the dog, or refuses to do so, the proprietor may insist that the dog leave the premises. However, in such a circumstance the owner must be offered the opportunity to enjoy the premises’ usual goods or services, and whatever assistance is necessary. Again, if one considers the dog as a piece of medical equipment that is temporarily malfunctioning in a way that causes problems for other people, the logic becomes clear: the equipment, not the owner, is the problem, and even if the equipment cannot stay, the owner should still be treated in a way that minimizes the impact of his or her disability.

Service dog and ESA owners have similar responsibilities in the contexts of residence and air travel. If an animal is causing persistent problems, the owner is still entitled to a discussion of reasonable alternative ways to handle the situation, short of barring the animal altogether. It is the owner, however, who is responsible for remedying any actual harms that the animal causes, such as damage to walls or injury to other persons, to the same extent they would be held responsible if a pet animal caused such damage.

What Does All This Mean For Trainers?

For good or ill, federal law has nothing to say about service dogs that are not fully trained, except that owners may train their own dogs. Some states have specific laws to fill that gap. In California several laws extend to the trainers of service dogs the right to take them, for training purposes only, almost everywhere that a fully trained service dog can go. Consistent with other California laws, trainers of guide dogs for the blind or visually impaired are strictly defined, but regarding other types of service dogs they simply speak of “persons who are authorized to train” such dogs. Thus, trainers who work with actual or potential service dogs should familiarize themselves with the relevant laws in any states where they intend to conduct training. A list of online resources accompanies this article, but these may not be complete or entirely current, especially as increased attention to the topic of service dogs seems to be resulting in increased legislative activity at the state level.

More generally, service dogs meant to accompany their owners in public may need substantially more training than a pet dog, for several reasons. First, the dog needs to be focused on doing its job, which means it must be more resistant than usual to the sorts of temptations that distract most dogs. Second, service dogs are allowed to go many places where most dogs are forbidden. Some of these places may be particularly distracting to dogs, and some may be particularly hazardous to them, but none of them are places where dogs are routinely present and expected. All of those factors mean that dogs in those places need more self-control and ways to be out from underfoot. Third, much more than pet dogs, service dogs frequently need to deal with experiences outside their comfort zone, while once again remaining focused on their task.

All of these factors mean that a service dog requires, not just the skill-set and temperament to do its trained task(s), but the training, self-confidence, and trust in its handler needed to go out and about wherever the handler needs to go. Skilled dog trainers who have trained their own service dogs say it may take a few weeks to teach a new task to a high level, but 18 months is typical for the rest of the training. This time commitment, even more than a scarcity of skilled trainers, is why a fully trained service dog can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Finally, a note on HIPAA. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 imposes various requirements on people who, in the course of their professional work, come into possession of the confidential medical information of others. If you do consult with or train dogs for persons with disabilities, and you retain any written or electronic records regarding their medical conditions, look into both how you secure those records to ensure they cannot fall into the hands of third parties, and whether your written client agreements should be revised to include language on the retention and use of such information.

I hope this information is both interesting and useful, and I look forward to hearing comments and further questions. I can be reached at via my contact form.


[editor note:] This post slightly revises an article written for the Chronicle of the Dog, published by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.


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