What’s The Law on Service Dogs?

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Here are some tips on what a service dog is, how to tell real service dogs from fakes, and how to interact with their owners.

The number of legitimate service dogs seen in public has risen sharply in recent years, but is at least matched by both fake service dog numbers and public confusion over what they are, how they are accommodated, and why it matters.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the ADA) is a federal law that governs most service-dog legal issues in the U.S. Regulations from federal agencies interpreting the ADA define a service animal as a dog (or miniature horse) that is individually trained to do work or a task for a person with a disability, if the task relates to the disability. (Under California law, “disability” means any mental or physical condition that makes it difficult to perform a major life function.) There are no clear legal standards for training service dogs, and people with disabilities can train their own service dogs. It often takes experienced professional trainers 18 to 24 months to train a service dog, with most of that time working on public behavior, not training specific tasks. A professionally trained service dog can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Just as there are no legal training standards for service dogs, there is no required registration or marking for them. Anyone can get a “service dog” vest or a “registration card” online, but these have no official significance. Many owners of real service dogs use them, however, to signal that the dog is working and should not be bothered, or to simplify getting the public access they are legally entitled to.

Owners of service dogs may bring them to most places where the general public can go, keep them in most housing, and take them on airplanes. The dog should stay on the ground and on a six-foot leash, if the owner’s disability permits this, and must be under the owner’s control at all times. A proprietor may exclude a service dog if its owner cannot or will not control it (and after discussing alternatives with the owner), but must offer to help the owner enjoy the establishment’s goods or services without the dog present. The dog’s owner is responsible for all aspects of its care.

In California, handlers of service dogs in training (SDiTs) have many of the same rights as those of fully trained service dogs. SDiTs can be taken to the same public places as fully trained service dogs, though only for training purposes, and must wear an Assistance Dog ID Tag (which dog-licensing agencies throughout the state are required to issue). Fully trained service dogs can also wear that tag, but are not required to do so.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are another type of animal whose owners have special legal rights. They can be of any species, and their presence helps a person with an emotional or psychiatric disability. ESAs are allowed on commercial airplanes and in housing that is subject to the federal Fair Housing Act, but their owners have no special public access rights. San Francisco and some other cities also have ESA ordinances, but they are narrow in scope.

Therapy animals are another similar class of animals, but their owners have no additional legal rights. They can be of any species, help people other than the handler, and may be owned by therapists, family-court lawyers, humane educators, or volunteers in hospitals or retirement homes.

If you have specific legal questions, consult an attorney with experience in disability law or animal law. The author can also provide additional suggestions for further research.

[editor note] This post is a slight revision of an article about service dogs, written for the general public, that appeared in The Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin.


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