The federal, state, and city regulations about service dogs.
This page attempts to summarize all the various laws and regulations, but please note that we are not lawyers, and it is always best to consult a lawyer to get the most accurate information and interpretations. The American Veterinary Medical Association has also put out a draft 16-page "white paper" that goes into more detail.
There are a lot of guidelines and rules about service dogs, so I’m going to start by making some broad generalizations and then get into the complexities, exceptions, and shades of gray.
Note that some of these items are actual laws (generally federal laws) but others are just our guidelines and recommendations. Note, too, that I am not a lawyer, but rather, the following is my understanding of the applicable laws and regulations.
While service dogs are allowed in most places, the law says they aren’t allowed to block an aisle or go up onto seats. We also recommend that handlers don’t take their dogs to swimming pools because of possible cleanliness issues, to live performances because of the dog’s potential to disturb others, or to movies because the noise level and tight quarters are challenging for the dogs.
Note that using a passing off a pet as a service dog not only goes against the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, but is also a state crime in 20 states (such as the Minnesota's law, H.F. 3157, effective 8/1/2018).
1 - The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the main law governing Service Dogs, except on airplanes because “the Air Carrier Access Act is the Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities in air travel”. If you need the exact wording of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is here and the official memo describing the law is here.
The Americans with Disabilities Act says that a Service Dog must be trained specifically for a person with a disability. That means it can’t just be a general-purpose assistance dog, but rather it must be trained specifically for one person. The person who is getting the dog must have a disability that rises to a level that the Americans with Disabilities Act considers a disability.
The dog must be trained to do a “task.” The term is not strictly defined, but three of the most clear-cut tasks are helping lead a person who is blind across the street, alerting a person with severe diabetes that their blood sugar has dropped dangerously low, or picking up items for someone with limited mobility.
There are no limits to the size or breed of dog that may be used as a Service Dog. However, one may not have a service cat or any other animal (except for miniature horses).
If you live in the United States and have a disability, you benefit from the forward-thinking Americans with Disabilities Act. Most countries, unfortunately, do not have such broad protections. many only legally recognize service dogs for people who are blind. There are a few, however, who legally recognize alert dogs (for diabetes and epilepsy), mobility dogs (for pulling wheelchairs, picking up dropped items, turning on/off lights), and signal dogs (for the deaf), but very few recognize service dogs for autism or psychiatric disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The rest of the law says (generally) that a Service Dog must be well behaved and must be leashed. Other requirements are that the dog is in control and that the dog is housebroken. These two points might seem obvious, but when you get into the issue of fake Service Dogs, these two elements can be helpful in demonstrating the difference between a real Service Dog and a fake one.
The law goes into where the dog and handler can go, which is defined as "where the public is normally allowed to go".
The law also goes into what a staff person can ask about the dog, which are two questions - one is to confirm that the dog is required because of a disability, and the other is to ask what task the dog performs.
The topic of Service Dogs in training is not mentioned in the Americans with Disabilities Act, but some states do have laws about this topic. Minnesota, for instance, passed a law in 2015 (256C.02 Public Accommodations), which states, "Any person training a dog to be a service dog shall have the right to be accompanied by a service dog... The service dog must be capable of being properly identified as from a recognized school for seeing eye, hearing ear, service, or guide dogs." The term "recognized school" can be interpreted being registered with the Secretary of State as a local nonprofit.
2 - Fair Housing Amendments Act
Here are the federal memos defining the statutes about housing and service dogs, written in 2004, 2011, 2013, but basically, this housing law applies to renters, and it affirms that landlords have “obligations to make reasonable accommodations for assistance animals”. In layman’s terms, this law affirms that someone with a disability can keep their Service Dog with them in a rented house or apartment, even if the landlord doesn’t allow pets there.
3 - Air Carrier Access Act
Note: If you are traveling with a service dog, call the airline ahead of time so that they can put a note on your boarding pass that you're traveling with your service dog. This step will make flying much easier. In other words, don't just show up with your service dog, tell the airline ahead of time.
A third federal law addresses airlines, and this law has very different wording. It applies to two groups of people: those with disabilities who have a “Service Animal,” and those without disabilities who have an “Emotional Support Animal”.
- Service Animal (i.e. Service Dogs).
- Emotional Support Animals: As defined by the Air Carriers Access Act, an “Emotional Support Animal” is “...an animal used for emotional support (which need not have specific training for that function)”. In other words, anybody can have an Emotional Support Animal; all they require is a recent note from their doctor (written within the last year) saying that they need one. Then they can fly with the animal at their feet for free, instead of paying extra money to have the animal transported in the cargo hold. Someone traveling with an Emotional Support Animal must provide the letter from their doctor before they can fly. A weird fact about the airlines’ definition of “Emotional Support Animals” is that these animals don’t have to be dogs. Whereas by law a “Service Animal” has to be a dog (or a miniature horse, oddly enough), there are no such restrictions about what can serve as an Emotional Support Animal on airlines. The Department of Transportation even uses the phrase “cats, monkeys, etc.” in the aforementioned “Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation.” This loophole is why someone bringing a cat or a pig or a chicken (or even a dog) on board an airplane as an Emotional Support Animal occasionally makes the news. And because there are no rules regarding the training of these animals, people sometimes get confused and think they are poorly trained “Service Animals.”
Note: The United States Department of Transportation has a strange sentence on their website: "Documentation may be required of passengers needing to travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal." I am not a lawyer, but I personally think this sentence might have been written incorrectly (it shouldn't include "psychiatric service animal" since the Americans with Disabilities Act covers all service dogs). Note that the airlines I have flown with have not asked me what kind of service dog I was flying with.
What about service-dogs-in-training? The answer depends upon the airline and right now, Alaska Airlines is the only one that specifically publishes a policy allowing service-dogs-in-training on planes. The Department of Transportation's Office of the Secretary, in its "Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation" 14 CFR Part 382, docket number OST-2003-15072, gives the following guidance: "Although 'service animals in training' are not pets, the ACAA (Air Carrier Access Act) does not include them, because 'in training' status indicates that they do not yet meet the legal definition of service animal. However, like pet policies, airline policies regarding service animals in training vary. Some airlines permit qualified trainers to bring service animals in training aboard an aircraft for training purposes. Trainers of service animals should consult with airlines, and become familiar with their policies."
City Laws for the Handler: Most cities in the United States require that all dogs have a license. In the spirit of “setting up the handler for success,” it’s nice to help the handler get a dog license for their city. We usually go to the city’s website, print up the application, photocopy the dog’s rabies certificate and the veterinarian record stating that the dog is spayed or neutered, and then mail that packet to the future handler. We also include a stamped envelope that is pre-addressed to the city so the handler can just sign the application and mail it in. In some places, if the dog is microchipped, the city will offer a lifetime license for the dog.
City Laws for Nonprofits: Where we live, the city requires our nonprofit to fill out a form and then have 75% of nearby neighbors sign it, thus approving that they are okay with the idea. We are now allowed to have up to five dogs in our home at a time, although we usually only have three (two in training, plus one is our pet dog). The city sends out an Animal Control officer once a year for a surprise investigation to make sure our home is following all codes and that all the animals are well-kept and licensed.
Details are below, but one important point is that 99% of the time, a service animal is:
The vocabulary about dogs that help people is a little confusing, and many people (incorrectly) use the following terms interchangeably.
- Service Animal (Service Dog): In layman’s terms, a service dog is trained for a person with a disability, and it has been trained specifically for that one person. The specific definition, however, is federally controlled. “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”. The law also states that service animals must be trained to perform at least one task specifically for their handler, and in order for someone to get a service dog, they must have an ADA-specified disability. Airlines use a different and much broader definition of “Service Animal,” which is described above in the section about the Air Carrier Access Act. It's confusing that the airlines use the same word with different definitions, but that's the way it is.
- Assistance Animal: In layman's terms, an assistance animal is the same thing as a service dog. The dog assists its handler in some way. This is a broader term that can also apply to Guide Dogs. The term “Assistance Animal” is legally defined under the Fair Housing Act as “...only dogs, and [they] further define ‘service animal’ to exclude emotional support animals”. The term “Assistance Animal” is legally defined under the Fair Housing Act as “...only dogs, and [they] further define ‘service animal’ to exclude emotional support animals”.
- Guide Dog: A Guide Dog, also known as a “Seeing Eye Dog,” is a certain kind of service dog: specifically, one that is trained for a person who is blind. “Guide Dog” doesn’t have the same kind of federal legal definitions that the other terms do, so it’s not used as often.
- Therapy Dog: This is a confusing term because it sounds like the others, but it doesn’t actually confer any special rights. While a Service Dog is trained for one specific handler with a disability and the dog must perform at least one task for that person, a Therapy Dog is used by a group of people. You might see children reading to them in libraries, or they might visit elderly people in nursing homes or patients at a hospital. More recently, they are often taken to college campuses or places where something tragic has happened so they can provide support and comfort. There are no laws regarding the training of Therapy Dogs, but there are specific courses that handlers can take if they’d like to get their dog certified to perform this work. Although “Therapy Dog” is not a federally-defined term, one court provided this specification: “Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are not legally defined. Therapy dogs undergo and pass evaluations according to standards set by national organizations. They have been trained as a team with their owner/handler to provide therapeutic comfort or emotional support to people”. In other words, while a Service Dog can only be owned by someone with a disability, anybody can own a Therapy Dog. While there are no laws to define what type of training Therapy Dogs must have, many places won’t allow Therapy Dogs unless they have undergone special training and achieved certification. Most handlers who want to volunteer just train their pet dog really well and then get it certified by a therapy dog organization such as the American Kennel Club or PetPartners. However, a Therapy Dog does not have the right to enter public buildings like a Service Dog does. Only in specifically defined situations can a volunteer bring their Therapy Dog to a hospital, library, or other public space.
- Emotional Support Animal: This last vocabulary term is used primarily by airlines, FHA (Federal Housing Administration), and HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development), and it’s confusing enough that I’ll refer you to the Air Carrier Act section above, plus I recommend checking out the ACA, FHA, and HUD websites.
Note: Most people don’t know the difference between a Therapy Dog and a Service Dog, and in most cases, there’s no need to tell them the difference. We tell handlers that if someone refers to their Service Dog as a Therapy Dog, they don’t necessarily have to correct them.
 “Frequently Asked Questions About Service Dog Animals and the ADA,” US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section.
 “The Americans with Disabilities Act: The New Definition of Disability Post: Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc.” in Marquette Law Review, Christine M. Harrington, Fall 2000.
 “Subject, Service Animals and Assistance Animals for People with Disabilities in Housing and HUD-Funded Programs,” US Department of Housing and Urban Development, April 25, 2013.
 “Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, Title 49, Section 41705 of the U.S. Code.”
 “Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation,” Department of Transportation, Office of the Secretary, 14 CFR Part 382, Docket No. OST-2003-15072.
 From “ADA Requirements,” U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, 2010.
 “Recommendations Regarding the Use of Therapy Dogs in Florida Dependency Courts,” 2nd Circuit Judicial Court, Leon County, FL.
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