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What You Should Know About Service Animals In Public Places

Today, more and more people with disabilities are relying on animals to increase their independence or help manage their symptoms. Unfortunately, as the number of animals helping people with disabilities has increased, so has the confusion about which ones are actually service animals. The important thing to remember is that no matter what, an animal in a public place must be under the control of the handler and appropriately behaved. Read A Seeing Eye Perspective by retired Seeing Eye CEO & President (and graduate) Dr. James A. Kutsch Jr. on the topic of “fake service animals.”

What Is, and What Is Not, a Service Animal Under the ADA

Under Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Guide dogs are service animals because they help people who are blind or have very low vision avoid obstacles and navigate places they wish to go. Under the ADA, only dogs are service animals, except in rare instances where miniature horses are allowed in public places. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, but some states may have laws that provide protections for people accompanied by emotional support animals in public places. The ADA requires that service animals in public places do something affirmative that helps a person with a disability. Also, the work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Examples of work or tasks dogs perform that are directly related to a person’s disability include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, assisting a person using a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, and calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack. This list is not exhaustive; there are many tasks that dogs can perform for people with disabilities.

Who Is Covered by the ADA?

Most public places are covered by the ADA. People with disabilities are generally allowed to be accompanied by their service animals in any part of a facility where the public is allowed to go, including state and local governments; nonprofit organizations; establishments that sell or prepare food; health care facilities; hotels and other places of lodging; and recreational settings. Places of worship such as churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques are exempt from the ADA and are therefore not required to grant access to people accompanied by service animals. However, some states or municipalities may have laws that cover religious institutions and require them to grant access to people accompanied by service animals.

How to Tell if a Dog Is a Service Animal

A yellow Labrador/golden retriever cross in a Seeing Eye® harness, with a woman holding the harness handle in her left hand.

Sometimes people working for an entity covered by the ADA are not sure if a dog is a service animal. Although they are often wearing harnesses or vests, service animals are not required to wear them. If a person accompanied by a service animal has a disability that is not obvious or readily apparent, staff may ask only two questions: 1) is the animal required because of a disability; and 2) what work or task has the animal been trained to perform? Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

It is usually easy to identify a guide dog team. Guide dog harnesses tend to have a leather body piece that encircles the dog’s body just behind its front legs. The handle is U shaped and attaches to the body piece to provide the handler guidance. You might hear the handler issue commands like “forward”, “left”, and “right”. The guide dog helps the handler avoid obstacles and navigate through spaces safely, but the handler’s commands provide the dog with direction about where to go.

Asking for ID's and Certifications is Not Allowed

One of the most common problems guide dog handlers face is being asked to show certification or identification proving that their dog is a service animal. It is no longer unusual to come across people and organizations selling certification and registration documents for service animals online. However, these certifications and registrations do not give a service animal handler any legal rights, and covered entities have no legal right to ask for them as a condition for entry into their establishment. Some guide dog schools do provide ID cards and people may choose to show ID for their dogs under certain circumstances, but this is a personal choice, not something a public entity can require.

Virtually anyone can purchase or obtain an ID for an animal whether it is trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability or not. Not only is it illegal to require that a person accompanied by a service animal provide ID for the animal, it is also not a reliable way of determining whether a dog is really a service animal. Fortunately, as discussed earlier, it should be fairly easy for staff in public establishments to identify Gide dog teams. Watching a dog perform the task of guiding its owner is a far more reliable way to determine that the dog is a service animal than burdening a handler by asking them to produce ID.

When It Is Illegal to Say No to a Service Animal

Public establishments cannot legally refuse access to service animals based on the size, weight or breed of the dog. An establishment can refuse access to an animal or ask that it be removed if it poses an actual threat, but cannot do so based on generalizations about the breed.

It is illegal to deny access to people working with service animals because of allergies, fear of dogs, or cultural or religious objections to dogs. Staff also cannot isolate people who use service animals from other patrons, treat them less favorably than other patrons, or charge cleaning fees because a dog sheds. Staff cannot refuse access to someone with a service animal because they did not contact the establishment ahead of time to let them know they would be accompanied by a service animal.

Note: It is important to note that laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities working with service animals remain in full effect during the COVID 19 pandemic. Check out the CDC's guidance if you have any questions pertaining to this topic.

When It Is OK to Say No to a Service Animal

All too often, public entities are frustrated because they find themselves with misbehaved or disruptive animals on their premises. When that happens, assuming the animal is a “fake service animal” is not the place to start because it no longer matters at that point. Public entities may deny access to service animals if the dog is not housebroken or the person working with the dog does not effectively control the dog.

Service dogs should always be leashed unless a person’s disability requires them to use another means of controlling the dog. Service dogs should either be on the floor at all times or in the arms of a handler who needs to carry the dog in order for it to perform a task. Stores do not have to allow service dogs in shopping carts.

A service dog that is engaging in behavior like repeated barking or growling; jumping up on people or tables; or roaming around unattended by the owner is not under control. When assessing whether a service animal’s behavior is acceptable, establishments should consider whether comparable behavior would be tolerated if a service animal was not involved. For example, in an environment where noises like loud cheering or a child crying is tolerated, occasional barking should not result in a person accompanied by a service animal being asked to leave.

Unprovoked violent behavior or a history of bad behavior by a service animal is unacceptable and can be grounds for denial of access. However, if someone provokes disruptive behavior by taunting or injuring a service animal, the establishment should give the handler an opportunity to gain control over the animal and ask the person provoking the animal to leave. If staff denies access to a service animal because the handler is not maintaining control over it, the person with a disability must be allowed to enter the establishment and conduct business without the service animal.

Don’t Forget State Laws

Be aware that some state laws define service animal more broadly than the ADA does and place greater obligations on public entities. For example, some states have laws requiring public establishments to allow access to people accompanied by service animals in training or puppies being raised to become service animals. Also, there are some state and local laws that allow people to take emotional support animals to public places. You should check with your state and local government agencies to find out about these laws.

At the same time, many states have recently enacted laws making it a criminal offense to fraudulently represent that an animal is a service animal. People who work with service animals must also comply with state and local laws requiring vaccinations and dog licenses, leash laws, and waste removal laws.

Where to Go for More Information

For more information about service animals and the ADA, check out the Department of Justice’s Requirements and frequently asked questions or call the DOJ’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301. Complaints of disability discrimination can be filed with DOJ online, by phone, or by mail. If you are simply looking for tips on what to do when you encounter a guide dog team, this fact sheet will be helpful.