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A Complete Guide to Service Animal Laws, Rights, and Resources

A service dog sitting in a public area. The golden retriever is wearing a service dog harness that has the phrase “Service Dog” printed on it.

Table of Contents:

There are many types of assistance animals. With the growing prevalence of a wide range of emotional support and companionship animals, it can be difficult to understand what exactly constitutes a service animal. This can be further complicated by an influx of fake service dog owners, who often come equipped with official-looking service animal gear and documentation. 

This guide will define what a service animal is, and clear up any misconceptions about the protected rights of service animal handlers. It will also discuss the costs associated with purchasing and training a service dog, as well as service dogs’ benefits for veterans. Read on for a comprehensive guide on this topic.

What Is a Service Animal?

When considering legislation, it’s important to understand that there are strict parameters for what constitutes a service animal. The two major regulatory bodies that handle concerns related to service animals are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The ADA defines a service animal as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” 

Further, the tasks the dog is trained to do “must be directly related to the person's disability.” This means that, if a dog has been trained to perform certain tasks, but those tasks are not directly related to the individual’s condition, the dog may not qualify as a service animal. Some examples of qualifying tasks include:

  • Guiding people with vision impairments;
  • Pulling the wheelchair of someone with mobility impairments;
  • Calming individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack.

Note that emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are not considered to be service animals. If the mere presence of the animal provides comfort, they are emotional support animals. These do not have the same protections as service animals (though state and local laws on this may differ).

Types of Service Animals

In line with the definition provided above, there are only two types of animals that are approved to perform as service animals: a canine and, most recently, a miniature horse. Even with these restrictions, however, there are many different types of service animals. Each is suited to perform different tasks. These include:

  • Allergen detection dogs: These animals work with individuals who have life-threatening allergies. The service dog can sniff food, medication, soaps, balms, or entire rooms to detect any possible allergens. If they do smell the allergen in question, they will alert the individual by performing a trained behavior (such as placing a paw on them). 

  • Autism support dogs: An autism support dog can accompany a person with autism when they travel. They may be trained to recognize self-harming behaviors or emotional meltdowns, then perform trained actions to calm the individual.

  • Diabetic alert dogs: People with diabetes can use a service animal to stay aware of potential cases of hypo- or hyperglycemia (low or high blood sugar, respectively). When a person with diabetes experiences either, they emit a distinct but faint odor that is undetectable to humans. Diabetic alert dogs are trained to recognize these smells and alert the individual promptly.

  • Guide dogs: This type of service animal, also known as a seeing-eye dog, is trained to help people with visual impairments navigate public areas and obstacles that they may be unable to without assistance. Guide dogs will walk straight while avoiding obstacles, not turn at corners unless instructed to, stop at curbs or steps, and help people with visual impairments find doors and crossings. 

  • Hearing dogs: These dogs can alert handlers to specific noises, such as fire alarms, telephones, doorbells, or speech from others. They do so by nudging or pawing individuals with hearing impairments. They may also be trained to guide individuals to the source of the sound. In public places, hearing dogs can inform handlers about noises through body cues.

  • Mobility assistance dogs: This type of service animal accompanies people with mobility impairments in order to help them complete specific actions and more easily navigate the world. They may be trained to perform actions like opening automatic doors or picking up dropped items. They may be equipped with a harness and trained to serve as a brace for people who have difficulty standing.

  • Psychiatric service dogs: Psychiatric service animals may be trained to perform a wide variety of tasks specifically designed to mitigate the effects of an individual’s psychiatric condition. This includes guiding the individual to a friend or family member during a panic attack, interrupting problem behaviors, or bringing medication during an emergency, as well as many other tasks.

  • Seizure response dogs: People with epilepsy can rely on seizure response dogs to react when an episode occurs. They may be trained to alert others nearby or trigger an alarm for help or move to protect the person from having a seizure.

  • Miniature Horses: Revised ADA regulations allow for miniature horses that have been trained to perform tasks or work for people with disabilities. Covered entities must allow for miniature horses where reasonable, and there are currently four assessment factors available to help these entities determine accommodation within their facilities. 

ADA Service Animal Laws and Protected Rights

To recap, a service animal must be a dog trained to perform a specific task related to the handler’s disability. You can see examples of this by reviewing the service animal types above. In addition, there are a few more qualifications to keep in mind. 

Individuals with service animals must be unable to perform the trained task without assistance. Further, the animal needs to be fully trained. A “service dog in training” is not recognized as an actual service animal, though state and local laws may provide allowances. Service animals don’t need to be professionally trained, however; handlers can train the dog themselves

If your service animal meets these requirements, you have several protected rights that may not be infringed on. State and local laws can vary, but national law provides the following protections:

According to the ADA, “state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally need to allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.” Stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools, government buildings — you must be allowed to bring your service animal into public areas.

  • In regards to housing, tenants with disabilities may not be discriminated against. Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers must give reasonable accommodations to handlers with service animals. In practically any type of housing, they must be allowed.

  • Handlers with service animals cannot be denied access to transportation, including subways, buses, trains, taxis, and limos. Commercial airlines do not have to comply with ADA regulations, however. This is regulated by the Air Carrier Access Act, and each airline has its own policies on service dogs. Handlers may be required to show documentation for psychiatric service animals.

  • Your service animal is not required to wear a harness, vest, or ID tag to be granted access to any of the above areas. However, using such devices can help others in public areas to identify your dog as a service animal and avoid obstructing them.

  • Service animals are not required to be licensed. There is no verification or certification process. While you can find many license and certification programs online, none of these are recognized by the ADA or the DOJ as legitimate.

  • An individual can bring more than one service animal with them, as long as each is trained to perform a task related to that person’s disabilities. For example, a person with hearing impairments and severe allergies can use both a hearing dog and an allergen detection dog.

  • If it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, covered entities may ask whether the dog is required because of a disability and what task the dog has been trained to perform. Other questions related to the service animal are not permitted.

  • Service animals can be of any breed. Even if local ordinances prohibit specific breeds, an exception must be made for service animals.

In addition to these rights, service animal handlers have certain responsibilities:

  • As a handler, you are responsible for taking care of your service animal. This includes feeding the dog, grooming them, and taking them out for walks. Business owners or government officials are not responsible for supervising or caring for them. This is also true in hospitals, when the handler may be separated from the dog, though handlers must be given time to make accommodations for a friend or family member to supervise them.

  • Service animals need to follow local animal control or public health laws in regards to vaccinations and local dog licensing requirements. Note that handlers are not expected to register the dog as a service animal specifically — handlers only need to follow regulations that apply to all dogs. Voluntary registries are allowed.

  • The dog must be housebroken and well-trained. If a service animal becomes overly agitated or excited and cannot be controlled, it may be prohibited from entering an area.

Note that covered entities may also be allowed to prevent your service dog from entering if it may “fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public.” For example, if an area is specifically designed for people with allergies to dogs, your service animal may be barred from entering.

Service Dog Etiquette

If you are handling a service animal, there are some best practices you should consider following in regards to etiquette:

  • Promptly inform your housing provider, housemates, employer, and any other relevant parties when you will need to begin using a service animal. 
  • Use a harness, ID tag, or collar that identifies your dog as a service animal. While this isn’t required, it will mitigate potential confusion.
  • Don’t feel obligated to answer any questions about your condition or the dog’s training. If someone’s questions make you uncomfortable, let them know.

If you encounter an individual who is using a service dog, respect their privacy. Remember that the dog’s focus should be on completing the task it has been trained to do — not on receiving the affection of passersby. Similarly, the handler is focused on completing their day-to-day activities — not on answering questions (no matter how well-intentioned they may be). 

Examples of behaviors to avoid include:

  • Petting
  • Talking or whistling at the dog
  • Eye contact with the dog
  • Any other action intended to get the dog’s attention

In essence, you should act as though the dog is not present. Interfering by interacting with the dog in any way is considered poor etiquette. Handlers often use vests, tags, or collars to identify their service dogs as such and indicate that they should not be bothered. Even if isn’t immediately obvious, use your best judgment to determine if the dog is a service animal. If there is any indication that they might be, do not interfere unless the handler is showing clear signs of needing help.

Service Animal Registration

Many people with disabilities are interested in registering their service animals. However, as explained above, service animals do not need to be registered. While you will find many alleged service animal certification or licensing organizations online, none of their certifications or licenses are recognized by the ADA or the DOJ. Further, state or local governments cannot compel you to register your dog as a service animal with any organization or board. 

Nevertheless, many people choose to register their service animal with one of these organizations. While a certification from one of these groups has no legal weight, it may still prove useful. In many circumstances, business managers or housing providers may request the documentation for your service animal, and such certifications may satisfy these demands. Alternatively, you may get a letter from your doctor which outlines your need for a service animal.

Ultimately, it’s important to understand that requests for documentation are not consistent with ADA regulations. If someone demands to see certification or licensing information for your service animal and refuses to allow your animal to enter the property, you should file an ADA complaint. You can file an ADA complaint online or by sending a completed ADA complaint form to: 

US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section
Washington, D.C. 20530

How Much Does a Service Dog Cost?

The cost of a service dog depends on a wide variety of factors. Your specific disability and the dog’s temperament can determine how much training is required. According to a study that analyzed the cost-effectiveness of service dogs, the average cost of purchasing, caring for, and training one is approximately $10,000, with ongoing annual costs of $1,332. Alternatively, purchasing a fully-trained dog costs $17,569 on average, according to patient surveys. However, they can cost as much as $50,000, depending on the circumstances.

This cost can present a barrier to many who could benefit from the help of a service dog. However, there are ways to decrease costs. Service dogs do not need to be professionally trained, so you may be able to train a dog to perform necessary tasks. Even paying for a few training sessions may prove to be more cost-effective than buying a fully-trained service animal. Carefully weigh your options before making a decision or discounting a service dog as a viable option for you.

How to Afford a Service Dog

If you need assistance to afford a service dog, there are many options for funding:

  • If you have a flexible spending account attached to your insurance policy, you may be able to use it toward the cost of a service dog.
  • You may also be able to get funding through a crowdfunding campaign.
  • You may be able to secure a loan for the needed money. 

In addition to these methods, there are many assistance programs designed to connect people with disabilities with service or assistance animals to help them.

Social Security Disability Service Animal Assistance Programs

No state or federal medical coverage through Medicare or Medicaid will cover the cost of a service animal. However, disability benefits may be used to pay for a service animal. 

When they are first approved for disability, most applicants receive a lump sum of back benefits. This can make affording a service animal a much more viable proposition. Further, monthly benefits provide a constant source of income and may help you afford the expenses associated with caring for and training a service animal on an ongoing basis.

If you do not yet receive them, you can apply for disability benefits online. To determine if you are eligible, you must have a medically diagnosed physical or mental impairment that restricts you from doing any “substantial gainful activity” and has lasted (or will last) for longer than a year. 

If your claim for disability is denied, there is a disability appeals process you should follow to get the assistance you need.

Diagnosis-Based Assistance Service Animal Programs

There are also many diagnosis-based assistance programs that may be able to help you with a suitable assistance or service animal. These programs are designed to help people with diagnoses find a trained animal that will help with those specific conditions. Here are a few of the many national programs:

  • 4 Paws for Ability: This nonprofit seeks to provide service dogs to children with disabilities on a case-by-case basis. They keep costs associated with service dog placements low by leveraging a large volunteer base.

  • Assistance Dogs International: This is a worldwide coalition of programs designed to train and place assistance dogs with people in need. You can search for accredited members on their website. This is a great way of finding local help when it comes to getting a trained dog. 

  • Autism Service Dogs of America: This Oregon-based organization trains dogs to help children with autism by protecting and providing them with emotional support. They have a three-phase process that involves training at the organization’s headquarters in Tualatin, welcoming the dog home, and getting a week-long visit from a qualified trainer for further guidance.

  • Canine Partners for Life: CPL helps individuals with disabilities by providing them with service dogs — most often Labrador retrievers. Applicants are evaluated based on need, a willingness to accept responsibility of the care of the dog, and a clean and safe home environment (among other factors).

  • Doggie Does Good: This organization’s mission is to strengthen the bond between service dogs and their handlers. They seek to match individuals in need with highly qualified service animals.

  • Dogs4Diabetics: D4D connects individuals who have diabetes with highly trained diabetic alert dogs. They train dogs, provide them to applicants in need, and provide ongoing support for free. Applicants must submit their blood sugar logs and be able to provide a safe and stable home environment to care for a dog.

  • Guiding Eyes for the Blind: For people with visual impairments, navigating public spaces can be tough. This nonprofit provides such individuals with guide dogs to dramatically improve their quality of life. Applicants must have had orientation and mobility training before being eligible.

  • International Hearing Dog, Inc.: Being unable to hear can be a dangerous impairment, particularly when it comes to hearing alarms, traffic, or crying young ones. International Hearing Dog, Inc. specializes in matching people who are unable to hear with hearing dogs. Applicants must have a 65-decibel hearing loss and be able to care for and continue training a hearing dog.

Note that most of these programs have strict application standards and long waiting lists. It’s important to be realistic about your chances of approval. Generally, you must be able to demonstrate a strong need for the service animal in order to be considered. 

Service Dogs for Veterans

The transition back to civilian life can be a difficult time in any veteran’s life — particularly if they return from service with a physical or mental disability. To aid during this time, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers programs to help veterans acquire service dogs. The VA will be billed for all premiums, copayments, or deductibles associated with the service dog. They will also cover treatment, travel, and any additional hardware needed (such as braces). The veteran will then be responsible for the finances involved in caring for the dog.

Applying for a service dog simply requires meeting with your VA clinical care provider or your VA mental health provider (depending on your disability) and expressing your interest. They will help you begin the application process, which entails an evaluation from a specialist. If a service dog is determined to be the best option for addressing your disability, they will help you through the rest of the application process. If a veteran is not disabled, or a specialist determines that a service dog is not the best course, a service dog may not be covered.

Benefits of Service Dogs for Veterans

Service dogs can prove to be an invaluable asset to individuals with mental or physical impairments. They provide a number of benefits to veterans with disabilities. These include:

  • Stopping flashbacks and nightmares: Service dogs can be trained to paw an individual when they show signs of experiencing flashbacks or nightmares. This can have an immeasurable impact on mood.

  • Reducing thoughts of suicide: Trained dogs can detect when a veteran is becoming anxious, depressed, or panicked. They can then act to comfort the owner. For instance, they can use their body weight to “ground” the owner through a process known as deep pressure stimulation. This help can reduce suicidal ideation.

  • Reduces hypervigilance: Veterans may struggle with feeling secure in public areas. Service dogs can reduce hypervigilance by serving as a lookout and a source of assurance.

  • Helping with medication: Dogs can remind handlers to take medication through trained behaviors. If a veteran experiences a medical emergency, service dogs can even react by fetching necessary medication. This can help keep veterans safe and stable during trying times.

  • Retrieving dropped items: Veterans with physical disabilities may struggle when picking up dropped items. Service dogs can be trained to recognize when their handlers need help and to react by picking the items up for them.

  • Offsetting Medical/Psychiatric Costs: The many benefits of service dogs can mitigate the effects of disabilities and prevent them from being exacerbated. This can offset additional costs associated with treatment.

Service Dogs for Veterans Programs

There are many programs designed to help veterans access and train service dogs. Check out the below programs to see how they can help you:

  • American Humane: This organization’s Pups4Patriots program provides service dogs to veterans. They do this by taking in unwanted rescue dogs and training them to help veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). They also award grants to veterans requiring financial help to care for service dogs.

  • America’s VetDogs: Veterans who have mobility impairments can apply for a guide dog from America’s VetDogs. Applicants must have participated in a two-week training program. Their aim is to improve the pride and self-reliance of veterans with disabilities.

  • Angel Canines and Wounded Warriors: This organization was created to help address the increase in PTSD and depression diagnoses in military personnel. They help by providing veterans free or reduced-cost air and ground transportation to a vetted service dog organization.

  • K9s for Warriors: This is the nation’s largest provider of service dogs to veterans with PTSD, TBI, or military sexual trauma. They provide service dogs with all the equipment and training needed to help veterans with disabilities. This program is completely free for veterans.

  • Patriot PAWS: This organization trains and provides high-quality service dogs to veterans at no cost. Patriot PAWS aims to build relationships with national, state, and local organizations to help restore veterans’ physical and mental wellbeing.

  • This Able Veteran: This Able Veteran pairs veterans who have PTSD with service dogs. Their dogs are trained to detect anxiety or nightmares and intervene. They also offer a trauma resiliency program that is designed to teach veterans essential coping skills.

  • Warrior Canine Connection: This program gives veterans with PTSD or combat stress an opportunity to train service dogs to help fellow recovering veterans. When a veteran regularly gives positive reinforcement to a dog whenever they feel intense anxiety or emotional numbness, they train the dog to recognize when they are experiencing those feelings. Simultaneously, caring for a dog can be uplifting, giving you positive experiences and fostering connections in your community.

Service animals, and particularly service dogs, can provide a multitude of benefits and services. From diabetes management to seizure response, these canines are trained to help alert and protect individuals in and from potentially harmful situations. Particularly for veterans, service animals can supply their owners with both the emotional and physical support necessary to have an elevated quality of life. 

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