ADA Service Dog Laws (2021)
Service dog owners are afforded special rights and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is essential for every service dog handler to understand what their legal rights are and how to exercise them. It is also important for staff members at establishments such as restaurants, stores, hotels, schools and other public locations to understand how they can properly verify a service dog without running afoul of ADA rules.
In this article we will explain what rights service dog handlers have under the ADA, how an animal companion qualifies as a service dog and what staff members at public establishments are permitted and not permitted to ask a service dog owner. We will also answer some frequently asked questions regarding service dog rules.
- What is a service animal?
- How does the ADA define a disability?
- What disabilities qualify for a service dog under the ADA?
- Where are service dogs allowed?
- Can I board flights with my service dog?
- What questions are you allowed to ask a service dog owner?
- Do I need a professional trainer to train my service dog? Can I train my service dog myself?
- Which breeds can be service dogs?
- Are emotional support animals the same thing as service animals?
- When can a business ask a service dog and its handler to leave an establishment?
- Do you need a vest, ID card or special harness for a service dog?
- How do you certify or register a service dog?
- My city requires dogs be registered and licensed, are service dogs exempt?
- My city requires that dogs be vaccinated, is that applicable to service dogs?
- Can a service dog be off leash?
- Can a restaurant or hotel force my service dog to remain in a certain area?
- Can a hotel charge me for staying with a service dog?
- Are service dogs allowed in self-service restaurants, such as buffets?
- Are restaurants required to allow service dogs to be seated on chairs or be fed at the table?
1. What is a service animal?
The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for someone living with a disability. These tasks may include alerting people who are deaf, guiding people who are visually impaired, calming a person during an anxiety attack, reminding someone with depression to take prescription medications, or protecting a person who is experiencing a seizure.
Service dogs that assist with mental and emotional health issues or learning disabilities are called psychiatric service dogs (PSDs). Psychiatric service dogs are a type of service dog and have the same rights as service dogs that assist people with physical disabilities. When this article refers to “service dogs,” that also includes psychiatric service dogs.
Service dogs are remarkable canines capable of a wide range of tasks that help make independent living possible for their handlers. These unique working animals undergo specialized training to learn tasks that mitigate the difficulties caused by specific disabilities. Service dogs are working animals – not pets. They must be trained to perform a task that is directly related to the handler’s disability.
2. How does the ADA define a disability?
ADA service dog laws prohibit discrimination against disabled people with service animals in employment, public accommodations, state and local government activities, public transportation, commercial facilities, and telecommunication. In the context of the ADA, “disability” is used as a legal term as opposed to a medical one and has a specific definition.
Under the ADA, a person with a disability has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity. This includes individuals who are regarded as having a disability even if their disability is not physically visible (i.e., mental health conditions and learning disabilities).
In addition to the ADA, owners of service dogs have rights under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and various state laws.
3. What disabilities qualify for a service dog under the ADA?
In the context of the ADA, “disability” is used as a legal term as opposed to a medical one and has a specific definition: under the ADA, a person with a disability is someone who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity. A disabled person can also be a person who has a history or record of such an impairment or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
The ADA does not specifically list out every type of impairment that qualifies as a disability. The disability can be a physical disability such as blindness or impaired mobility, or it can be an invisible disability in the form of a mental condition such as PTSD or severe depression or anxiety.
4. Where are service dogs allowed?
Businesses, nonprofit organizations, and state and local governments that serve the public are generally required to allow service dogs to accompany people with disabilities in any areas that are open to the public. This would include places such as restaurants, grocery stores, retail stores, hotels, office buildings, school campuses, parks, and other establishments open to the public.
Service dogs can also board the cabin of airplanes with their owners without having to pay a pet fee. Service dogs also have rights for housing: they are allowed to live with their owners free of charge or deposits, even in buildings that prohibit pets.
5. Can I board flights with my service dog?
Service dogs and psychiatric service dogs are allowed to board flights with their owners, free of charge. The U.S. Department of Transportation implemented new regulations in early 2021 that effectively ended the ability of emotional support animals to board most U.S. flights. However, the DOT affirmed the right of service dogs and psychiatric service dogs to board flights in the cabin.
Airlines cannot charge fees for service dogs to board, even though they may charge such fees for normal pets. To fly with a service dog, the passenger must submit a completed DOT Service Animal Transportation Form to the airline before boarding. The form requires the service dog handler to self-certify that they have a trained service animal. It also requires the name of the dog’s trainer (which can be the owner) and the name (but not the signature) of the dog’s veterinarian.
For a complete guide to flying with a service animal or psychiatric service animal, check out this helpful article.
6. What questions are you allowed to ask a service dog owner?
The staff or employees at a public establishment such as a restaurant, bar, store, hotel, office building or school may only as two limited questions if it is not obvious what service the dog provides:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
The staff member cannot require a doctor’s note, inquire about the handler’s disability, ask for an identification card or training certificate, and/or demand medical documents.
In addition, staff members are not permitted to ask the handler to have their service dog demonstrate its ability to perform work for the owner. It is important to note as well that the two questions above are only allowed if the disability is not apparent. So for example if the service dog is being used as guide dog for a blind person, it would not be appropriate to interrogate them about their service dog.
7. Do I need a professional trainer to train my service dog? Can I train my service dog myself?
ADA service dog rules do not require that service dog owners use a professional trainer. In order to make your dog a service dog, you do not need to complete any specific training program. Service dog handlers are allowed to train their dog themselves without the help of a professional trainer or training program.
Service dog owners should note that under ADA rules, service dogs in training are not considered to be service animals. That means that before a service dog owner can enjoy all of the rights afforded to service dog owners under the ADA, their dog must be fully trained to perform the task that assists with the handler’s disability. Some State and local laws may however give rights to dogs that are still in the training stages.
8. Which breeds can be service dogs?
Under ADA rules for service dogs, a service dog can be any type of dog breed. A public establishment or landlord is not allowed to prohibit entry for a service dog solely because it is a certain breed. The service dog may be asked to leave the premises if it is not under the control of the handler or acts in a way that threatens the health and safety of others. Staff members and landlords at an establishment or apartment complex cannot however ask a service dog to leave simply because they are afraid of the dog solely due to preconceived notions about the dog’s breed.
ADA rules also take precedent over local rules regarding breed restrictions. For example, if your city bans a certain breed of dog, that ban cannot be categorically applied to service animals.
9. Are emotional support animals the same thing as service animals?
No, emotional support animals, or ESAs, are not the same thing as service animals. The ADA does not recognize dogs who solely provide emotional support or comfort as service animals. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals do not require any special training.
Emotional support animals are intended to provide support for mental and emotional disabilities through companionship. ESAs have more limited access rights than service dogs. Emotional support animals are allowed in residences and on flights, but do not have a right to be in places such as stores, hotels or restaurants that prohibit pets the same way service dogs do.
That does not mean a service dog cannot assist with a psychiatric condition. For example, a service dog can be used to remind a depressed individual to take their medication. Or for someone with anxiety, a service dog can be trained to sense an impending anxiety attack and take actions to prevent the attack or minimize its impact. However, if a person with anxiety is just using the dog’s companionship as a source of comfort for their condition, the animal would not qualify as a service dog.
10. When can a business ask a service dog and its handler to leave an establishment?
A disabled person with a service dog can only be asked to remove their animal from the premises in limited circumstances. It is appropriate for staff members to ask a handler to remove their service dog if the dog is out of control or the dog is not housebroken. A service dog handler may also be asked to leave if their service dog’s actions are threatening the health and safety of other people.
It is not appropriate to ask for a service dog to leave due to allergies or a fear of dogs. Under ADA guidance, if someone is allergic to a dog and needs to share space with a disabled person and their service dog, both people should be accommodated by assigning them where possible to different locations within the room or facility.
11. Do you need a vest, ID card or special harness for a service dog?
Under ADA service dog rules, items such as vests, ID cards or special harnesses are not required for service dogs. However, many service dog owners utilize these accessories as helpful tools that signal to the public that their dog is a service dog. By using a service dog ID card, vest or harness, a service dog handler can clearly indicate to members of the public that their dog is on duty and should not be disturbed. These accessories help to set proper boundaries so handlers can avoid invasive inquiries and interactions.
12. How do you certify or register a service dog?
Service animals do not need to be certified or registered to qualify as service animals. Employees and staff are not permitted to require documentation from a handler that the animal is certified, trained or licensed as a service animal as a condition for entry.
Some service dog owners will certify or register their dogs through an organization to help notify others that their animal is a service dog. However, these documents are optional and do not by themselves convey legal rights under the ADA.
13. My city requires dogs be registered and licensed, are service dogs exempt?
No, service dogs are not exempt from local registration and licensing requirements that apply to all dogs. This is different from organizations that register and license dogs as service animals. As discussed earlier, these organizations do not confer any official status on service dogs and their services are optional. If your city however requires all dogs to be licensed and registered, your service dog must also comply.
14. My city requires that dogs be vaccinated, is that applicable to service dogs?
Service dogs are not exempt from local rules regarding animal control and health. If your city requires vaccinations for all dogs, then your service dog must also comply.
15. Can a service dog be off leash?
Under ADA rules, a service dog must always be under the control of its owner. Service dogs must be tethered, harnessed or leashed unless the owner’s disability prevents them from using these items or these items interfere with the dog’s ability to safety and effectively perform its tasks. In situations where a tether, harness or leash is not suitable, the handler must maintain control of their animal through voice, signal or other means of control. An establishment can ask a handler to remove their service dog from the premises if the handler does not have control of their animal.
16. Can a restaurant or hotel force my service dog to remain in a certain area?
No, under ADA Rules for service dogs, handlers with service dogs cannot be isolated from other customers or treated less favorably than other customers. The establishment cannot have a special area for service dogs and limit the handler’s activities to that one area. For example, a hotel cannot limit guests with service dogs to designated “pet friendly” rooms.
17. Can a hotel charge me for staying with a service dog?
No, a business can never charge a deposit or fee in connection with service dogs. If the hotel charges a fee for pets, it must waive that fee for a guest who is staying with a service dog. Hotels are also not allowed to charge service dog owners cleaning fees to clean up hair or dander shed by the dog. However, if the hotel or other business usually charges guests for damages, a handler can be held responsible for paying for any damage caused by their service dog.
18. Are service dogs allowed in self-service restaurants, such as buffets?
Yes, service dogs must be allowed to accompany their owners through self-service food areas such as salad bars and buffets. Service animals are also allowed in cafeterias such as those found in the workplace or on school campuses.
19. Are restaurants required to allow service dogs to be seated on chairs or be fed at the table?
No, seating at a restaurant and the food served at the establishment are for patrons only. A service dog owner is allowed to have their animal companion next to them, but they cannot expect the restaurant to allow the dog to be seated or fed at the table.