Service Dog Requirements
The ADA defines a Service Animal as a dog individually trained to perform tasks or do work for the benefit of a person with a disability. A disability can be a physical impairment, but the ADA also includes mental illnesses that substantially limit one or more major life activities, such as depression, severe anxiety, or PTSD.
This article will cover the qualification requirements to be a Service Dog handler, what training and tests can be expected for your Service Dog, and what to expect when in public. After covering the legal rights of Service Dogs, we’ll present options for facilitating interactions with the public, including specialized Service Dog accessories and identification.
What are the Service Dog requirements?
Training a dog to become a service animal is available to individuals who have a disability. If you are interested in having a service dog, below are requirements to be aware of:
Eligibility: A person is eligible for a service dog if they have a physical, emotional, or mental health disability
Training: The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. The ADA does not require professional training; people with disabilities have a right to train the dog themselves.
Behavior: A service dog must be under its handler’s control at all times.
Verification: If it is not obvious what service the dog provides, the handler must be willing to answer two questions about their service dog. These two questions are: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
Identification: Optionally, it can help service dogs to be clearly identified with accessories like ID cards, vests, tags, and certificates.
How does my dog become a Service Dog?
Consider these four simple steps to help you understand how your dog can become a service dog.
- Determine if you have an eligible disability
- Train your Service Dog
- Pass a Public Access Test
- Consider Service Dog Certification and Registration
Service Dogs serve an important function for those in our community who need special care. It’s crucial for both Service Dog handlers and the general public to be aware of what Service Dog requirements are.
Step 1: Determine if you have an eligible disability
Under the ADA, you must have a qualifying condition to have a Service Dog. The condition can take many forms (physical, mental, etc.). Physical disabilities include conditions like visual impairment, limited mobility, and hearing loss. The physical or mental impairment must substantially limit a major life activity like the ability to work, move about, socialize, or sleep.
Some common conditions that qualify for Psychiatric Service Dogs are anxiety, depression, and PTSD, but this list is not exhaustive. For psychiatric disabilities, a common first step is to be evaluated by a Licensed Mental Healthcare Practitioner (LMHP) who can write a letter confirming your eligibility. These PSD letters typically have the following traits:
- written on the licensed healthcare professional’s letterhead
- dated and signed by the professional
- contain the professional’s contact information, license number, license date, and state of licensure
- contain the professional’s opinion on whether you have a mental or emotional disability that can qualify for a psychiatric service dog
Step 2: Training your Service Dog
To be considered a Service Dog, a dog must be individually trained to perform a job or task relating to your disability. Be aware that there is no official organization that sets training standards in the U.S. You are not required to work with a trainer – the ADA allows handlers to train their dogs on their own.
While there’s no minimum requirement in the US, some private standards suggest approximately 120 hours over six months. Some sources recommend that at least 30 hours (about ¼ of the time) be spent in public to help train the dog for moments of distraction and when surprises come their way. While not required, it can be helpful for Service Dogs to wear relevant accessories so that people in public can adjust their behavior accordingly.
The most important thing for you to teach your Service Dog is tasking or learning the specific skill they will be performing to help assist with your disability. There are countless tasks Service Dogs are called on to perform, including guiding the visually impaired, pulling a wheelchair, sensing a medical alert, tactile stimulation during a panic attack, reminding the handler to take their medication, scouting a room for someone with PTSD, or grounding/blocking in public areas.
Step 3: Pass a public access test
In addition to training your dog to perform tasks that assist with your disability, it is important for a service dog to be able to comport itself appropriately in public by passing a public access test.
Public Access Criteria:
- No aggressive behavior towards people and other animals.
- Refrain from sniffing behaviors unless released to do so.
- No solicitations for food or affection while on duty.
- No over-excitement and hyperactivity in public.
- Able to tolerate novel sights and sounds in various public settings.
- No unruly behavior or excessive barking.
- No relieving themselves in public without being given a specific command.
Once your dog is properly trained, your next step is to decide how you prefer to identify your service dog.
Step 4: Service Dog Certification and Registration
In the United States, service dog certifications and service dog identifications are not legally required. Staff at a public establishment cannot solicit documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a Service Dog, as a condition for entry.
Despite the limited verification requirements established by the law, staff at many public establishments will still insist on IDs or other tangible proof of Service Dog status. Service Dog handlers often find it helpful to have documents and accessories that help signal that their dog is trained and at work in order to prevent being met with hostility and confusion.
Electing to carry a custom Service Dog ID card and Service Dog Vest may be helpful tools for you and your service dog to navigate public spaces. You may also choose not to carry the ID card and stand your ground on principle when you encounter people ignorant of service dog rights. Under ADA rules, staff at a venue may only ask two questions if the handler’s disability is not apparent: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
After you verbally confirm that your dog is a trained service dog, reasonable accommodations must legally be made for service dogs. Service Dogs can go anywhere their handlers can go, provided they do not pose a health or safety hazard to others. If a particular service animal behaves in a way that poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, has a history of such behavior, or is not under the control of the handler, that animal may be excluded. If an animal is excluded for such reasons, staff must still offer their goods or services to the person without the animal present. It’s important to understand these rules so you know what rights you have as the owner of a Service Dog and when third parties are violating your rights.
You’re all caught up on what it takes to have a Service Dog!
Ready to register and ID your dog?
Unable to train your dog as a service dog?
You may be interested in an Emotional Support Animal instead. ESAs do not require specific training, have access to no-pet apartments, and are exempt from breed or weight restrictions. Click here to learn more about ESAs.
In short, ESAs are protected under Federal Housing Regulations (but not the ADA), meaning that you cannot be charged any pet rent, deposits, or fees, nor can you or your ESA be denied housing on the grounds of living with a pet, with very few exceptions.
To qualify for an ESA, you must have a licensed mental health practitioner (including, but not limited to, psychologists, therapists, social workers, GPs/PCPs, etc.) write a letter affirming that you have a qualifying condition (including, but not limited to, depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.) that is helped by an emotional support animal. Additionally, unlike Service Animals, ESAs do not necessarily have to be dogs; cats, rabbits, and birds are other common choices.