Service Dog Rights
1. Service Dogs have special public access rights under federal law
Service dog owners have special rights under both federal and state laws. The Americans with Disabilities Act, commonly known as the “ADA,” is the primary federal law protecting owners of service dogs in all 50 states.
Under the ADA, service dog owners have the right to enter places normal pets can’t. Service dog owners have broad public access rights in places like stores, restaurants, schools, arenas, and movie theaters.
The ADA, however, is not the only law that protects service dog owners. Service dog owners can also board flights free of charge pursuant to the Air Carrier Access Act and the U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines.
Not only that, service dog owners can also live with their service dogs in buildings that ban pets. Under the Fair Housing Act and guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), landlords must reasonably accommodate service dog owners without any fees or deposits.
That means service dogs are allowed to live with their owners without charge, even if the building usually doesn’t allow animals of any kind.
Finally, most states also have laws that protect owners of service dog owners. These laws generally mirror federal service dog laws and provide an additional layer of protection for service dog owners.
2. What is the definition of a Service Dog?
A service animal is a dog that has been trained to perform a job or task that assists with a person’s disability. Service dogs can be used by both people with physical and mental disabilities. A service dog used by someone with a mental health condition is called a psychiatric service dog.
For example, a service dog might pull a wheelchair for someone with a mobility disability or provide pressure therapy to calm a person with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Whatever the condition may be, it has to be severe enough to substantially limit a major life activity like working or sleeping.
Dogs are the only type of animal allowed to be a service animals under the ADA’s rules. Other types of animals like cats, birds, small reptiles, and rabbits can be emotional support animals which is a different type of assistance animal.
3. What different rights do service dogs, and emotional support animals have?
Emotional support animals provide comfort to people with mental health disabilities like depression, severe anxiety, bipolar disorder, or PTSD. Unlike psychiatric service dogs, they do not require any specialized training. ESAs do their jobs just by being present around their owners to provide comfort during difficult times.
Psychiatric service dog owners do not need any special documentation to prove that they are a service dog owner (other than for flights as discussed below). ESAs, on the other hand, require a letter from a licensed healthcare professional like a doctor or therapist.
ESAs and service dogs have very different legal rights. ESAs primarily have rights for housing, meaning they are allowed to live in no-pet buildings free of charge. ESAs do not have the broader public access rights that service dogs have. That means ESAs cannot enter stores, restaurants, or airplanes.
4. Service dog public access rights
Under the ADA’s rules, state and local governments and businesses that serve the public must allow service dogs to accompany their handlers in all areas of the facility where the public is allowed to go.
Places service dogs have access to include:
- Grocery Stores
- Office or any place of work
- National Parks
- Coffee Shops
- Farmers Markets
- No-pet apartments
- Movie Theaters
- Rideshare and taxis
A service dog’s owner to access public spaces is not absolute. A service dog owner can be asked to leave if their service dog creates an unsafe or unhealthy environment for others. For example, a service dog that is not under the handler’s control or acting aggressively can be asked to leave the premises. Service dogs are allowed to board flights free of charge. To fly with a service dog, the owner must complete and submit the DOT’s Service Animal Air Transportation Form to the airline prior to boarding the flight.
5. Service dog verification
Third parties and landlords can ask two questions, and only these two questions, to verify that someone has a service dog:
- Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Staff members at a facility are not allowed to ask for details about a person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special ID card or training documentation. Third parties cannot ask the dog to demonstrate the job or task that it was trained to do.
Service dog accessories like ID cards, registrations, and vests do not confer rights on their owners. However, they are frequently used by service dog owners to easily signal that their dog is a service animal. These items should only be used by service dog owners with fully trained service dogs. Some psychiatric service dog owners will obtain optional Psychiatric Service Dog Letters. PSD letters are documents signed by licensed healthcare professionals that opine on whether someone has an eligible mental health disability for the purposes of owning a psychiatric service dog.
6. What happens if you violate the rights of a service dog owner?
People that violate the rights of a service dog handler can get into serious trouble and be subject to legal repercussions. The U.S. Department of Justice, HUD, and the Department of Transportation can take action against individuals that violate service dog rules.
For example, the following situations can lead to a lawsuit:
- A store that improperly denies entry to a service dog.
- A café that asks inappropriate questions to a service dog owner, such as the nature of their disability.
- An airline that charges a passenger with a service dog a special fee.
- A landlord who refuses to allow a tenant to live with their service dog.
Businesses and landlords have been sued when they have violated applicable disability laws that pertain to service dog owners. As a business, landlord, or other institution, it’s important to understand service dog rules to avoid potential fines and legal headaches.