In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. This civil rights legislation makes discrimination against individuals with disabilities illegal. Under the ADA, individuals with disabilities are protected in all areas and situations open to the public. This protection extends to individuals who use service animals. The following are the ADA’s frequently asked questions regarding the use of service animals. All questions and answers can be found on the ADA website.
What is a service animal?
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The dog must be trained to take a specific action to assist the person with a disability. For example, a dog that alerts a person with diabetes when his or her blood sugar is low, or a dog who can detect the onset of a seizure.
Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?
No. These animals provide comfort just by being with a person. Since they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
If someone’s dog calms them when having an anxiety attack, does it qualify as a service animal?
It depends. The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and the dog takes a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, then it would qualify as a service animal. But, if it’s just the dog’s presence that provides comfort, then it is not considered a service animal under the ADA.
Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?
No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.
What questions can a covered entity’s employees ask to determine if a dog is a service animal?
In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (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, ask that the dog demonstrate its task, or ask about the person what type of disability they have.
Must service animals wear a vest, patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?
No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear anything that says they are service animals.
Can a person bring a service animal with them as they go through a salad bar or other self-service food lines?
Yes. Service animals must be allowed to accompany their handlers at self-service food lines. Additionally, service animals may not be prohibited from community food prep areas found in shelters or dorms.
Can hotels assign designated rooms for guests with service animals, out of consideration for other guests?
No. A guest with a disability who uses a service animal cannot be restricted to “pet-friendly” rooms. In fact, the guest must be provided the same opportunity to reserve any available room at the hotel, just like guests without disabilities.
Can hotels charge a cleaning fee for guests who have service animals?
No. Hotels cannot charge guests for cleaning the hair or dander shed by a service animal. But, if the service animal causes damages to the room, the hotel is permitted to charge the same fee for damages as charged to other guests.
Can people bring more than one service animal into a public place?
Generally, yes. Some people with disabilities may use more than one service animal to perform different tasks. For example, a person may need two service animals for support and stability while he or she walks. If both dogs can be accommodated in the public place, then both should be allowed. However, if it is not possible to accommodate more than one service animal, staff may request that one of the dogs be left outside.
My city requires all dogs to be vaccinated. Does this apply to my service animal?
Yes. Service animals are not exempt from local animal control or public health requirements.
My city requires all dogs be registered and licensed. Does this apply to my service animal?
Yes. Service animals are also subject to local dog licensing and registration requirements.
My city requires me to register my dog as a service animal. Is this legal under the ADA?
No. Mandatory registration of service animals is not permissible under the ADA. However, it’s important to remember that service animals are subject to the same licensing and vaccination rules that are applied to all dogs.
Can service animals be any breed of dog?
Yes. There are three key items to this answer: (1) The ADA does not restrict the type of dog breeds; (2) no service animal can be excluded based on stereotypes about the animal’s breed; and (3) even municipality prohibitions must make an exception for service animals of a prohibited breed. Just remember, a service animal can be excluded if it poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or if it is not under control of the handler.
NO SERVICE ANIMAL CAN BE EXCLUDED BASED ON STEREOTYPES ABOUT THE ANIMAL’S BREED.
What are the laws that apply to my business?
Under the ADA, privately owned businesses that serve the public are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. These are things like restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities. The ADA requires all of these businesses allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals in all areas customers are generally allowed. An individual with a service animal may not be segregated from other customers.
How can I tell if an animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?
Some, but not all, service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers. If you are not sure whether it is a pet or service animal, you can ask the handler two questions: (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? Keep in mind, a person going to a restaurant or theater is not usually going to carry documents about their disability. Because of that, documentation generally may not be required as a condition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal. It’s also important to remember that you may not insist on proof of the animal’s certification before permitting the service animal into your business.
When can service animals be excluded?
The ADA does not require covered entities to modify policies, practices, or procedures if it would “fundamentally alter” the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public. The ADA does not overrule legitimate safety requirements. If admitting service animals would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program, service animals may be prohibited. So, if a service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, if it is not housebroken, or if the animal is threatening someone, the animal may be excluded.
When might a service dog’s presence fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program rovided to the public?
In most settings, the presence of a service animal will not result in a fundamental alteration. But there are some exceptions. For example, at a boarding school, service animals could be restricted from a specific area of a dormitory reserved specifically for students with allergies to dog dander or at a movie theater, when the dog barks continuously.
Do service animals have to be on a leash? Do they have to be quiet and not bark?
The service animal must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered while in public places unless it would interfere with the service animal’s work. If that is the case, the person must use voice, signal, or other effective means to maintain control of the animal. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may use a long, retractable leash to allow her service animal to pick up or retrieve items. She may not allow the dog to wander away from her and must maintain control of the dog, even if it is retrieving an item at a distance from her. Another example is a returning veteran who has PTSD and has great difficulty entering unfamiliar spaces. The veteran may have a dog that is trained to enter the space first, check to see there are no threats, and come back to signal that the place is safe. For this kind of task, the dog must be off leash to do its job, but it could be leashed at other times. Both examples show that the person still has the service animal “under control.” Under control also means that a service animal should not be allowed to repeatedly bark in a class, theater, library, or other quiet place. Barking once or barking because it was provoked does not mean the dog is out of control.
What can my staff do when a service animal is disruptive?
If a service animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, staff can request that the animal be removed from the premises.
Are hotel guests allowed to leave their service animals in their room when they leave the hotel?
No, the dog must be under the handler’s control at all times.
My county health department has told me that only a guide dog should be admitted. If I follow those regulations, am I violating the ADA?
Yes, if you follow this regulation, you are violating the ADA. The ADA takes priority over the local or state laws and regulations.
Are churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship required to allow individuals to bring their service animals into the facility?
No. Religious institutions and organizations are specifically exempt from the ADA. However, there may be state laws that apply to religious organizations.
Penalties for Violating Service Animal Laws
It is important to know that discriminating against a person who uses a service animal is punishable by a fine of no more than $300 and 30 hours of community service.
Fraudulently claiming an untrained animal as a service animal is also punishable with a fine of no more than $300 and 30 hours of community service.
1 Texas Workforce Commission, Tips & Tools – About Service Animals, (Sept. 20, 2016)
2 U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, ADA Requirements: Service Animals, (July 2011)
3 U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals, (July 2015)
4 Office of the Governor Greg Abbott, Texas Disability Law – Service Dogs, (2016)