What is a Service Dog?

What is a Service Dog?

This is a lot of talk going on these days about Service Dogs, Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, Therapy Dogs, Fake Service Dogs, and How Breed Specific Legislation affects Service Animals.

Here is what the Americans with Disabilities Act says about service dogs and their definition of disabilities. Let it be known, since this is Federal, it trumps any state or county laws against breeds or which limit the definition of disability to less than this.

  • Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities…The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
  • The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability.

A Service Animal used to be any animal trained to work or perform tasks, but that definition was narrowed recently so that it now only covers dogs and in some circumstances miniature horses.

What does this mean?

To be a service dog the animal has to be trained to do something in order to help their person with a disability. ESA’s or Emotional Support Animals are not the same as a Service Animal. ESA’s do provide emotional support and are protected under Fair Housing in “no pet” areas and are allowed in the cabin of flights but in both situations the person would need a signed letter on official letterhead from a mental health professional who “subscribes” them the need for such an animal. Therapy Animals or Therapy Dogs are dogs who are trained to provide emotional support at specific times, like when visiting hospitals, schools, or other places where people will benefit from judgement free time with an animal. These are well-behaved animals but they are pets and are not allowed the same rights as ESAs or Service Dogs.

The ADA does NOT require any sort of registration, vest, patch, card, etc. in order to be a Service Animal and in some situations a vest might impede the dog from doing its job properly. This is very important as there are many different registries and organizations out there which will for free or for a fee register your dog as a service dog. These might make things “run smoother” for you taking your service dog out, but they are actually hurting others who need and have service dogs but do not register because they know they do not have to. If a store or other business has one service dog come in who is “registered” they might wonder why you are not.

The ADA also does not differentiate between a mental or a physical disability. A store owner might only be familiar with seeing eye dogs and might not recognize that there are many disabilities which are invisible. These people with invisible disabilities are still protected by the ADA and can benefit greatly from service dogs.

If you have a service dog and someone challenges your right to be somewhere with that dog, please be prepared. The only questions a business is allowed to legally ask are, “Is this a service dog for a disability?” and “What does the dog do for you?”. Be prepared to answer the second question especially. Questions about the nature of a person’s disability are not allowed. If the person tries asking other questions you can state that these are the only two questions they can ask and give answers to them.

If this is not sufficient or if the business person does not believe you, instead of offering your own unsubstantiated answers, advise them to contact the U.S. Department of Justice’s official ADA information line at: 800 – 514 – 0301 (voice) or 800 – 514 – 0383 (TTY).

It is an unfortunate fact that there are people out there who would like to take their dogs, regardless of training level, wherever they go. These people lie and tell the public that their dog is a service animal simply so they can take their dog into stores and around town with them. This not only is breaking the law, as trying to pass your pet off as a service animal when they are not is against the law in most states, but this makes it more difficult for the countless people across the US who need service animals but may not have a visible illness or disability. Please, do not try to fake your way into a store with your pet by saying they are a service dog. If someone you know is trying to do this or is doing this, please advise them to the laws and remind them that what they are doing can negatively affect people with legitimate service dogs and service dog needs.

Later I’ll be posting some things which a service dog can do to benefit a person with either a physical or a mental disability. You’d be amazed at what these dogs can do and how much they improve a person’s quality of life. Following that I will do into more detail about how BSLs and Fake Service Dogs, Registrations, and Legislation about Service Dogs are hurting People who may need these animals.


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