Service Animal Basics

What is a service animal?

According to Title II and III of the ADA, a service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  Service animals can benefit individuals with a wide range of disabilities, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

What can a service animal do?

Service animals can be trained to help with many tasks.  Just a few include:

  • Alerting a person with hearing loss to a sound.
  • Assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation.
  • Assisting an individual during a seizure.
  • Reminding a person to take medication.
  • Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities.
  • Helping individuals with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.

Still want to learn more?

Where can a service animal go?

Generally, a service animal is allowed to go wherever the person with the disability can go, meaning that they can go wherever the public is allowed to go. Here are two examples you may be wondering about:

  • In a restaurant, a service animal must be allowed to accompany the person with a disability in all areas that are open to other patrons.
  • In a hospital, the same is true, except that there may be certain areas of the hospital where having a service animal could jeopardize safety, such as in the sterile environment of an operating room.

In addition to restaurants and hospitals, other places of public accommodation must modify their policies to allow a service animal to accompany an individual with a disability, unless it would result in a fundamental alteration or would jeopardize safe operation.

How do you know if a service animal is really a service animal and not just a pet?

That’s a tricky question.  The ADA limits the questions you can ask. When a person with a service animal enters a public facility or place of public accommodation, the person cannot be asked about the nature or extent of his disability. Only two questions may be asked:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

If the answer to question 1 is yes and the tasks listed for question 2 are directly related to the person’s disability, then the animal is a service animal.

A public accommodation or facility is not allowed to ask for documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. They are also not allowed to demand a demonstration of the tasks the service animal can perform.

Certification requirements and other common misconceptions

There are no formal certification systems that are required or approved by the ADA.  In addition, service animals are not required to wear vests identifying them as a service animal.  Learn more about these and other common misconceptions on our Service Animal Misconceptions page.

What about miniature horses?

By definition, a miniature horse is not a service animal.  But, ADA regulations contain a specific provision which covers miniature horses.  A public entity or private business must allow a person with a disability to bring a miniature horse on the premises as long as the horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability. However, an organization can consider whether the facility can accommodate the miniature based on the horse’s type, size, and weight. The rules that apply to service dogs also apply to miniature horses.

To determine whether a business can accommodate a miniature horse, the following must be true:

  • The miniature horse is housebroken.
  • The miniature horse is under the owner’s control.
  • The facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight.
  • The miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for the safe operation of the facility.

Can I take my service animal to work?

Maybe. Title I of the ADA covers employment.  Under Title I, service animals are considered a reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodations must be requested by the person with a disability, but the employer is not obligated to provide the reasonable accommodation if there are appropriate alternatives or if the request presents an undue hardship.   Requests for reasonable accommodations are considered by the employer on a case-by-case basis and is an interactive process.

To read more about service animals in the workplace, check out our Taking a Service Animal to Work page.

Can I take my service animal on an airplane?

Definitely. Read the Traveling With a Service Animal and Flying With a Service Animal pages to learn about the rights and responsiblities the ADA and the Air Carrier Access Act provide to travelers and service providers.

What if there is a natural disaster and I have to go to an emergency shelter? What rights do I have?

Obviously, emergencies aren’t limited to natural disaster.  For some being homeless is an emergency.  Individuals with a disability who rely on service animals have rights in disasters, both natural and man-made, as well as when they are homeless.  Learn about those rights, which are covered primarily by Title II of the ADA, by taking a look at our Service Animals in Emergency Situations page.

I’m a small business owner.  Do I have to allow in service animals, even if I have a “no pets” policy clearly posted?

Yes.  You may not deny entry to an individual with a disability who has a service animal.  You can learn more about service animals and small businesses on our Service Animal and Small Business page.  Included on the page is a factsheet that addresses many common questions business owners, their staff, and their customers may have about service animals.

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