Service Dogs and the ADA

Navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how it applies to the use of a Service Dog

With the rising number of children diagnosed with Autism along with the increased numbers of both physically and psychologically disabled veterans, the need for trained service dogs is sure to also increase. While the most widely recognized service dogs are used by individuals who are sight impaired, there are other disabilities that are also defined under ADA Federal law. A well trained service dog can alert the hearing impaired, pull wheelchairs, and carry or pickup things for people with mobility and balance impairments. These dogs are individually trained to each person as his/her needs dictate.

The challenges that people with service dogs encounter are often the result of both lack of understanding and ignorance of the law.  The public at large and businesses in particular, fail to understand that service animals are not pets. The dog does not necessarily have to wear special collars and harnesses, do not have to be licensed nor carry identification documents. The dogs do not even necessarily have to be formally trained. Per the ADA, “a service dog is any guide dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.” (US Department of Justice; Civil Rights Division; Disability Rights Section)

Service dogWhile most people are not aware of the rules that govern service dogs, many business owners are surprisingly unfamiliar or uneducated about the legal requirements of access to their establishments. Many think that service dogs can be excluded due to the nature of their businesses. In fact, any privately owned business that serves the public is included such as restaurants, passenger airline cabins, airport facilities, hotels, grocery and department stores, taxicabs, theaters, hospitals and medical offices, health clubs, parks, zoos, concert halls and sports facilities.  Surprisingly, even though the law has been in place since 1990, mega businesses like Walmart, have had to modify their policies as recently as 2009 regarding to allow service dogs into all their stores.  Per the ADA, the following are the following are the rules that govern the service dog’s access to a business:

1)   A business owner may ask if the dog is a service animal or ask what tasks the service dog has been trained to do but cannot ask for any special ID cards for the service dog or ask about the person’s disability.

2)  People with disabilities who use service dogs cannot be charged extra fees, isolated from other patrons or treated less favorably than other patrons. However, if a business like a hotel, charges guests for damages they cause, a customer with a disability may be charged for damages caused by his/her service dog.

3)  A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his/her service dog from the premises unless: a) the animal is out of control and the service dog’s owner does not take effective action to control it, such as barking during a movie or posing threats to the safety of others. In these cases, a business must give the person with the disability the option to obtain goods and services without having the service dog in the business.

4)  Businesses that sell or prepare food must allow must allow service dogs in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises. However, these businesses are not required to provide food for a service dog or provide for a place to relieve itself.

5) Allergies and fear of service dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people with service dogs.

An important fact to remember is that the ADA provides a higher level of protection for individuals with disabilities and therefore its laws have higher priority that state or local regulations.  The laws governing service dog trainers may differ from state to state. There are a number of states where the ADA access laws treat the service dogs in training with the same guidelines as the disabled service dog owner.  Trainers should check with their state’s laws and regulations.

If you or someone you know has suffered any discrimination regarding public access with a service dog, you can get help.  First, contact the U.S. Department of Justice (ADA homepage) at  or,  call 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY). You may also want to contact your local public advocate’s office, your state’s Division of Civil Rights, your local state bar association’s referral service or Legal Aid Society.

Our School for Dog Trainers offers a Service Dog Trainer Course to teach students how to train Autism Service Dogs, mobility dogs, signal dogs as well as other service dogs.  If you are interested in becoming a professional service dog trainer to help people with disabilities, please feel free to contact us at 866.200.2207 or

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