Q: What is the legal definition of a service dog?
A: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that mitigate the effects of a person’s disability. A disability is a permanent or chronic mental, emotional, sensory, or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as walking, learning, breathing, standing, working, talking, etc.).
For public access, a service dogs must be under its handler’s control at all times. The ADA specifies that a service dog is leashed, tethered, or harnessed unless that would interfere with it performing its assistance tasks. In that case, the SD must be otherwise under handler control (e.g., hand signals, voice commands, etc.).
Legally, a service dog is equivalent to assistive equipment (e.g., cane, speech device, environmental control unit, wheelchair) or a human aide (e.g., sighted guide or personal assistant). The work the dog does must in some way mitigate its partner’s disability, such as making it less severe, or increasing the human partner’s safety or independence.
Also, the dog’s work must be trained; it cannot consist of behaviors the dog offers naturally. To have public access with your service dog, your dog must be under control and house trained. If the presence of the dog would fundamentally alter the business operations, it can be excluded.
Q: Are there other generally accepted standards for service dogs?
A: To work in public, a service dog must have excellent manners. Think of a dog is so quiet and well-behaved that other people may not realize a dog is present. The dog must also be comfortable and relaxed in any environment because it will need to perform its job wherever the team is.
Thus, SD candidates cannot be aggressive or fearful. They must be able to act professional in public.
Q: Define service dogs vs. emotional support animals vs. therapy dogs vs. companion dogs?
A: A service dog is a highly trained dog, with excellent manners and obedience, partnered with one disabled person, trained to perform tasks that mitigate the effect of that person’s disability. The ADA only considers dogs – and miniature horses trained to guide blind people – as assistance animals. No other animals are considered service animals.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is a pet of any species whose presence makes its disabled owner feel better and is therefore allowed as a reasonable accommodation in “no pets” housing and on airplane flights. The pet must have a therapeutic effect on the owner but doesn’t need to perform tasks. A person with an ESA dog has no public access rights. A letter from a doctor stating that the animal’s presence relieves symptoms is usually required for accommodation.
A therapy dog provides comfort, affection, or support to people in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, or other places where people benefit from a dog’s presence. Though therapy dogs undergo training in obedience, manners, and sometimes other skills, they are not trained to mitigate the effects of one person’s disability. Therapy dog handlers have no public access rights and must obtain permission from these facilities to bring their dog there to work.
There is no agreed-upon definition of “companion dog.” Some SD programs use the term for dogs trained to assist disabled people that aren’t suitable for public access work and work in the home only. However, since “companion animal” is often synonymous with “pet” (any dog can be a “companion” to their owner), it’s not a meaningful term for a specially trained dog.
Q: What do I need to train my dog as a service dog?
A: You need three things:
- The right dog. A SD must be comfortable and able to work around people, noise, movement, other dogs, running squirrels, traffic, etc. This requires training, but the dog must have a temperament that starts out pretty comfortable already.
- An ENORMOUS amount of time and dedication. Training a SD is equivalent to a full-time job. Not only will you spend up to two or three years training daily, you’ll also spend time socializing, grooming, handling, and exercising your dog beyond what you’d do with a pet. You also must supervise your dog closely, preventing bad behavior around the house, on walks, or during play because it undermines your other training. If you’re obsessed with having a SD, feel it’s how you want to spend most of your time, and you’ll do anything to make it happen, you have the right attitude to make a go of it.
- Money. You need more time than money, but SDs are expensive. (If you have less time and more money, a trainer can do a lot of training but you’ll need to be truly dedicated to the dog’s behavior, too). If you have less money, you’ll need to budget for training books and videos, gear, treats, grooming, and others extras that a pet dog doesn’t need.
Q: What access rights does a service dog have?
A: None because only people have access rights. Legally a service dog is viewed as assistive equipment. With few exceptions, if your dog fulfills the same function as a wheelchair, white cane, human assistant, etc., you have the right to go where you could use those other forms of assistance.
Q: Do I have the right to bring my service dog wherever I go?
A: A disabled person with a dog that is task-trained to reduce the impact of that person’s disability has the right to bring that dog into public accommodations (stores, restaurants, hotels, concerts), on public transportation (taxis, buses, subways), and to work or school, as long as the dog’s presence doesn’t cause an undue burden to the business, organization, school, etc., or anywhere the general public can go, with these exceptions:
- Private clubs or religious organizations (including churches, synagogues, or mosques) are not covered by the ADA. Only public spaces that anyone can enter are covered
- A person with a dog that soils (pees/poops), or that is not under handler control – including being aggressive or disruptive (whining, barking) – may be asked to remove the dog. The disabled handler can stay in the establishment without the dog.
- In places where the presence of the dog would constitute an “undue burden” or “fundamentally alter” the nature of the business, such as in an operating room or in an allergy clinic that treats people with dog allergies, a service dog may be restricted.
Q: Do I have the legal right to bring my service-dog-in-training (SDiT) wherever I go?
A: It depends on the state. In most of the Northeast, including Massachusetts, if you are actively engaged in training a service dog, you have the same access rights as a SD partner/handler. (Look up the laws for your state in ADI’s PDF “Guide to Assistance Dog Laws.”)
Q: Should I bring my puppy or SDiT with me everywhere I go?
A: Not necessarily. Bringing your puppy everywhere can flood some puppies, making negative associations that adversely affect socialization. Being overwhelmed in public can cause behavior problems in adult dogs, too. Additionally, dogs and puppies can learn to behave badly in public, which you’ll have to retrain later. Also, dogs that are never left home can develop behavior problems when they do spend time alone (which happens even to service dogs sometimes). A trainer can help you learn when to bring your dog and when to leave her at home.
Q: How do I get my dog certified as a legal service dog?
A: In the United States, there is no legal certification of service dogs. Websites offering “service dog certification packages” are misleading at best, scams at worst. Save your money! Some service dog organizations offer certificates of graduation or completion, but this does not confer any legal rights or privileges.
If your dog is well-trained in manners and obedience, under your complete control, quiet and unobtrusive, and reducing the impact of your disabilities with trained behaviors, your dog is legally a service dog. You do not need certification.
Q: How do I know when my dog is “legal”? When do I take off the “in training” patches?
A: You (or a trainer) must assess your dog’s public access training (obedience, manners, and ability to function well in high-distraction environments) and your dog’s ability to successfully perform tasks that reduce the impact of your disability. Often it’s useful to meet with a qualified trainer and together, assess your dog’s training, your goals, and your dog’s behavior. You are an important part of the process because you know best how well your dog’s trained behavior is affecting your disability. A qualified trainer can also perform a set evaluation, such as the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test to give you a sense of your dog’s readiness to work in public. (Note that this does not convey any legal meaning and is not relevant to ADI unless the trainer works for an ADI member organization.)
Q: When is the right time to work with a qualified, professional trainer?
A: As early as possible – ideally before you get your dog.
A qualified trainer can help you…
- choose the right dog
- create a training plan
- give you resources to raise a physically and behaviorally healthy dog
- set up you and your dog for success with manners, obedience, and service tasks
- find answers when training or behavior issues arise
Q: How do I choose a qualified trainer to help me train my dog?
A: Service dog training takes special expertise. A good trainer should…
- Use positive-reinforcement methods (such as clicker training). Punishment training (choke, pinch, prong, or shock collars) is not appropriate for most service dog training
- Be certified as a professional dog trainer by a respected certifying body, such as CCPDT.org or IAABC.org, or have graduated from a humane, science-based dog trainer professional vocational program such as Karen Pryor Academy, Academy for Dog Trainers, or Animal Behavior College
- Have an understanding of applied behavior analysis in behavior modification
- Have experience training service dogs, working with disabled people, and with the laws and ethical issues that apply to service dog training and handling
- Work with you in a way that feels comfortable, effective, helpful, and supportive to you
- Be willing to answer your questions, including questions about fees or training methods
Q: Is it best to do group classes or private training?
A: It depends on your dog’s level of training, age, and the services in your area. For most dogs, it is often best to get foundation behaviors (sit, down, stay, heel, come, touch, mat, etc.) solid by working privately with a skilled positive-reinforcement trainer, and then take group classes to proof those behaviors in a distracting new setting.
For puppies (8- 16 weeks), a well-run puppy kindergarten is a terrific addition to home training. It can help with socialization and with teaching your puppy to focus on you around distractions. Choose carefully! Training classes can cause more harm than good if they use punitive methods, allow inappropriate interactions between dogs, or are taught by trainers who don’t understand how to build a dog’s confidence and skills slowly and properly.
Q: I was told that people with my type of disability cannot train a service dog. Is this true?
A: Probably not. Type of disability is rarely a determining factor.
If the dog is right for service work, the most important other factor is the handler’s motivation, dedication, willingness to learn (often requiring much research and study), and ability to provide hundreds of hours of skilled training.
I know people with many different types of disabilities who have trained service dogs. Examples include quadriplegia, deafblindness, CP, psychiatric disabilities (such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression), chronic illnesses (such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome) successfully train their own service dogs. If you are committed, have the time, resources, and the right dog, you have a great shot at training your own SD!