Expert Service Dog Training for Life-Changing Results

What Are My Public Access Rights for My Service Dog in Training (SDiT)?

Golden retriever lies on a city park bench next to two young asian women

If you are training a service dog for yourself, you may be wondering what your rights and responsibilities are. Do you need to carry documentation? Can you bring your dog with you to medical appointments? What about to restaurants? This post provides some answers and resources on the rights of your service dog in training.

Rights for Trained Service Dog Teams

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), disabled people accompanied by a trained service animal typically have equal access rights to all public accommodations, including transportation, restaurants, lodgings, stores, medical and healthcare settings, etc.

Here is some additional information that may be helpful about the legal rights of businesses and service dog teams.

Under the ADA, a trained service animal is a:

  • Dog
  • Trained to perform tasks or do work related to the handler’s disability
  • Under handler control at all times, which is defined as leashed, tethered, or harnessed (unless that equipment would interfere with the dog’s work, in which case the dog must be under the handler’s control via voice, hand signals, or other cues)
  • House trained
  • Is not behaving in a way that fundamentally alters the nature of the service or poses a direct threat to others’ health and safety. Examples: a dog barks repeatedly during a movie, a dog growls and lunges at customers in a store, a dog covered in fleas in a doctor’s office. These dogs, or dogs with a history of such behavior, may be excluded.
Woman in a blue blazer stands with her black lab puppy on leash by her side and looking up at her
Lee Atherton trains SDiT puppy Phoenix at a JoAnne Fabrics store

Important notes:

  • Medical and food service establishments may NOT restrict access to a service dog team even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
  • When it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal, a business’ employees may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Employees cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

Rights for Service Dog in Training (SDiT) Teams

The ADA does NOT grant access rights to people training a service dog. However, in most US states, people who are training a service dog have the same rights of access as disabled people accompanied by trained service animals. This varies from state-to-state.

Black Lab lies under a table at a restaurant while owner sits at the table looking at the dog.
Molly Buckley trains SDiT Sam to lie quietly under a table while she eats at a mall food court

Here in Massachusetts, under Massachusetts General Laws Ch129, S39F:

Section 39F. A person accompanied by and engaged in the raising or training of a service dog, including a hearing, guide or assistance dog, shall have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as those afforded to an individual with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. sections 12101 et seq.

To find out what the laws are in other states, you can either look for a reliable resource that provides easy-to-understand information on how the state’s disability rights laws apply to service dogs, or you can search the state’s actual disability rights laws yourself. The benefit to reading an interpretation is that it’s a lot easier to understand. The downside is that there is a lot of misinformation on the internet, so you need to feel confident that the source you’re using for interpretation is an up-to-date and reliable source. The benefit to reading the law itself is that you don’t have to worry about whether you’re getting accurate information.

I usually start by doing an internet search for the the disability civil rights law for for the state in question. You can add the term “service animal” or “public accommodation” into your search to find more specific results. If you find a law for the state your are researching and choose to look at the law itself, you can use your browser’s search feature to find the relevant section for service animals. Put “animal” into the search bar for that law, and typically that takes you to the wording for service animals. Often a law is broken up into multiple chapters and codes that are listed on separate pages, so you may have to click through and search for “animal” in each chapter and section of the law.

If you find an article online about access rights for trainers of service dogs, make sure to check the date of the reference. Laws change. A search I did for Michigan revealed a law that was only enacted a year ago (March of 2023). Also, make sure that the source of information is reliable. The best source of information is the state itself. Look for .gov in the URL.

small curly-haired service dog lies down in store
Gatsby practices lying quietly at a Barnes & Noble while Allison Rhinelander shops.

What About if People Don’t Know Service Dog Laws?

While you may know your rights and responsibilities as a service dog handler or SDiT team, not everyone you come across will. And let’s be honest, the laws change often and are frequently confusing! It’s reasonable to expect that not everyone knows all the laws.

While SDiT or SD teams are under no legal obligation to provide places of accommodation with legal information, it often makes life easier for you to have something short and easy-to-read to offer people in stores, restaurants, doctor’s offices, etc.

I offer my SDiT clients a card they can hand out that has some basic information on state and federal laws so they can respond to questions from strangers. I also write letters for clients who run into issues with doctors or other places they frequent. If you are working with another trainer, ask them to do something similar.

If you get questioned by an employee at a public accommodation, and your dog has been behaving in a mannerly fashion…

  1. Try to stay calm — for your dog’s sake as well as your own. Communicate to your dog that there’s nothing to be worried about by praising and continuously treating your dog as you interact with the person.
  2. Say, “This is my service dog in training. Would you like some information on her/him?” If the person says yes, hand them the card that contains information on your state and federal SD and SDiT laws, including links to the ADA.gov website and the DOJ ADA hotline, as well as your state’s law that allows you access to their establishment. While they are reading the card, you can move your dog away. If the person was just trying to give you a hard time, giving them the card gives them something else to focus on. If they were genuinely concerned about whether you have the right to train your dog in their store, you have now given them an easy way to calm their fears.

If you get anxious when people approach you about your service dog or SDiT, it’s a good idea to practice your response many times at home, by yourself, until it rolls easily off your tongue without thought. Then you won’t have to think when you’re under stress in a real situation. Also, train your dog at home first, and then with friends and family, on what you want your dog to do when people approach. We teach a step-by-step protocol for both dogs and handlers to follow when approached by strangers to make it possible for even people with social anxiety (and highly social dogs!) to successfully navigate these encounters. We start this foundation training in our PEARL DISC classes.

Tan poodle with a service dog vest on sitting and looking up at the camera
Penny looooves strangers approaching to talk to her, but her handler does not!

Kate Shallbetter wrote to us after taking her service dog in training, Labradoodle Penny, through one of our classes. “Penny and I really enjoyed class and learned so much! I actually put my auto-response to strangers approaching to use last weekend when we were out. I used the whole sequence (starting with the auto-response of “one moment” then the rest followed naturally)! Penny did great! A bit distracted but was able to refocus and stay focused while the woman insisted on asking me about service dog breeds etc LOL so that exercise in class got put to use right away. It’s definitely something I struggle with but it was soooo much easier since we had practiced it!”

More Information and Resources

Have you found another great legal resource for people training service dogs? Have a question about service dog training? Let us know in the comments.

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