A service animal is a specially trained animal assigned to a person with a disability. The purpose of the service animal is to help the disabled person live as independently as possible.

Service animals were once primarily associated with people afflicted with blindness. However, service animals are now used to assist people with many different kinds of disabilities, including emotional and psychological conditions. Therapy and companion animals are not necessarily service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act sets guidelines for determining service animal eligibility.

What Rights Do Service Dog Owners Have?

Under the American with Disabilities Act, people with service dogs have a right to be in public places. Also, the act requires public places to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

What Is a Public Place?

A public place is anywhere the public is invited or permitted to be. Such places include restaurants, grocery stores, schools, shopping centers, hotels and doctor’s offices.
Service dogs even are allowed on public transportation including buses and airplanes.

When Would a Service Animal Not Be Allowed?

The definition of a service animal is covered in Title III of the ADA. The animal must be trained specifically to do work that the person with a disability cannot do for himself or herself. These tasks can be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental in nature. For example, a service animal may navigate for a person who is vision impaired, alert its owner to sounds if the owner is hard of hearing, pull a wheelchair, alert help during a seizure, or help someone with limited mobility by retrieving objects such as a phone or medication.

Regardless of if an animal is trained or untrained, domestic or wild, it cannot be considered a service animal if it cannot perform these specific tasks.

Where Are Service Animals Allowed?

Service animals are generally allowed anywhere people are allowed. People with disabilities who rely on service animals may bring them into restaurants, hospitals, public transportation, stores, and parks.

Title III of the ADA requires employers and landlords to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities of any kind.

  • Reasonable accommodations means that the modifications must improve on the work or home environment for the disabled individual, but the cost must be reasonable, and the accommodation does not have to be comprehensives.
  • Service animals are part of a reasonable accommodation, but the person with the disability must prove “undue hardship” in order to receive permission to have a service animal in the workplace or in a rental residence that otherwise does not allow pets. 
  • “Undue hardship” means that it would be difficult or impossible for the individual with a disability to perform the job or maintain an adequate standard of health, life, and wellness without the presence of a service animal.

However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that there is no specific definition of service animals when it comes to employment. This means that employers must consider allowing service animals for conditions that are more therapeutic or emotionally supportive in intent. If the animal is found to be disruptive, or if it is not needed to perform specific tasks related to the employee’s disability, the employer is not required to allow the service animal in the workplace. Some states, however, have passed laws allowing certain service animals in the workplace.

What Kind of Accommodations Am I Entitled To?

Public places allow service dogs into their facilities unless it is a safety concern or unless allowing access to service dogs would fundamental change to the nature of the public place. Public places are generally required to modify their policies, practices, and procedures to accommodate service dogs.

For example, in California, a zoo does not need to let a service dog near an exhibit where there is no physical barrier to separate the service dog and the animal. But the zoo must provide kennels to store the dog.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have been told by a doctor or other certified professional that you require a service animal to help you with a disability, and you have been denied the presence of the animal in a public place, in a rented property, or in a place of employment, an employment lawyer can help advise your of your rights, prepare a case, and represent you during settlement negotiations or in court.