A Guide To Understanding Service Animals

One of the great wonders of the world is the connection that can form between humans and animals. Many people have experienced the joys of caring for a pet, but only a few know what it means to have a service animal enter their lives.

In this special relationship, the animal and person care for each other, each giving and receiving in the process. Service animals can change the lives of their handlers and provide the freedom to enjoy many activities that their disability would otherwise deny them.

Service animals help individuals with a variety of disabilities enjoy a greater quality of life while assisting with daily tasks. Not every person with a disability is a good candidate for a service animal, though, and the process of getting one, training it and understanding ADA compliance can be complicated. Here’s everything you need to know about service animals, including training and regulations.

Service Animals, Defined

According to updates made to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2010, only dogs qualify as official service animals. The legal definition of a service animal is a dog that is trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability. This could be leading them down the street, turning on lights, fetching needed objects, reminding the handler to take medication, alerting others when the handler has a seizure or any other job that a dog could reasonably do for a person.

Note that emotional support is not a job of an official service animal, with the exception of calming a PTSD patient during a full-blown panic attack. This means that therapy animals — which often include dogs, cats, rabbits and many other cuddly creatures — that offer a calming presence or whose main function is companionship are not protected by ADA regulations about service animals. Interestingly, the recent updates to the ADA do allow for miniature horses that have been trained to perform tasks for their handlers the same protections as service dogs, if they meet requirements of being housebroken and weigh less the 100 pounds.

Rules About Service Dogs

Service dogs are highly trained animals. In addition to performing specific tasks for their handlers, they must be housebroken and well behaved in public. Unless being on a leash restricts them from doing their assigned work, service animals should be tethered or harnessed at all times in public.

They also often wear a jacket that shows others that they are an official service animal, which can put people with a fear of dogs at ease in shared spaces and alerts families with young children not to try to engage the dog in play. Dogs that cannot remain harnessed must respond to verbal commands and be under supervision at all times.

Assuming the service animal is fully trained and obedient, these dogs are legally allowed to accompany their handlers in all public spaces. This includes parks, libraries restaurants, hotels, airplanes, apartment buildings — anywhere the disabled person needs or wants to be. Service dogs are, therefore, permitted in many places where pets or other animals would be prohibited. ADA regulations supersede building or health codes about food handling or homeonwners association (HOA) rules restricting pets, for example. It is also unlawful to charge special fees for service dogs or ask them to leave due to a complaint — unless the animal is out of control.

How to Get a Service Dog

If you think that you or a loved one would benefit from the assistance of a service dog, it’s best to start by talking to your physician about your options. You’ll also need to consider whether you have the space in your home and the ability to care for the animal for many years to come.

Service dogs are expensive: In addition to budgeting for their daily food and regular veterinary checkups, they’re also a big investment up front, as their training can cost several thousands of dollars. You’ll also need to research programs near you to find a good fit — it’s possible that you’ll need to spend some time training with the dog before he or she comes home with you. Different programs have varying costs and requirements for eligibility.

Once you’ve researched your options and applied to the programs, you may find yourself on a waiting list. Use this time to submit a letter to your landlord and/or employer asking for an accommodation for your future service dog. They are legally required to allow it if you meet the ADA definition of having a disability, and the letter will keep everyone informed of your intentions. By law, people are not allowed to ask you about your dog’s qualifications or deny you access, but they are allowed to ask you the following questions:

  • Is the animal required because of a disability?
  • What tasks has the animal been trained to perform?

Note that it is not ok for someone like a flight attendant or manager of a restaurant to ask you about your specific disability or demand paperwork about your service animal, though if you find it easier to present documentation, you are free to do so.

Training a Service Dog

Many people without disabilities are interested in raising and training a service dog for a future career helping someone else. This can be a hugely rewarding experience, though it’s one that’s more time consuming than simply bringing a puppy home for some basic house training. Remember also that training a service dog typically means raising a puppy for about a year and then sending him or her off to a special training kennel — you may not ever see the dog again, so consider carefully if your family is ready for that type of relationship with an animal.

If you are, research a local service dog program to see what volunteer programs they offer. Fostering a “puppy in training” is a serious commitment, and you’ll likely need to prove that you are a good candidate to do so: You have a fenced-in yard, your family is willing, you’re committed to proper veterinary care, etc. You’ll also need the patience and time to spend house training and socializing the dog, and many programs require you to attend regular training classes with the animal.

You may also begin to take your foster service animal out in public to acclimate him or her to future tasks. Be aware that, while many businesses are understanding and supportive of service dogs in training, they are not required by law to accommodate an animal that does not yet meet full service dog requirements. Stay flexible and open-minded as you navigate your neighborhood for the first time. Since pups in training are not officially certified service animals, it’s also a good idea to check with your HOA or landlord as he or she may legally refuse on the grounds that the dog isn’t fully housebroken or trained.

Whether you plan to adopt a service dog for your own use or volunteer to train a puppy for future work, the relationship between a service animal and his people is a truly special one. Knowing your local laws will ease the path to fostering this special bond in your life.