What Is A Service Dog: Identifying The Different Types of Assistance Canines

The news is filled with tales of service dogs – from heroic canines rescuing victims of natural disasters, to controversial events at 30,000 feet and misbehaving companion animals on flights. This frequent, extremely public level of interest raises a lot of questions for the curious:

  • What are service dogs used for? 
  • Can anyone get a service dog, or are they reserved for people with certain disabilities? 
  • Can businesses get in legal trouble for barring service dogs?
  • Are people required to prove their dog is a service dog?

The rise of various “exotic” support animals and uncertain rights have muddied the waters in terms of public understanding of service dogs. This in turn leads to a lot of misunderstandings and complications, particularly in high-stress situations like airports. Essentially, there are three kinds of dogs that help people with difficulties, and only type – service dogs – are granted the access and legal freedoms commonly (and often mistakenly) attributed to all three. This article will address everything a curious mind needs to know about each type of assistance dog, their rights, and what they do.

What Is A Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is closest in performance to a service dog in that they’ve had training in their task and have been taught to be very well-behaved. Therapy dogs are canines that travel to businesses, shelters, schools, and other places with large groups of people to offer comfort and a soothing presence. 

Therapy dogs are not protected by the governing document for disability rights and regulations – in other words, the Americans with Disabilities Act, more commonly known as the ADA. This is the act that specifies, for example, how a business must make itself accessible with features such as wheelchair ramps, handicapped parking spaces, and handicapped bathroom stalls. The idea behind these regulations is equality – the ability for an individual with a handicap to access and use the same services as someone without that handicap. The ADA is the legal force behind service dogs, and requires businesses to allow service dogs in businesses, restaurants, transportation methods, hotels, and more.

Some uses of therapy dogs include

  • Visiting or remaining at a school recently afflicted by a natural disaster or school shooting to offer comfort to returning students
  • Visiting a senior citizen center or the children’s ward of a hospital to cheer up the occupants
  • Spending time with autistic or non-neurotypical children to aid in socialization and comfort

These tasks are important and can be absolutely crucial to individuals struggling with depression, tragedy, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Generally, the therapy dog remains with his owner throughout the visit, even while interacting with others, and will return home with his owner at the end of the day. An important distinction between service dogs and therapy dogs is that therapy dogs are not permitted access where a pet would normally be excluded, such as stores, businesses, and restaurants. 

What Is An Emotional Support Dog?

An emotional support dog is a canine companion kept as a companion animal, in whom the owner finds comfort. Often used as a blanket term for all companion pets, not all pets are technically considered emotional support animals, or ESAs. To be an official ESA, a handler must generally have prescription and/or letterhead documentation from his or her mental health professional stating that the dog is necessary to their health and well-being.

While ESAs do not have the same access rights as service dogs, they do have some legal protections in certain cases. The Fair Housing Act states that a documented/prescribed ESA is (provided they are toilet-trained, well behaved, and not a danger to others) allowed in “no pet” apartments or housing. This protection applies to all sizes, breeds, and types of canines, just as it does to service dogs. An apartment complex cannot allow a documented ESA beagle while barring a documented ESA Pitbull, for example. Per the American Kennel Club, ESAs are also covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows well-behaved, documented ESAs to travel in an aircraft cabin with their handlers. 

Of the three types of assistance dogs, ESAs are the least well-defined in terms of public perception. Many unscrupulous individuals attempt to pass their dogs off as ESAs despite a lack of documentation, need, and in many cases, even basic behavioral training. The results have, unfortunately, resulted in unflattering headlines – dogs using the bathroom in the middle of an airplane aisle mid-flight, or biting a neighbor unprovoked in a condominium complex.

Businesses do have a legal right to ask for documentation on an ESA, so ESA handlers should keep their prescription, letterhead, or other paperwork with them at all times when accompanied by their emotional support dog. 

What Is A Service Dog?

A service dog is one that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” What this means is that in addition to assisting owners with disabilities that impair a sense – sight, for example – service dogs can also be used for physical support, or to alert to an impending episode. Some uses of service dogs include:

  • A dog trained to adopt a certain position, bark in a controlled fashion, or touch their owner if they sense an oncoming seizure
  • A dog trained to fetch a bottle of medication, phone, or other tool if their owner is physically unable
  • A dog trained to “alert” if something their owner is deathly allergic to, such as peanuts, is nearby
  • A dog trained to physically cover their owner with their body or otherwise comfort them if they are having a mental or emotional breakdown
  • A dog trained to place their head, paw, or body between their owner and the floor if their owner is having a fit or seizure, to prevent injury or trauma

Service dogs have been professionally trained in the specific disability-related task they are required to perform. These animals have also been trained to be well-behaved in public and to pay very close attention to their owner in order to perform their duty. A service dog will not, for example, lift their leg on a restaurant table, or try to get off the leash to eat food dropped nearby. Their duty is treated with the same gravity as a human would their own job, and they respectfully follow, focus, and stay with their owner without wandering or prompting.

Do Service Dogs Have To Wear A Vest?

Some service dog handlers – another word for owners – choose to use vests to communicate their service dog’s purpose. Vests and special collars are a good, highly-visible way to inform strangers that they should not approach or attempt to pet a service dog. While the dog’s training will ensure they aren’t dangerous or jumpy around strangers, they are working and need to focus completely on their handler. Distractions like petting may cause the service dog to delay alerting to a life-threatening event, which could put the handler in danger.

It’s important to note, however, that service dogs are not required to wear a special vest or carry documentation. This is a very common myth about service dogs, and it has led to significant discrimination and difficulty for handlers with disabilities. Even if a dog is not wearing anything that identifies him as a service dog, he must be permitted entrance to any public, business, or government facility or area if his handler requires it. 

Can A Business Deny Entry To A Service Dog?

If a business or facility needs to determine if a dog is a legitimate service dog, they are only permitted to ask two specific questions about the dog, per the ADA:

1.  Is the animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

Once they’ve been answered by the handler, as long as the dog in question isn’t causing a disturbance – e.g. growling at fellow patrons or defecating indoors – the service dog must be allowed in. The business is not allowed to ask further questions, require documentation or proof of training, or insist the handler detail their disability. The business also may not place service dog users in a separate or designated area, such as a “pet friendly” room at a hotel. The ADA states that individuals with a disability must be given the same access as non-disabled individuals, service dog or not. 

A handler also has certain obligations under the ADA, such as having full control over their service dog via harness, leash, or in the case of physical disability, voice. In other words, a service dog must be a model citizen and well behaved at all times. A handler may also be financially responsible for any damages – chewing, tearing, urinating, etc. – that come from an ill-behaved service dog. 

Businesses are allowed to deny entry to emotional support dogs and therapy dogs, just as they would be allowed to bar personal pets from their establishment. They are only legally obligated to allow service dog handlers to bring their dog inside.

What If A Business Employee Is Allergic To Dogs?

If a service dog needs to accompany his owner into a business, it is the business’ legal responsibility to accommodate both dog and handler. If a worker is so allergic to animals he or she cannot even be in the same room as a dog, it’s the responsibility of the business owner or manager to arrange for a different employee to serve the handler. 

In situations where the service animal will be present habitually or for long periods of time, it’s a good idea for the handler to discuss arrangements beforehand. This does not mean, however, that the business, school, or other building can isolate the dog and handler in a specified area out of preference or ease. Both dog and handler must have the same seating, working, or living access as a non-disabled individual would. 

Is It Illegal To Lie About A Service Dog?

While any dog lover can sympathize with the difficulty of leaving their canine companion home alone, it’s not an excuse to fabricate service dog legitimacy. With official-looking vests, collars, signs, and patches readily available online, some dog owners have taken an unethical route to keep their dog(s) with them out in public. These fake service dogs are not just a nuisance – often untrained, jumpy, and ill-behaved – they rob true service dogs and ESAs of legitimacy and ultimately make life harder for disabled handlers. Millions of well-behaved service, therapy, and ESA dogs help their handlers every day and perform their duties, but these are unfortunately not usually the pups that make it into the news.

Some states are taking a non-nonsense stand against fake service dogs, proactively educating business owners on their rights and the questions they may ask of a purported service dog or ESA handler. In addition, hefty fines and even imprisonment penalties are being levied towards fakers as a deterrent. The state of California, for example, threatens up to a $1,000 fine and/or 6 months in jail, while Texas demands 30 hours of community service and hundreds of dollars in fines. 

No assistance dog is legally required to have specific vests, coverings, signs, or patches – in some cases, an overabundance of high-visibility clothing and patches may actually be a cause for suspicion rather than proof of legitimacy. Only ESA handlers may be asked for supporting documentation (not service dog handlers), and any individual with a service dog may be asked, and must answer, the two ADA questions before admittance to the establishment, area, or transportation method. 

Summary: Understanding The Unique Roles Of Assistance Dogs

All three types of assistance dogs offer independence, support, and a richer quality of life for their handlers. The best way for non-disabled allies to protect and preserve that benefit is to educate themselves on the legal rights, responsibilities, and classifications of assistance dogs. Not only will this help dogs get their handlers everywhere they need to go, the effort will ensure that everyone – human and canine alike – will be treated with the respect they deserve. 

Sources Cited:
  1. Brennan, Jacquie; Nguyen, Vinh (Ed.). “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network, (no publish date), https://adata.org/publication/service-animals-booklet. Accessed July 13, 2019. 
  2. “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.” U.S. Department of Justice / Civil Rights Division / Disability Rights Section (no publish date), https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html. Accessed July 13, 2019.
  3. “What is the Difference Between a Therapy Dog vs a Service Dog?” Therapy Dogs.com, (no publish date), https://www.therapydogs.com/difference-therapy-dog-vs-service-dog/. Accessed July 13, 2019.
  4. Guerin, Lisa, J.D. “Penalties for Using a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal Under False Pretenses.” Nolo.com, (no publish date), https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/penalties-for-using-a-service-dog-or-emotional-support-animal-under-false-pretenses.html. Accessed July 13, 2019.

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