Service Dog Laws – Know Your Rights

Something that everyone needs to be aware of is their rights under the law. Especially when you have a disability, regardless of whether or not you have a service dog, laws are there for a reason and you should know yours.

Having a service dog is very helpful for me, but it also comes with the responsibility of being aware of my rights as a person and the laws that are in place to protect me. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to inform people what they are saying to me is incorrect and actually illegal. I am writing about this so that you are aware and hopefully you take this information and learn about your rights.

Per ADA.gov below are the requirements for a service dog in the United States:

  • Beginning on March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA.
  • A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.
  • Generally, title II and title III entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.

“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. ADA FAQ

The portion about Service Dogs not being pets is a VERY important distinction because “pets” do not have the same laws protecting them. You must think of a Service Dog as medical equipment, it is required for the handler, much in the way a wheelchair is needed for people who are unable to walk. You would not pet someones wheelchair or tell them they cannot bring it into a store because it’s medically needed.

“When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff 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.” ADA Service Dog Requirements

Legally here the only answers I have to provide the staff of where I am located is “yes” and “brace and balance”. The downside to this is that those questions are rarely the ones I get, I get asked if I am training him a lot. The answer to this question is always no, this is an important question though because legally, service dogs in training are not protected by ADA laws.

You cannot be asked to leave or move due to someone else’s allergy or fear of dogs. This is illegal. This gets a bit tricky and very frustrating when you services like Uber or Lyft. I was in California twice and the drivers in San Francisco were less pissy about my service dog than the ones in San Diego. The driver is legally allowed to tell you they will not take you in their car if they have an allergy, though they have to get you another ride and there is no way to actually confirm they have an allergy or just don’t want dog hair in their car. I had this happen in both locations, once the driver in San Diego told me to keep my dog on the floor of his very small sedan in which his seat went back all the way so my husband had to sit in the front with his knees in his chest so I could put Oak on the floor. It would be helpful if there was a way to indicate on your request that you have a service dog so you could get an SUV with no additional cost so there is a place to put them while allowing everyone to sit comfortably.

Per the ADA laws, you are not required to have your service dog in a vest; I do because I signed a contract with Freedom Service Dogs and Oak was trained to know he is working when wearing the vest so for him it’s important. You are not required to have an ID or paperwork proving your dog is a service dog. Do not let a business tell you otherwise.

I had an issue last year at my youngest son’s school. I was invited to have lunch with him, he was so excited. Oak and I showed up to school and went through the lunch line to get our lunches, I got some dirty looks from one of the women working there. She made a comment about how she didn’t know if Oak was allowed. I informed her he was indeed allowed, apparently later she asked questions about me and my disability to the school nurse who is very much aware of my situation because she’s nice and I share information with nice people. The nurse also informed the woman that my service dog is allowed. After lunch we went outside to play, at a different teacher told me my dog was not allowed on school property. I advised her that he is a service dog and actually is legally allowed to be there. She gave me some attitude at which time I chose to leave because I was getting very angry. I told my son that I enjoyed having lunch with him but was going to leave so I didn’t ruin his recess by getting into an argument with a person who doesn’t know the law.

People who work at schools should be informed of the laws, chances are they may not have to deal with service dogs, but just in case, they should not be ignorant. A few days later, after I cooled down, I gave business cards with ADA law to the front desk and the school nurse and advised them to enlighten the employees because I did not appreciate what I had to deal with that day.

Having a chronic illness is exhausting, I have enough with trying to be a mom, wife and full-time employee. I do not need the extra stress that comes with ignorance, and neither do other people. Knowing your rights is important, standing up for those rights is even more important. While taking on the task of teaching other people the law is not something that I enjoy, I will do it because I am hoping it makes it easier for someone else in the future. If I can help one person from having the experience I did then I will continue to do it.

Getting My Service Dog

I went through the application and interview process with Freedom Service Dogs and was so happy and grateful when I was accepted. The next step was to wait on the waiting list until they called to tell me they had a dog that they thought matched with me.

What this means is matched for personality and needs. I was asked to come meet my potential service dog. It was love, he was awkward, silly and had a beard that made him look like an old man. It was summer when we met so I was wearing a dress and he got his head stuck in it and all confused trying to get out. It was hysterical. At the end of the meeting they asked me if I was interested in him and I jokingly said he could either be my service dog or they would have to chase a disabled person with a dog to get him back.

Freedom Service Dogs did all the training prior to when I started working with him. He had all the tasks I needed ready in his brain. Now, it was my turn to learn the commands, hand signs and him to learn about me. We had several weeks of training, several weeks of bonding and more than two years later I cannot imagine my life without him. Some days going out is kind of like having a toddle in toe, because you have to get them dressed, make sure you have treats (aka snacks) and know that it will take longer doing whatever it is you’re doing because people will stop you and ask questions.

All of that is worth it though, I don’t have to focus on my feet anymore because he does that for me. If I drop something I know he will pick it up, I know I have my own little support system when I am alone, because he is there to help me.

He is allowed to go everywhere, so if you have a service dog, know the laws in your area. The US has ADA laws that allow you to go everywhere the public goes and bring your service dog along with you. Do not allow people into bullying you not to be somewhere.

The laws, rights and trouble I have run in to will be my next service dog post. So if you are interested in knowing more about that, keep an eye open for that.

FAQ About Service Dogs

Service dogs are smart and they are used for many things now, PTSD, Mobility issues, Autism, Diabetes, and Seizures. I cannot speak for everyone with a service dog, but here are some of the most frequently asked questions I get about my service dog.

Added Note: (August 16, 2019) – If a service dog approaches you without their owner that usually means the owner needs help. Acknowledge the service dog and follow them to their person.

Q. Can I pet your dog? (ALWAYS ask for permission. Regardless if you think the dog is being trained or not you need to ask for permission. Distracting a service dog from its job is actually a misdemeanor offense.)

A. Always ask, if you ask me I am much more likely to give permission than not. It really depends on the day, how bad my symptoms are and what I am doing. Do not get offended or mean to people who tell you no. Each service dog has different tasks and their owner may not be able to put their dog in a situation to be distracted for one second.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Also, do not approach people with service dogs in places you would not approach people without a service dog. I have had people stand next to me and talk  while I am trying to make a transaction at an ATM and while trying to give prescriptions to a pharmacist. Do not put your hand out to have a service dog interact with you, this is a distraction and you are encouraging them to misbehave. Do not just pet a service dog in public without asking, regardless if you think you are seen or not. I have had girls follow me around the grocery store petting him every time I go to take something off the shelf. It’s not only annoying, but it’s disrespectful.

Q. Are you training him?

A. No, he is my service dog. (Please don’t ask people who don’t look disabled if they are training the service dog that they are with. Personally, I feel bad enough about myself for needing a service dog at such a young age, your question that seems innocent just reinforces those feelings.)

Q. Are you a Veteran?

A. No, I was not, as frequently as this question and the one above are asked it makes me feel as though I need to justify my disability. I don’t though, and I don’t really feel like telling strangers how damaged my body is everyday so please be mindful.

Q. Does he ever get to be a dog or is he always working?

A. This question is easy, he works when his vest is on. When he’s not wearing his vest and we are at home he gets to be a dog, play with our other dog and the kids. He does still help me around the house without his vest on because he enjoys working. When we are out, he doesn’t have to wear his vest at the pet store, dog park or vet and he LOVES going to these places. People can pet him, he can sniff dogs and just be a dog.

Q. What does he do? (Legally, unless you are the owner of a business, we don’t have to answer this question. I usually do unless I am having a hard day or the question comes off a rude rather than interest because I don’t always feel like talking about the medical reasons I require a service dog.)

A. My service dog is for Brace and Balance. This means he has been trained to keep me walking up right and watches to make sure I do not fall down. He can also help me get up if I am on the ground, usually from sitting on the floor with my kids. He is trained to do so much more than this though. He helps me take the clothes to the laundry room, he picks things up off of the floor when I accidentally drop them. He can open doors and the fridge, he can bring me things, he is trained to find someone if I fall at work and need help. He also centers me when my anxiety and PTSD are impacting what’s happening around me. He wasn’t trained for this task but because of our bond he started doing it on his own.

Q. Can he go on a plane and does he get his own seat?

A. Yes he can go on a plane, ADA laws in the United States require that he is allowed everywhere I go unless it’s a surgical room. No, he does not get his own seat, he actually curls up into a ball on the floor in front of me. He does not like flying though so if there isn’t a bag under the seat in front of us he usually tries to fit under it.

* I have had numerous people tell me that they were thinking about getting a vest for their dog so they came bring them places since they are calming. Therapy dogs are not protected by ADA laws like service dogs are. Service dogs must meet certain standards to have that legal privilege. People who bring misbehaving dogs into places with a vest or claiming they are a service dog actually makes it more difficult for those of us with actual service dogs. Please do not do this. Whenever I hear about this I hand out ADA law cards to the businesses because they need to know their rights as much as I do mine.