Service Animals Overview

SUMMARY: From the perspective of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), here are a few key things to know about service animals.

Service animals are one of the most asked about topics on the Northeast ADA Center’s technical assistance line. Questions about service animals come from businesses, county governments, medical providers, individuals with and without disabilities, students, professionals, and many others. 

Why Service Animals Matter

Some people with disabilities use service animals to assist them with tasks related to their disability. Sometimes, these tasks are easy to see, but often they are not obvious. The work done by service animals allows their handlers to more easily participate in the community. It is important to understand the rights and responsibilities of service animal handlers and their service animal partners under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Service Animal Basics

Service animals are dogs individually trained to perform a specific job for a person with a disability. No other animals can be considered a service animal in terms of accessing public places, though there is a possible exception for a miniature horse.

[ Read: Miniature Horses as Service Animals ]

Just as there are various ways that a disability may effect a person, there is a wide range of potential tasks that a service animal might do:

  • Assist with way-finding.
  • Assist with balance or standing.
  • Alert their handler of a sound or signal.
  • Pull a wheelchair.
  • Carry, retrieve, and pick up items.
  • Give an alert to oncoming seizures or asthma attacks.
  • Warn of high or low blood sugar.
  • Interrupt a panic attack.

Where May Service Animals Go?

Service animals are generally permitted to go wherever the public is allowed. This includes places that have a “no pets” policy. When out in the public, a service dog may wear a vest or tags, but these are not required under the ADA. The animal must be under the control of its handler at all times and should be on a leash, tether, or harness unless the handler’s disability prevents them from using one.

If a business or agency is not certain if a dog is a service animal, they may ask two questions. First, is this dog a service animal needed because of a disability? And second, what task has it been trained to do? A person using a service animal cannot be asked for a demonstration of the task or for a special service animal license; no such licenses are recognized under the ADA.

If the service animal acts inappropriately while in the business or agency, such as by barking excessively, being aggressive, jumping on others, or running around out of control, then the person can be asked to remove their animal. It must be remembered though that the person has the right to remain without their dog.


Service animals are indispensable to their owners with disabilities. They may accompany their handlers into most public spaces where the ADA applies. With this right to access a store, restaurant, doctor’s office, school, sports arena, or other public place comes a responsibility for the person with a disability to ensure that their animal meets the definition of a service animal and that it behaves accordingly.

[ Read: The ADA and Service Animals ]

[ Read: The ADA and Service Animal Handlers ]

For answers to common questions about service animals asked by business owners, managers, and employees, check out the Service Animals in Public Spaces website. The site is based on real-world questions asked on the Northeast ADA Center’s helpline.


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