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The ADA and Service Animal Handlers

SUMMARY: What should someone with a service animal know about their rights and responsibilities as a service animal handler when they go into the community? This FAQ article explains a few important points.

Service animals assist their owners with disabilities to be more fully involved in the community. It is important for these owners, who are frequently called “service animal handlers,” to know their rights for being out and about with their animal. For example, are they allowed to visit a restaurant? The answer is yes. Shop in a store? Yes. What about a doctor’s office or hospital? The answer is yes. Handlers may also take their animals with them into a public library, county office, or other public space. However, there are special rules about certain circumstances, like sterile areas in hospitals, and we’ll talk about that more later in this article.

Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to most public places. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces this part of the law and has created regulations and guidance for handlers to understand their rights. The following questions touch on key things to know, with a focus on a handler’s concerns, though this article is aimed at everyone—knowing the requirements benefits all involved.

Where are service animals allowed to go?

Generally speaking, service animals may go wherever the public typically may go. This includes all places covered by the DOJ’s regulations for Title II (public entities) and Title III (public accommodations). Among other places, this could be a public or private college, convenience store, cafeteria, museum, dental office, hotel, town hall, or stadium.

What about a church, mosque, synagogue, or other place run by a religious institution? Religious institutions are not covered by Title III of the ADA and so are not required by the ADA to permit service animals. However, it is possible that a state’s nondiscrimination laws may apply to religious institutions and require that service animals be allowed inside.

Service animals do not have to be allowed in places where a sterile field is required. Examples are an operating room, burn unit, or intensive care area at a hospital. However, a service dog may access other areas in a hospital or medical office. Similarly, a service animal does not have to be allowed in a swimming pool open to the public, but it is allowed on the pool deck and other areas around the pool.

What questions can a public entity or public accommodation ask about a service animal?

Under the ADA, a public entity or public accommodation may ask only two questions about a service animal. First, is this dog a service animal needed because of a disability? And second, what task has the animal been trained to perform? A handler cannot be asked to demonstrate a task but must be able to identify one.

In fact, any other questions about the handler’s disability or about a certification or special license for the service animal are not permitted. Note that a dog that provides only emotional support is not considered a service animal by the DOJ.

Should a service animal behave in a particular way?

A service animal must be under the control of its handler at all times. It should not be disruptive or bark excessively. The dog should not bite or be aggressive toward other people. It must be housebroken. It should be harnessed, leashed, or tethered unless the handler’s disability prevents them from using these tools. In that case, the handler still must control the service animal effectively. The handler is responsible for the behavior, care, and supervision of their service animal.

If a service dog is disruptive, can the person with the service dog be asked to leave?

No. A public entity or a public accommodation can ask to have a disruptive service animal removed, but the individual may remain.

Is there anything that can be shown to prove that a dog is a service animal?

There is no federal registration or license for a service animal. Some companies sell licenses, vests, or tags that claim to register a dog as a service animal. These are not recognized by the DOJ and have no legal weight under the ADA. A service animal handler may choose to have tags or a vest to help identify their dog as a working animal, but these are not required. The regulations allow asking the two questions mentioned above, but that is the only proof that may be required.

What if bringing a service animal into a location breaks a rule? Like “no dogs allowed” in a bar?

Lots of places prohibit dogs generally. But the ADA requires public entities and public accommodations to reasonably modify their policies, practices, and procedures to allow people and their service animals to enter the location and participate in its offerings.

Can you recommend any resources about service animals?

Sure thing! Here are our three top picks. The first two are webinars from the Northeast ADA Center, and the third is a detailed FAQ from ADA.gov.

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