Service Dogs, Frequently Asked Questions


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"People who use fake service dogs…make it exceedingly more difficult for those who need and rely on legitimate service dogs."

The state of affairs in defining and regulating service dogs is in flux to say the least – it’s the Wild West. Governmental entities, including the federal government, are looking at ways to more tightly control the definition and use of these dogs.

It seems as if every third dog I see these days has some kind of service vest on which tells me there are a lot of dogs identified as service dogs. I’ve also observed a large number of dogs being used as emotional support dogs that appear to be poor candidates for this kind of work (i.e., they are nervous, unruly, hyperactive and even aggressive).

People who use fake service dogs, or those who use untrained and unruly dogs as emotional support dogs, make it exceedingly more difficult for those who need and rely on legitimate service dogs.

There are 4 types of service dogs:

Service Dog – Dogs that are specifically trained to perform tasks to assist people with disabilities. These dogs can be taken to most public places including those identified as a no-pets-allowed location.

Service Dog in Training – This is exactly what the name implies. Because of the potential for some to claim their untrained pet dog fits in this category, there are local and state laws that govern this definition.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA) – The purpose of these dogs is to provide comfort for the owner, but there are no agreed on criteria as to what training should be required for these dogs. While service dogs have virtually unlimited access to public spaces, ESAs only have access to airplane cabins and housing that would otherwise restrict access to dogs.

Therapy Dog – There are few local and state regulations regarding these dogs and no federal definition. Therapy dogs assist people other than the owner (e.g., comforting patients in a hospital). They do not have access to public places including airplanes and no-pets-allowed housing. Organizations that allow therapy dogs normally have their own definition and requirements for the therapy dogs they allow at their facilities.

The following are commonly asked questions regarding service dogs. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is the accepted standard for these definitions.

Are emotional support dogs considered service dogs?

If someone’s dog is used to help prevent anxiety attacks, does that quality the dog as a service dog?
The law differentiates between psychiatric and emotional support dogs. Dogs that have been trained to sense an anxiety attack and take action to prevent it can be considered service dogs. Dogs that provide emotional support to an owner by their mere presence are not considered service dogs.

Do service dogs need to be trained by professionals?

Can employees of a restaurant or other public place where dogs are not normally allowed ask someone if his or her dog is a legitimate service dog?
Yes, but they can only ask two questions: 1) is the service dog required because of a disability? and, 2) what specific task does the dog perform in relation to this disability? No other questions can be asked including those about the dog’s certifications, etc.

Do service dogs have to wear a vest or use an identifying harness?

Do hospitals have to allow patients to keep a service dog in their room?

Do ambulances have to allow service dogs to ride along?
Yes, if possible.

Do service dogs have to be certified as service dogs and provide documentation?
No. While there are online organizations that provide service dog “certification”, these documents are not recognized and are unneeded.

Can service dogs be any breed?
Yes, and no entity can refuse entry of a service dog because of its breed type.

If a city has an ordinance prohibiting certain breeds of dogs (e.g., Denver has breed specific legislation prohibiting pit bulls), can that prohibition be applied to service dogs of that breed?

Are there any situations where service dogs can be removed or prohibited from entering?
Yes. If the presence of a dog would significantly change the functioning of an entity or if a service dog is out of control, the dog can be required to leave the premises.

Are places of worship such as churches, synagogues, mosques and temples required to allow service dogs in their buildings?
No. These institutions are specified as being exempt. In some cases, there may be local or state laws that allow for this.