What Constitutes a Service Animal?

Regarding what constitutes a Service Dog and what rights it has, confusion abounds. There are many vocations for animals, and only some of them involve helping people with disabilities. Let’s just stick to those, for now.

It’s important to understand that the only legally agreed-upon titles are Service Animal, Psychiatric Service Animal, and Emotional Support Animal. I’m only going to talk about those in this article, but I promise another one breaking down all the different types of each will follow.

Please note that these explanations are not reflective of my opinions of how things should be broken down, but I know that change can’t be made until we really understand what the current situation is. So don’t get mad at me for the rules, please.

Service Animals

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “Service Animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” There are some key phrases here, and they help us distinguish between real and false Service Animals.

The first is individually trained. These dogs aren’t mass produced, nor are they left to their own devices to figure their jobs out.

The second is for people with disabilities. An individually trained dog, no matter how well trained, is only working when it’s paired with a person who is disabled.

Any type of Service Animal has full public access under the ADA; that is, they are allowed to go anywhere that the public is, and can only be excluded on the basis of bad behavior and poor handling. This includes restaurants, stores, medical facilities, public transit, workplaces, city, county, state, and national parks and facilities, and more. In the case of doubt, business owners can ask if the dog is a Service Dog and what tasks it performs for the individual.

Under The Fair Housing Act, Service Animals are considered a reasonable accommodation and are allowed in most living spaces that prohibit pets or have restrictions, and all pet deposits and pet rent must be waived. Handlers may be charged fees for damage caused by the animal, just like any other damage to the living space.

The Air Carriers Act is very specific that Service Animals must be accommodated in the cabin without any documentation from a medical provider. Advance notice is not required unless an individual leg of the flight is longer than eight hours; in all cases, flight staff must take “verbal credible assurance of a person with a qualifying disability” as proof that the dog is a legitimate Service Dog, and the person can’t be asked to disclose information about his or her disability.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals are exactly what they sound like — they provide emotional comfort and support to their owners. There is no minimum training requirement, and though some provisions are made in The Fair Housing Act and The Air Carriers Act, they do not have the same public access rights as Service Animals; rather, there is no coverage for them at all under the ADA, so they are not allowed in public places without an invitation from the administration of the establishment.

Under The Fair Housing Act, a person who uses an Emotional Support Animal can be required to provide medical documentation stating that the animal is necessary for his or her emotional health and that he or she has a mental illness that’s acknowledged in the DSM-IV. When documentation is provided, policies prohibiting pets or requiring fees associated with animals are waived.

The Air Carriers Act states that airlines can require people traveling with Emotional Support Animals to give up to 48 hours’ advance notice of travel. They can also as for a doctor’s note stating that the passenger requires the animal for travel or at the destination.

One of the main differences between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals is that Emotional Support Animals can be almost any species, and the airline staff or property owners can use discretion on the basis of safety when deciding whether to accommodate them, whereas Service Animals are usually dogs, and only in rare cases miniature horses, and they cannot be denied access on the basis of breed.

Psychiatric Service Animals

Psychiatric Service Animals, like Service Animals, are trained to mitigate the effects of a disability, but specifically a psychiatric disability, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They can be trained to interrupt repetitive or harmful behavior, alert that it’s time for medications, and lots more.

I’m including them in this article because there’s some gray area; while they implicitly qualify under the ADA as Service Animals, they’re not specifically named. A psychiatric disability is as much a disability as a physical one, the ADA acknowledges that. The Air Carriers Act, however, differentiates them from Service Animals, puts them in the same category as Emotional Support Animals, and requires documentation and advance notice for them. Because the laws don’t interact with each other, there’s all kinds of room for confusion like this.


It’s easy to see why this is such a confusing subject, isn’t it? And I haven’t even started to break down all the different kinds of Service and Emotional Support Animals. This is kind of the way it goes, though, when it comes to laws that protect the access of people with disabilities – different industries and types of establishments are covered by different federal laws, so it’s easy to get things mixed up, and it’s no wonder law enforcement doesn’t often know what to do in the face of a problem. Another time, I’ll also go over the ways that state laws can vary, but you can basically always count on the federal laws to be the minimum operating standard.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you find an error in my information or if you have questions. Otherwise, I hope you find this useful, and that you’ll share it, especially with friends and families who have Service Animals or run businesses that cater to the public.

*I’m not claiming to offer legal advice here; only a general guide. If you have a legal issue or need legal guidance, you should get in touch with a lawyer who specializes in Disability Law.


11 thoughts on “What Constitutes a Service Animal?

  1. Hi! I really enjoy your blog, have been reading it for a while, and you seem very well educated! At first when I read this article, I thought that you had misunderstood that psychiatric service dogs are really just service dogs – plain and simple. However, after rereading it, I see that you do understand that. I have already drafted this reply so I thought I would post it in the hopes that it would prevent anyone from believing that psychiatric service dogs are anything less than a service dog.

    There are service dogs for mobility, for deafness, and for many other things, psychiatric problems are just one of the many uses of a service dog – and according to the ADA, airlines and other businesses should not be treating them ANY differently!

    According to “http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm” – (The ADA’s Revised Requirements for Service Animals), here is the definition of service dogs: “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.”

    As you can see, psychiatric service dogs are full service dogs, included in the definition of what a service dog may be 🙂 “Psychiatric service dogs” is not really a thing – they are just service dogs! It is like if someone said they have a “mobility service dog,” “a brace service dog,” or a “service dog for the hard of hearing.” “Psychiatric service dog” is a handy term I use when people ask me “what kind of service dog is that?” when I am out with my dog – but I hope the use of a separate term like that will not cause an increase in discrimination by people who believe that psychiatric service dogs are a lesser form of service dog!

    My dog is extensively public access trained, as well as trained to preform specific tasks which mitigate my disability, just like any other service dog! – my disability just so happens to be a severe anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder instead of something you can see.

    I had not heard that there is sometimes different treatments for service dogs for mobility/deafness/etc versus psychiatric when it comes to airlines/the Air Carriers Act- lumping these dogs in with ESAs as opposed to other service dogs seems like a definite violation of the ADAs rules on this. I will have to do some research on this before I next fly, thanks for the information!

    Thanks so much for tackling the lack of education surrounding this issue 🙂 I think there would be less misuse of service dogs if businesses understood more fully that they can in fact ask a disruptive/out of control, unhygienic or dangerous dog to leave their premises. Despite the fact that there are clearly difficulties getting deserved access sometimes, I have found that some business are actually TOO conciliatory to fake or badly behaved “service dogs”, which just breeds resentment about service dogs among both the business and the other patrons.

    Thanks again for your informative article!

    • Thanks for your reply! Yeah, I see why you felt the need to clarify. Unfortunately, the Air Carriers Acts gets to make its own rules, and it does specify Psychiatric Service Animals as their own category. So between the three acts (ADA, FHA, and ACA) there really are 3 different categories and Psychiatric Service Animals is one. The ADA covers airports, but not aircrafts, which is why we have the ACA. It’s crazy.

  2. One correction, the dog has No public access rights. The disabled person Partnered with the dog has the right to public access With the dog. If the dog is Not with their disabled partner, there is No public access right under the ADA. Some states give rights to trainers who are performing public access training, and/or for the disabled person to be accompanied by their service dog in training.

    One comment, since I have an unusual breed and an invisible disability, I do not fly because I Refuse to provide medical evidence that my dog is Not a PSD! It is up to You to Prove that the dog is Not a PSD, not the airline’s to prove that it is. I don’t see why a person with a mental disability should be treated any differently than a person with a physical disability.

    • Thanks for posting clarification for anyone who may have been confused. I am only focusing on Federal laws here, so the allowances for puppies in training will come in a later article. I only meant to say that they’re not covered under any of the Federal systems.

      Again, thanks for your contribution!

  3. I have a question someone had asked me but I wasn’t sure of the answer. Does a dog trained for someone with Panic Attacks count as a service dog?

    • It would depend upon the severity of the panic attacks, and whether there is something that the dog could do in response to them or to fend them off that the person couldn’t do for themselves. If the attacks are so debilitating that the person is truly disabled and unable to lead a reasonably normal life, and If the dog could be trained to do something such as distract at the very onset so it doesn’t build, bring meds and perform a certain behaviour until the person takes the meds, bring a support person, dial the phone to call someone, etc. then there may be a diagnosis of disability and thus an individually task trained service dog would be appropriate. However, if all the dog does is provide comfort, or make the person feel better, then No, that would Not fit the criteria of a service dog.

    • As Dayna said, it depends on what the dog does to actually mitigate the disability. If it’s just there to provide support, then no, but if it can do a skill that interrupts the attack or warn of its coming, that’s another story.

  4. I loved reading what you said. I have a service dog and have had my least favorite question asked all the time as well as the comment (you don’t look disabled, what is your disability?) I was in Walmart the other day and someone one was carrying his unkept matted purse puppy thru the store. The law states 4 on the floor. I had to avoid him because I was going to blow up. I too have had the same problem with small dogs challenging my service dog and after she has enough and I have redirected her numerous times she will let out on bark to let the owner know enough then the owner blames her. And of course I my mouth gets involved and I make a comment.
    Another incident I was in Starbucks and a woman had her purse puppy in her purse and my dog altered to it and she got an attitude with him and me. I made a comment about her dog not being in the store but best part the cops came in and backed me up!!!!
    Pleases morons of the world if you don’t have a legitimate reason and are not disabled quit making it difficult for the rest of up real people who do need the dogs and are disabled.

  5. Pingback: There’s a Dog for That | Help On Four Legs

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