What are the Federal Laws on Service Animals?

Do Businesses Have the Right to Ban Them?

ADA Provides Federal Laws Regarding Service Animals. Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

When a retired police officer suffering from PTSD took his dog – also a retired police officer – into a Sacramento, California area restaurant, he was told to leave because he could not prove his dog was a service animal. Do businesses have the right to deny service to disabled persons with service animals?


Federal laws regulating service dogs are contained in title II (State and local government services) and title III (public accommodations and commercial facilities) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) administered by the Department of Justice.

Under the ADA, only dogs and miniature horses – yes, miniature horses – can be legally recognized and treated as “service animals.” Service dogs and miniature horses are covered under separate provisions of the ADA.

‘Service Animal’ as Defined by the ADA

Specifically, the ADA defines a “service animal” as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

Along with guiding blind or sight-impaired persons, examples of work or tasks performed by service animals include, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having or is about to have a seizure or psychiatric crisis, reminding to take medications, helping persons having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) induced anxiety attacks, or other duties related to specific disabilities.

In addition, the task or work the dog has been trained to do must be directly related to its persons’ disability.

What About ‘Comfort’ Animals?

So-called “comfort animals,” intended to provide emotional support, are not considered service animals under the ADA. However, they may be considered as service animals under the Fair Housing Act and maybe allowed to accompany passengers on commercial aircraft under the Air Carrier Access Act.

In addition, some state and local laws may also define comfort animals as service animals.

Where are Service Animals Allowed?

Under the ADA, service animals generally must be allowed in all areas of all businesses, government buildings, and non-profit organizations that are normally open to the public.

Limited exceptions are allowed. For example, while hospitals may not ban service animals from areas like waiting rooms, admissions areas, patient’s rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms, they may exclude service animals from operating rooms, ICUs or other areas where a sterile environment must be maintained.

Service Animals Must be Under Control

Anytime service animals are taken into those public places, they must be kept under control. The ADA requires that service dogs be harnessed, leashed, or tethered. If the person’s disability prevents the use of such control devices or the device hinders the animal in doing its job, the disabled person must control of the animal using voice, signals, or other effective methods.

Rights of Businesses in Dealing with Service Animals

The rights of businesses to challenge the presence of a service animal on their premises are very limited.

Only when the service or work the animal performs is not obvious, the ADA allows the business’s staff to ask two – and only two – questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

The business’ staff is not allowed to:

  • Ask the person about their disability;
  • require medial proof of the disability;
  • require the dog’s identification card or proof of training; or
  • ask the person to demonstrate the dog’s work or task.

 The business’ staff is allowed to ask the disabled person to remove the service animal from the premises only if:

  • The dog is out of control and the disabled person does not try to control it.
  • The dog is not housebroken.

When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service dog be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to be served after removing the dog.

Businesses that sell or prepare food are required to allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health laws prohibit animals on the premises.

Businesses that typically charge customers for damages they cause may also charge persons with disabilities for damages caused by themselves or their service animals.

Finally, businesses are not required to provide food or care for a service animal.

What About Other Customers?

Businesses are not allowed to deny access or service to people using service animals because other customers say they are afraid of or allergic to dogs. In such cases, the ADA requires the business to accommodate both parties by attempting to place them in different rooms or different locations in the same room.

However, under the ADA, businesses may not isolate disabled persons – including those using service animals – from other patrons, treat them less favorably, or charge them extra fees not charged to other customers. In addition, businesses that typically require patrons with pets to pay a deposit or fee must waive such fees for persons with service animals.

Now, What About Those Miniature Horses?

The most recent federal regulations updating ADA added separate provisions covering miniature horses trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

Under these regulations, all businesses and other entities covered by the ADA are required to modify their policies to permit miniature horses on their premises “where reasonable.”

The factors to be used in determining “where reasonable” are:

  • whether the miniature horse is housebroken;
  • whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control;
  • whether the facility can accommodate the horse’s type, size, and weight; and
  • whether the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.

Actually some breeds of dogs trained as service animals are as large as miniature horses, which typically stand from 24 to 34 inches tall at the shoulders and weigh from 70 to 100 pounds.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "What are the Federal Laws on Service Animals?" ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2016, thoughtco.com/federal-laws-on-service-animals-3321899. Longley, Robert. (2016, May 17). What are the Federal Laws on Service Animals? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/federal-laws-on-service-animals-3321899 Longley, Robert. "What are the Federal Laws on Service Animals?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/federal-laws-on-service-animals-3321899 (accessed December 11, 2017).