Human Animal Solutions

Service Animals

Some people are confused about the difference between service animals and therapy animals. The definition of a service dog comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is Federal law (1990): “Any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.”

I use the term service dog (or service animal) because that is the term used in the ADA. Some organizations use “assistance dog.”

A service dog works for a person with a disability, helping that person with his/her activities of daily living. A therapy dog, on the other hand, is handled by one person, but works to assist many clients in their therapy or therapeutic activities.

The ADA protects the rights of people with disabilities to have their service animals with them in public. There is no similar law allowing therapy dogs public access. If you have a therapy dog, please do not attempt to pass it off as a service dog! Not only is that unethical, it also can complicate the lives of people with legitimate service animals who struggle daily with public access. Please do not make their lives harder through your desire to have your dog with you in public.

An important resource is the U.S. Department of Justice ADA Information Line, 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TDD) in Washington, DC. They can give you specific information related to your situation.

For good or bad, there is currently no national or state certification for service dogs. Unfortunately, this means that anyone can call any dog a service dog, whether or not the dog or the person meets the ADA’s definition. So if a person or public entity (like a grocery store, timeshare, library, restaurant, etc.) asks for a certification that a dog is a service dog, there is no such thing. The person must take your word. Under the ADA, the person inquiring may ask how the dog helps you and what tasks your dog is trained to do for you, but is not permitted to ask you what your disability is.

Most people with disabilities who have service animals educate themselves on the law so that they feel as confident as possible when responding to an inquiry. You can get a lot of information from internet sources – some of which is accurate and a lot of which is inaccurate. You will also find organizations that will be happy to take your money to give you an ID card.  Be aware that an ID card is not required by law.

Assistance Dogs International publishes a booklet that summarizes the various state (and international) laws related to service dogs:  The ADI Guide to Assistance Dog Laws.

Some service dog training or support organizations offer a test called a Public Access Test.  Assistance Dogs International allows only ADI member organizations to provide it.  The Public Access Test does not certify any dog as being a service dog; it says nothing about the ways a dog helps a person with a disability. Instead, passing the test is a method of proving that a service dog is well-mannered in public and that the person with a disability knows how to manage the dog appropriately in public places.

Please act responsibly with your therapy dog.