Service Dogs Law & Legal Definition


Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself. "Seeing eye dogs" are one type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind. This is the type of service animal with which most people are familiar. The service animal is not a pet, but isn't required to be licensed or certified to meet this definition. But there are service animals that assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Some examples include:

  • Alerting persons with hearing impairments to sounds.
  • Pulling wheelchairs or carrying and picking up things for persons with mobility impairments.
  • Assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), privately owned businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. The disabled person may not be charged an extra fee to accommodate the service animal. The definition of disability includes mental as well as physical disabilities for purposes of accommodating service animals. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed. In some instances, such as boarding a flight, a doctor's or health professional's note may be asked for when the person's disability isn't apparent, such as a mental disability. The ADA provides greater protection for individuals with disabilities and so it takes priority over the local or state laws or regulations, like local health department regulations or other state or local laws. However, any service animal that displays vicious behavior towards other guests or customers may be excluded, and when a dog barks during a movie, the animal can be excluded.

Section 12182(b)(2)(A) of the ADA includes in the definition of discrimination a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the entity can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations. (42 USC 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii))

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) implementing regulations clarify "modifications in policies, practices, or procedures." 28 CFR Section 36.302(c) specifically addresses service animals and specifies that "Generally, a public accommodation shall modify policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability (see AWIC Newsletter Vol. 6 #2-4--Americans With Disabilities Act and its Applicability to Zoos). The regulation further explains that public accommodations are not required to supervise or care for a service animal.