How to Navigate Your Rights with a Service Dog

Having a service dog isn’t all puppy cuddles and sloppy kisses…it’s hard! It’s can be tough to navigate the large amount of legal information, and figuring out when to take action to protect your rights.

In an effort to keep all the legal mumbo jumbo straight, I created this guide to help you navigate all the confusion! 

This article is divided into 4 sections: 1) Disability Basics 2) Service Animal Basics 3) Public Access FAQ and, 4) Access Issues and How to Handle them.  

Differences between Service Animals, Therapy Animals, and Emotional Support Animals (ESA's)

Service Animal:

A service animal is defined as an animal (a miniature horse or a dog) that is 1) individually trained to do work or perform tasks for 2) an individual with a disability (more info on this in the rest of the article).

Therapy Animal

A therapy dog is a pet trained to interact with many people to help make those people feel better and are often certified. Therapy dogs are only allowed into places like hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and libraries by prior agreement. 

Emotional Support Animal

 An ESA is a pet that provides disability-relieving emotional support to an individual, but many not be trained to do so.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are not given public access rights to places a pet is not normally allowed to go. ESA owners have legal rights in housing situations and when flying.

Disability Basics

What is the American Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The U.S. Department of Justice protects an individual’s rights through the American with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA).

The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.

The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.

Am I disabled?

According to the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who;

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;

  • Has a record of such impairment or;

  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

The ADA measures an impairment when the condition is most severe.

So if you are only sometimes impaired, or your condition has less symptomatic periods, the ADA will look at when your symptoms are the worst. Also, utilizing corrective measures (treatments) do not disqualify you from the ADA.

You should focus on how much you were limited before you used the corrective measure, or what would happen if you stopped.

Examples of physical or mental impairments covered by the ADA (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • AIDS, and its symptoms

  • Alcoholism

  • Asthma

  • Blindness or other visual impairments

  • Cancer

  • Cerebral palsy

  • Depression

  • Diabetes

  • Epilepsy

  • Hearing or speech impairments

  • Heart Disease

  • Migraine Headaches

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Muscular dystrophy

  • Orthopedic impairments

  • Paralysis

  • Complications from Pregnancy

  • Thyroid gland disorders

  • Tuberculosis

  • Loss of body parts

What does “limit one or more major life activities” mean?

Under the ADAAA, “major life activities” includes “major bodily functions.”

  • Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

  • Major Bodily Functions include, but are not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

Service Animal Basics

What is a service animal?

Under the ADA, a service animal is an animal (miniature horse or dog) that is 1) Individually trained to do work or perform tasks for 2) an individual with a disability. 

The task(s) performed must be directly related to the person’s disability. An animal must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with a diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels.

Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. 

Does my service dog need to be leashed? Are there behavior requirements?

Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations § 36.202(c)(2) there are two instances where a business may exclude a Service Dog:

  1. The Service Dog is out of control and the handler isn’t doing anything about it

  2. The Service Dog isn’t housebroken and urinates or defecates inappropriately

***If a business asks a service dog to leave the premise, the business must give the individual with a disability the opportunity to obtain goods, services and accommodations without having the service animal on the premise.

Can I train my own service dog?

The ADA does not require service animals to be professionally trained. 

People with disabilities have the right to train their service dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program. It is important to note that under the ADA service-animals-in-training are not considered service animals.

Under the ADA, the dog must already be trained before it can be taken into public places. However, many State or local laws cover animals that are still in training.  

Public Access FAQ

When I go out in public, what can businesses ask me to determine if my dog is a service animal?

Businesses may only ask two questions:

(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and

(2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Staff are not allowed to request any documentation, identification or certification for the dog, request proof of service animal training, licensing or certification, require that the dog demonstrate its task(s), inquire about the nature of the person’s disability, or request medical documents. 

Additionally, the ADA does not require a service animal to wear a vest, patch, or special harness identifying them as service dogs.

Businesses ask me for “documentation” for my Service Dog. Is that legal?

No! ADA covered businesses may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.

There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

I’ve had negative experiences, or been charged more in hotels with my service dog. Is that legal?

A hotel guest with a disability who uses a service animal must be provided the same opportunity to reserve any available room at the hotel as other guests without disabilities. 

They may not be restricted to “pet-friendly” rooms, or charged a cleaning fee for pet hair/dander (if the animal causes significant damage, you may still be charged legally). It’s important to remember that a service dog can’t legally be left in a non-pet friendly hotel without supervision.

Can I bring my service dog to college/grad school?

Both public and private colleges and universities must provide equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities.

Title II of the ADA covers publicly-funded universities, community colleges and vocational schools. Title III of the ADA covers privately-funded schools.  All public or private schools that receive federal funding are required under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to make their programs accessible to students with disabilities.

Does my housing accommodation have to comply with the ADA and allow my service animal live with me?

Yes! The ADA applies to housing programs administered by state and local governments, such as public housing authorities, and by places of public accommodation, such as public and private universities. 

In addition, the Fair Housing Act applies to virtually all types of housing, both public and privately-owned, including housing covered by the ADA. (The only exceptions are if a landlord owns 4 or less units AND does not use a management company and lives on the premise).

For more information go HERE

Can I bring my service dog to a place of worship?

Churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship are exempt from the ADA and are not required to allow individuals to bring their service animals into the facility. You should contact the place or worship before bringing your service animal.

Can I bring my service dog on the airplane?

Commercial Airlines do not have to comply with the ADA. Instead, The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is the Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities in air travel. 

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. This rule applies to all flights of U.S. airlines, and to flights to or from the United States by foreign airlines. 

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) a service animal is any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.  

One major difference between the ADA and the ACAA has to do with Psychiatric Service Animals. Airlines may request documentation and/or 48-hours advanced notice for emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals.

Go HERE for more information about air travel with a service dog.

Access Issues and How to Handle Them

What if a business denies me my rights?

The U.S. Department of Justice protects an individual’s rights through the ADA (American with Disabilities Act) to take a service animal where the public is allowed, including government properties, places of business, and other indoor and outdoor places.

Unfortunately, individuals with service animals may still be illegally denied access, service or discriminated against. Issues include being charged extra fees,  waiting longer than others, being segregated or treated differently. 

Here are steps to take if you have an access issue.

  1. Quote the ADA laws directly.

  2. Ask for a supervisor, manager, or a disability advocate if you are still having an issue with the employee you are engaging with.

  3. If you need more help to understand your rights you can call the ADA assistance line, to have your rights clarified; the number is 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY).

  4. File an ADA complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. To file an ADA complaint you can file:

  • Electronically:

  • By Mail; 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section- 1425 NYAV, Washington D.C. 20530

  • By Fax: (202)307-1197

  • Information you should you’ll need to file your complaint:

  1. Your full name, address, telephone numbers, and the name of the party discriminated against (if known);

  2. The name and address of the business, organization, institution, or person that you believe has committed the discrimination;

  3. A brief description of the acts of discrimination, the dates they occurred, and the names of individuals involved;

  4. Other information you believe necessary to support your complaint, including copies (not originals) of relevant documents; and

  5. Information about how to communicate with you effectively.


Hi, I'm Megann!

I’m the face behind The Atomic Hound. I'm also a beach bum who loves baby Yoda, decaf lattes and doing obnoxious Gandalf impressions.

My products are inspired by working dogs, and designed for any dog...even the ultimate couch potato! I also offer education and resources for navigating service dog and pet ownership, and life with disabilities.

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