Service dog laws in California and other states can be confusing, and there are various reasons for this. There are multiple laws that govern the use of these special animals, as well as very similar types of working dogs that are not technically service dogs (emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, companion dogs).
In this comprehensive guide, we will go through all of the relevant service dogs laws in California, and break it all down so it is easy to understand, including:
- Federal ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act for public access rights
- Fair Housing Act (FHA) for housing situations
- Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) for air travel with service animals
- California State/County Specific Service Dog Laws
- …and much more
Jump to a section:
- Service Animal Definition California ADA
- California State Law – Vaccinations & Licenses
- What Businesses Need To Know
- Excluding Service Animals
- Service Animal Control & Supervision
- California State Law – Fake Service Animals
- Service Animal Work or Tasks
- Registration & Certification
- Service Animals in Hotels
- More Than One Service Animal
- Hospitals & Ambulances
- Swimming Pools
- Religious Organizations
- San Francisco Specific
Service Dog Laws in California – Service Animal Definition
Service dog laws in California include governance by the ADA or Americans with Disabilities Act, whenever public access rights are concerned. The federal ADA definition of a service animal is:
“A service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” -ADA
Some people use miniature horses rather than dogs, and in some cases, the law extends to those circumstances, too.
Emotional support dogs or emotional support animals are not service animals under this definition, although it’s important to note that the Fair Housing Act has a different – and more broad – definition of “assistance animal” that does include emotional support animals.
In other words, emotional support animals, comfort animals, and companion animals do not have the same public access rights when compared to service animals, but they may have rights in housing.
There are no size, weight, or breed restrictions for service animals. A service dog can be any size, any weight, and any breed, including breeds that have been banned at the local level (city, county).
California State Law – Licenses & Vaccinations
In California, all dogs over four months old need to be vaccinated against rabies. In addition, all dogs over four months need to be licensed through their local animal care and control agency.
While there is no federal licensing nor registration office for service animals under the ADA, service animals are not exempt from local animal bylaws, vaccination, and/or licensing requirements.
In other words, you must have your service animal vaccinated and licensed in the state of California, just like all the other dogs.
California State Law (California Food & Agriculture Code) protects people who use the following “assistance dogs” –> guide dogs, signal dogs, or service dogs, from additional fees for residential situations, and provides standardized identification of these animals.
People applying for an assistance dog identification tag must sign an affidavit declaring their understanding of the Penal Code, which prohibits any person from knowingly and fraudulently representing themselves as an owner or trainer of a guide dog, signal dog, or service dog.
In addition, people must acknowledge that any misrepresentation of one of these animals is a Penal Code misdemeanour that is punishable by up to six months imprisonment in a county jail, and up to $1,000 fine, or both.
When an assistance animal dies or is retired, the assistance dog identification tags must be immediately returned to the animal control department that initially issued the tag.
- Sacramento County Animal Care & Regulation – Owners of service animals in Sacramento County must complete some paperwork and also sign an affidavit so say that the animal is a trained service animal. There is no fee. All animals including service animals must follow all regulations. All service dogs must be licensed and vaccinated for rabies.
- Los Angeles County – Animals & Pets – Service animals/assistance animals are exempt from Los Angeles spay and neuter program. All service animals must be vaccinated and licensed.
- San Francisco Animal Care & Control – Dog licensing is now available online by computer or smartphone. Use your credit card, and upload your rabies vaccination certificate.
Service Dog Laws in California – What Businesses Need to Know
- There are no size, weight, or breed restrictions on service animals, even if a city/county has a breed restriction
- The only two questions staff may ask someone with a service animal:m 1) Is the animal required because of a disability? 2) What tasks has the animal been trained to perform?
- Businesses may not require or request any documentation, proof of registration, proof of licensing, or proof of training
- People who use service animals have the right to train the animal themselves
- Asking additional questions, other than the ones listed above, is a violation, and so is refusing access to someone with a service animal
- If violations occur, people who use service animals are entitled to a private civil suit, or Attorney General lawsuit
- Fines are up to $55,000 for a first violation and up to $100,000 for any subsequent violations
- Service animals are working animals, not pets. “No pets” policies must be modified to allow service animals.
- Service animals are not required to wear a vest, identification tag, patch, or harness identifying them as a service animal.
Service Dog Laws in California – Excluding Service Animals
Service dog laws in California indicate that service animals may only be excluded (asked to leave) under certain circumstances:
- If the animal isn’t housebroken (i.e. it “goes to the bathroom” inappropriately)
- If the service animal is not under control and its handler does not take effective action to control it
- If the animal is a direct threat to the health and safety of others (a dog eating off of a table at a restaurant, or a dog constantly barking, or a dog trying to bite people, are all unacceptable behaviours)
- If a service animal is excluded for one of the above reasons, the person using the animal must still be offered the program/products/services without the animal being there. In other words, excluding the animal does not automatically mean that the service animal handler is also excluded
Read more: Can Service Dogs Go Anywhere?
Service Dog Laws in California – Service Animal Control & Supervision
Service dog laws in California indicate that service animals must be under control of their handler at all times. This control typically looks like:
- Being on a leash
- Being on a tether
- Having a harness
Sometimes, these methods of control are not possible due to the nature of a disability, or the nature of the work that the dog needs to do. In these cases, the service animal handler must still keep control over their animal at all times.
This can be done with voice, signals, or another method.
Service animals that are not under control are unacceptable
Businesses are not responsible for supervising service animals in any way. It is up to the service dog handler (the person with a disability or perhaps the dog trainer) to take care of the animal.
This includes feeding, bathroom breaks, cleaning up after the animal, veterinary care, grooming, and anything else the animal may need.
California State Fake Service Animal Law
Service dog laws in California include a section on punishments for “fake service animals,” or in other words, when people who knowingly misrepresent their pet to be a service animal in order to receive the privileges that legitimate service animals deserve.
Anyone who falsely claims their pet or another animal as a service animal will be guilty of a misdemeanour.
Punishment will be imprisonment in a county jail for up to six months, or a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
Interfering with rights of a disabled person is also a misdemeanour. For example, denying somebody with a disability who is using a service dog access from entering a business, program, facility, or anywhere else the public is regularly invited or allowed. This is punishable by a fine of up to $2500.
Service Dog Laws in California – Service Animal Work or Tasks
Wondering what service dogs or service animals actually do? What are these work or tasks? There are so many things that service dogs and service animals can do for us humans.
We are lucky to have such amazing creatures to help us through life. Service animals are just one type of working dog, too. There are many others.
Here are just a few examples of the types of service dogs there are and the types of work or tasks they do to help people:
- Seizure alert dogs can position themselves to keep someone safe during a seizure, or can be trained to retrieve help after the event
- A diabetic medical service dog can retrieve a glucose kit from the fridge and bring it to its handler
- Service dogs can carry grocery bags, open and close doors, pull a wheelchair, retrieve laundry from a laundry machine, carry items in a backpack
- Brace and mobility support service dogs can help people with changing position (sitting to standing, for example), brace someone during walking or balance loss, brace people when going up or down stairs
- Visual assistance and guide dogs help people who are living with vision loss or totally blind, by leading people to a familiar route, finding things like an elevator or an empty seat, follow somebody like a waitress or clerk, and pick up common items such as a newspaper from a driveway
- Hearing assistance or hearing service dogs can help people who can’t hear at all or have suffered loss of hearing ability, by alerting someone when their name is called, alerting someone to a fire or smoke alarm, responding to overhead announcements
- Psychiatric service dogs can help people who are living with different mental health conditions, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) depression, or anxiety, by providing medication reminders, lay across somebody as for Deep Pressure Therapy during a panic attack, provide tactile grounding, retrieving an item such as medication or a self-care kit, interrupt flashbacks or nightmares, search the house, stabilize a routine, provide a reality check
- Autism service dogs can help people who live with autism in certain ways, such as making sure a child with autism does not become lost
Service Dog Laws in California – Registration & Certification
Contrary to popular assumption, service dog laws in California nor any other state require that service dogs be registered or certified as a service dog. Service animals are prone to local dog licensing and vaccination laws only.
No legitimate federal registration or certification agency for service animals exists
You may have seen these types of “registries” online; however, these are not legitimate, and are not recognized by the Department of Justice, nor the ADA, nor any state laws.
Purchasing one of these documents does not turn an animal into a service animal. These documents purchased online do not convey any legal rights.
Professional training is not required, either. While there are many wonderful training organizations that train and provide service dogs for people who need them, often at no charge, this is optional. People who use service dogs have the right to train the dog themselves. Many training organizations have long wait lists and limited resources.
Service Dog Laws in California – Service Animals in Hotels
People with disabilities who use service animals or service dogs must be treated the same as other members of the public. They must not be charged a fee or surcharge because of their service animal.
Service animals are not pets, and are not subject to pet fees or deposits. Additionally, people with disabilities must be given the opportunity to reserve any room in a hotel or other place of lodging; and not be restricted to “pet friendly” rooms.
If a business normally charges a fee to people whose pets cause damage to hotel property, then someone with a disability who uses a service dog may be charged the same fee.
Service animals must not be left in hotel rooms alone. Under the ADA service dog laws, service animals must be under control of their handler at all times.
Read more: Are Service Dogs Allowed in Hotels?
Service Dog Laws in California – More Than One Service Animal
Under the federal ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act – service dog laws, people with disabilities are permitted to accompany more than one service animal while out and about in public places.
Whenever possible, businesses need to be accommodating. If, however, the presence of a second dog would compromise the business or safety of people, then it can be asked to wait outside, or at a suitable location.
For example, if a restaurant is small and the only place where the second dog could fit was in the aisle blocking folks from walking through, then the second dog can reasonably be asked to wait somewhere else.
Some people may need to use two dogs for mobility assistance, or, someone may have two dogs; one for different disabilities. For example, someone may use one dog for mobility assistance, and another as a seizure alert animal.
It is not uncommon for people to have more than one disability.
Service Dog Laws in California – Hospitals & Ambulances
Generally speaking, service animals are to be permitted in patient rooms and other places inside hospitals where the public is allowed to go, including the emergency room. Service animals can not be excluded on the grounds that the nurses, doctors, and/or medical staff there can provide the same service for the person.
If the person admitted to the hospital is unable to care for the service animal, there are a few options:
- The patient could arrange for a family member or friend to come to the hospital and help take care of the animal. This is the best option, because it’s always best never to separate people from their service animal
- If that’s not an option, a friend or family member could keep the dog or miniature horse during the duration of the hospitalization
- If the patient is unable to make arrangements, then the hospital staff can arrange for the dog to stay in a boarding facility until the patient is released. However, staff must give the patient a chance to make arrangements before they take this step
Service Dog Laws in California – Service Animals in Ambulances
Service animals must be permitted to ride in an ambulance with their handler, unless there is insufficient space, and by including the animal, the medical staff’s job would be compromised.
In instances where there is no room to include the service animal in an ambulance, arrangements need to be made to have the service animal transported to the hospital to meet the patient there. People should not be separated from their service animal whenever possible.
Read more: Are Service Dogs Allowed in Hospitals?
Service Dog Laws in California – Swimming Pools
Places like gyms, hotels, fitness centres, and municipalities often have swimming pools. The ADA laws do not override public health orders that restrict or prohibit dogs in swimming pools.
So, service dogs can be excluded from swimming pools. However, they must be allowed on the pool deck, in the change rooms, and anywhere else the public can go.
Service Dog Laws in California – Religious Organizations
Religious organizations such as churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, and other religious places are not required under the ADA service animal laws to allow service animals into their facilities.
They are one of the few places that are specifically exempt from allowing service animals. However, there may be certain states that have laws to allow service animals into religious areas.
Service Dog Laws in California – San Francisco Specific
San Francisco is one city in particular that has taken a different approach to service animals and support animals. The Mayor’s Office on Disability has specific rules for service and support animals. We will summarize it right here.
In San Francisco, people with disabilities that use service animals and/or support animals are entitled to equal access to all City-sponsored programs, facilities, services, and activities.
The ADA definition of a service animal it is a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to work or do tasks specifically for someone with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, or another type of disability.
San Francisco support animals are animals of any species that are not necessarily trained to do work or tasks. Their presence helps people who have psychological conditions. These animals help people by reducing some of the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and difficulties with social interactions.
California assistance tags from San Francisco Animal Care & Control are optional, and may make it easier for people with service or support animals to gain access to public places with their animal.
Staff at businesses may ask the usual two questions to people with service animals or support animals:
- Is this animal required because of a disability?
- How does it assist you?
Service animals and support animals need to be focused on helping their human and not be disruptive of others, or to the health and safety of the public.
- Service and support dogs must be current on their vaccinations and maintain a current rabies tag
- Service and support animals must be under the handler’s control at all times
- All service and support animals must maintain socially acceptable behaviour at all times
- Service and support animals are allowed in housing situations that have “no pets” policies. This is under the Fair Housing Act as a “reasonable accommodation.”
- Landlords must be informed about the request, and tenants may need a letter from a medical professional stating that a disability exists
- Landlords may ask for proof of current vaccinations and tenants may need to sign an agreement assuming full responsibility for the animal when inside the building
Where are they allowed?
Service animals (as defined under the federal ADA law) are allowed generally in any private and public establishment.
Support animals (defined by San Francisco) and ADA defined service animals are welcomed at any City or County of San Francisco building, program, or agency, including contractors.
If you experience discrimination…
If you are denied access at a San Francisco City building, facility or program because of your service animal or support animal, you can call (415) 554-6789 or email at MOD@sfgov.org
If you experience discrimination at a private business or restaurant with your service animal, you can contact the Human Rights Commission at (415) 252-2500 or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing at (800) 884-1684.
- California Legislative Information – Assistance Animal ID Tags
- ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act
- FHA – Fair Housing Act
- ACAA – Air Carrier Access Act
- U.S. Department of Justice
- San Francisco Mayor’s Office on Disability
- San Francisco Animal Care & Control
- Federal ADA Service Animal Laws for Public Access & FAQs
- Federal ADA Workplace Accommodations for Service Animals
- Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog