What Actually is a Service Dog?
It depends who you ask… of course
Firstly, please understand that there are 3 very different, but important, definitions of ‘service dog’ or ‘service animal.’ This can explain a lot of the confusion around service dogs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Fair Housing Act (FHA) as well as the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA), each have their own separate definition, and do not need to abide by the others’. This is just good to know to avoid any confusion.
Just keep it in mind whether you’re reading about public places, housing, or air travel. There are probably many more definitions, depending on who you ask (your mother-in-law?), but I think these are the most official, and most important to know if you really need the laws on service dogs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Service Animal Definition
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs the rules around Service Dogs and their humans. It is concerned with the issues around disabled people being permitted to bring their service dog into public places. People with a service dog are allowed to go almost all the places that the general public is normally allowed. (There are some exceptions, such as religious organizations).
Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.
Emotional Support Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Comfort Dogs or Companion Animals under the ADA
The ADA defines Service Dog as something totally different from emotional support animals, therapy animals, comfort animals, and companion animals. These are not considered ‘Service Dogs’. Therefore, they do not have the same rights as service dogs under the ADA.
These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
I suppose what this means is that Service Dogs, with their human, are allowed into almost all public places that the general public is invited (restaurants, public transportation, theatres, grocery stores, etc.)
The same can not necessarily be said for people with these other types of dogs. So, a person with an emotional support animal may be excluded from a restaurant, for example, while a person with a service dog will be allowed. Of course individual establishments may vary, but service dogs as defined by the ADA are the only type of dogs covered by this law; therefore the only ones invited into almost all public places (with a few exceptions such as religious spaces)
Service Animal as defined by the FHA (Fair Housing Act)
When you want to start thinking about whether your dog is allowed with you into a housing situation, then you can basically forget the ADA rules and switch to the FHA rules. There is good news; the definition of service animal is not as strict! Check out the definition here:
An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.
For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, neither the Fair Housing Act nor Section 504 requires an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified. While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.
Basically, you’ll need some kind of doctor’s note (or another professional) to verify your need for the dog to the landlord or other housing provider; but you’ll likely be able to keep your dog/animal if you’re a person with a disability, whether it is a custom-trained service dog, non-trained emotional support dog, or another type of therapy or assistance dog, or another animal altogether (service turtle, anyone?)
Service Animal as defined by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)
When you’d like to take an air plane ride with your animal, you can now forget the ADA and FHA because there is yet a 3rd set of rules and definitions for Service Dogs.
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.
Documentation may be required of passengers needing to travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal.
Proof of Certification is Not Required for Public Access
There seems to be a lot of confusion around this subject, especially when many services dogs do have what at least looks like official identification or proof of certification. Additionally, there are many places – many of them online – that one can simply buy service dog vests and other gear to let the public know their dog is at work.
However, people with disabilities are not required (under the ADA) to show proof of certification or registration for their service dog. For real.
Americans with Disabilities Act
- People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.
- The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.
Covered entities 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.
- Mandatory registration of service animals is not permissible under the ADA.
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.
What this means is a person with a disability who is using a service dog, may be expected to enter any public place or use a public service, that other members of the general public are normally invited to go, without having to prove their dog has been certified. In fact, in accordance with the ADA :
Public Establishments May Only Ask You Two Things
Is the animal required because of a disability?
What type of work is the dog trained to perform?
Establishments May Not:
- ask about the person’s disability
- require medical documentation
- require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog
- ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task
State vs. Federal Service Dog Laws
Just in case you aren’t already confused, I must tell you that there are state-specific service dog/assistance dog laws, in addition to the ADA/Federal laws. It’s important to know that a person with a disability is entitled to whichever law allows them the most benefit; in the case of overlap or conflict.
General Rights Under Law for Service Dogs and Their People
In Wisconsin, a person with a disability who is accompanied by a service dog has rights under the law. Public facilities, as well as common transportation carriers, are required to admit and assist the person. Further, the law requires that in the case of a disaster, service animals are provided with transportation, temporary shelter, and evacuation if necessary.
- The law requires that people with service dogs shall not be denied access to accommodations, transportation or elevator service. This includes dogs-in-training with their trainer.
- Service dogs are exempt from all state and local licensing fees
- The denial of emergency medical treatment for service dogs is prohibited
- People with disabilities who are with their assistance dog are allowed into any hotel, motel, restaurant or other eating establishment, accommodations, facilities, theatre or resorts and other places of public amusement
- People with their service dogs are not to be denied access to transportation, as long as their dog does not occupy a seat or endanger public safety
- This includes air, railroad, motor vehicle, or any other method. It includes aircraft, watercraft, railroad cars, buses, and air, boat, railroad, and bus terminals and stations
- Extra charges/fares can not be made to the person due to the presence of the service dog for their transportation together
- Emergency medical treatment can not be denied to a service dog that is with a person, regardless of the persons ability to pay prior to the treatment
When using a public accommodation, the care or supervision of a service animal is solely the responsibility of his/her owner. The public accommodation is not required to provide care or food or a special location for the animal.
Check out the official laws here:
Wisconsin Housing Laws – People With Disabilities
Under Wisconsin housing law, if an individual’s vision, hearing, or mobility is impaired, it is discrimination to refuse to rent or sell housing, evict from housing, or harass an individual because s/he keeps an animal that is specially trained to lead or assist the individual. The statute states that upon request, the individual is required to show credentials issued by a school recognized as accredited to train such animals, but a court case has shown that the broader provisions of federal law have priority over this requirement.
There is an exception in the housing law in the case of owner-occupied housing. If the owner or a member of their immediate family can show evidence of an allergy to the specific type of animal the individual with a disability possesses, it is permissible to refuse to rent to the individual.
When a Service Animal Can Be Excluded
A service animal may be excluded from a facility when that animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. For example, any service animal that displays vicious behavior toward other guests or customers may be excluded. A service animal that barks or growls uncontrollably during a concert or movie may also be excluded, since the animal’s behavior may result in a fundamental alteration of the facility’s offering to other customers. A public accommodation is not allowed to make assumptions about how a particular animal is likely to behave based on past experience with other animals, but instead must consider each situation individually.
Definition of Person With a Disability (Under the ADA)
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- A record of such an impairment; or
- You are regarded as having such an impairment.
- You must have a physical or mental impairment; and
- The impairment must substantially limit your major life activities.
Wisconsin’s Service Animal Definition
Wisconsin’s equal rights law defines a service animal as a guide dog, signal dog, or other animal that is trained individually to perform tasks for someone with a disability, including the task of guiding a vision-impaired person, alerting a hearing-impaired person to intruders or sound, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items. Wisconsin’s law does not address whether it covers service animals for people with psychiatric disabilities.
Neither the ADA nor Wisconsin’s equal rights law, however, covers what some people call “emotional support animals”: animals whose presence provides a sense of safety, companionship, and comfort to those with psychiatric or emotional conditions. Although these animals often have therapeutic benefits, they are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities.