Service Dogs in Public

Several years ago I posted a little rant about a celebrity posing with their dog's "service dog certification" from an internet company.  That post still gets tons of hits from people googling everything from how to get a service dog to how to take their dog everywhere.  I also recently got contacted to "review" products from a service dog certification site with the tagline on their home page reading "now you can take your dog everywhere!"  Instead of a mini rant, I decided to be more polite and factual.

To those searching the internet, I have your answers.

What is the difference between a service dog, a therapy dog, and an emotional support dog?
Short answer, a therapy dog's job is to help others thru various means of comfort.  A service dog/assistance dog's job is to help an individual with a disability by doing trained tasks that alleviate that disability.  And an emotional support dog's job is to just exist to help comfort an individual with a mental disability.

So in order to take your dog to any public place you must have a disability, AND your dog must be trained to do a task to help in that disability. Therapy dogs do not have public access rights, even though they often visit nursing homes, libraries, and hospitals they must be INVITED.  Emotional support dogs do have special housing and airplane rights, but they do not rights to go anywhere else in public.

What are the legal requirements to get certification for a service dog?
There are no requirements to get certification for a service dog other than you having a disability and your dog being trained to alleviate it.  So if you truly have a disability that your dog has been trained to help with, you do not need to buy "certification" papers online (worthless!) or go through an organization. Your dog does need to be well behaved and it is often recommend that your dog be able to pass a CGC test and public access test. Both are very basic manners tests. Also, any business has a right to kick you and your dog out of a store if the dog is not under your control and is being disruptive (ex. barking, jumping on shoppers, urinating...) even if you and your dog are eligible for access rights.

Note: The ADA does not cover dogs in training; public access for service dogs in training (SDIT) are up to each state to set their own laws. Some states do NOT allow SDITs public access, while some states only grant SDITs public access if they are from a certified organization or with a certified trainer.

Can I train my own service dog?
If you have a disability and you know tasks a dog can help you with, then the short answer is yes.
But if you're looking at running out and getting a dog for that purpose than think very hard about the process.  Even large service dog organizations have a high number of dogs that make wonderful pet dogs but just aren't up for service dog life.  You have no guarantees that your dog will not only enjoy doing the tasks for you, but will also be happy going out in public.   Public life can be stressful for many dogs.  Despite being repeatedly told do not pet, service dogs are accosted by the general public on a regular basis and will encounter everything from screaming children running up to very loud arenas and dressed mascots.  If planning to train your own dog be prepared that your dog may not be well suited for the task and know how you will proceed if that is the case.  There are pros and cons to getting either a puppy or an adult dog but both scenarios need a plan B.  In any case, training your dog will still take a minimum of 6 months with an older dog or 2yrs with a puppy.

Where can I get a service dog from an organization?
If you're interested in getting a dog from an organization know that not all are created equal.  There are zero certification requirements for either an organization or a trainer.  Assistance Dogs International however does have a stringent list of requirements for organizations wishing to apply for membership.  They keep a list of members, and those looking to become members on their website and you can search by service area and by types of assistance dogs certified.

Tell me more about emotional support animals?
The ADA only grants public access rights for service dogs who have trained tasks.  An emotional support dog helps their person by simply being present.  While there have been numerous studies on the benefit of simply having a dog and petting it, this does not qualify as a task and thus does not qualify a dog for public access rights.  So dogs helping those with PTSD need to be trained to do things that help alleviate their owner's disability in a way that an untrained dog could not mimic.

The exception to public access rights for emotional support dogs are housing and airports.  Laws allow emotional support animals to be allowed into rental properties not otherwise allowing pets, and into airports.  A doctor's note prescribing an emotional support animal is often required. 

What about allergies?
Bubba the amazing Diabetic Alert Dog
One person's disability does not trump another's.  Allergies and fear of dogs are not legitimate reasons to deny access to an individual.  In extreme cases, accommodations need to be made to both parties.

What if I suspect a fake service dog?
First recognize that many people have invisible disabilities.  Just because the individual is not obviously blind or in a wheelchair does not mean they do not require a service dog. In addition, dogs of all sizes and breeds can be trained to do service dog work.  If the dog is out of control or not potty trained, regardless of whether the dog is a trained service dog or not the business IS allowed to remove the team from the store.  

If the dog is well behaved and you still suspect a fake, businesses are only allowed to ask 2 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. You can not ask about their disability, require any documentation or certification, or ask the dog to demo the trained tasks.

What do I do if I see a service dog team in public?  Can I pet it?
In general, the answer is smile and keep your distance.  Remember that the dogs are working even if it's not obvious to you.  While most dogs are very good at learning to ignore well meaning people running up, talking in baby voices, and even barking (yes barking...) it gets very old for the person and difficult for the dog to keep 100% focus.  Keep in mind that a distracted dog could miss alerting to a medical event such as a low blood sugar!

Some teams will welcome conversation about their dog (but please don't ask about their disability!) and may even invite you to pet their dog.  But just because one team allows it does not mean that is appropriate for all other service dogs.  Like humans, dogs are individuals and will have various degrees of attraction towards others and thus different rules.

Why is is a big deal if my dog wears a cape so he can come with me in public?
People who need a service dog get confronted way too often based on the action of people bringing their fake service dog in stores.  Even if your dog is well trained, people encountering these fake service dogs often don't realize that true service dogs often aren't allowed to say Hi in public as they are trained to focus on the needs of their person and can't be distracted.  

Most people who rely on a service dog would trade their ability to bring their dog in a heartbeat if it meant that they didn't NEED him anymore.  Going on fun outings with a dog is an insult to those who truly depend on their service dog to grant them more independence and peace of mind.   So please don't abuse the system.

Cindy Davies  – ( December 18, 2015 at 10:27 AM )  

Thank you. This is exactly what people need to know about service dogs.

Romilda Gareth  – ( May 28, 2016 at 10:10 PM )  

Thank you for this post. With around 200,000 service dogs in the United States trained to help and do specific tasks, people with disabilities across the country are able to lead more normal lives. From guiding and picking up things for the blind to stopping panic attacks in PTSD patients, these canines show that dogs are not only man’s best friend, they can be invaluable partners as well. See more

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