"Service Animals" and "Assistance Animals:" What Are My Rights?

A photo of a golden retriever service dog wearing a vest with several service dog patches. The most prominent reads 'Disabled Veteran with Service Dog.'

Does “service animal” always mean the same thing as “assistance animal?”

No. We have many state and federal laws that are meant to help people who need animals for support.  But each law uses different terms and definitions. This can be confusing.

For example:

  • The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) uses the term “service animal.” These are dogs who are trained to do work directly related to a person’s disability.
  • Rules that enforce the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) use the term “assistance animal.” This can be any animal (not limited to dogs). No training is required. But the animal must reduce the symptoms of a person’s disability, including emotional support, guidance or other specific functions.  
  • The term “service animal” is used as a generic term in other laws.  For example, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) uses the term “service animal.” But, in this context, the term “service animal” is much broader than the ADA definition.

More that one of these laws may apply to the same situation.  For example, if you have a specially trained service dog and live in public housing, you will have protections under both the ADA and the FHA.  

We will explain the basics about these three major federal laws here.  These laws apply throughout the U.S. - in every state. Your state may have additional laws that apply only in your state.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

 

What public spaces does the ADA address?

The ADA gives you the right to enter almost all public spaces and buildings with your “service animal.” This is a dog trained to address the symptoms of your disability. Public spaces and buildings include privately owned places that are generally open to the public, as well as government buildings. So, if other people without service animals are allowed in, so are you.  

For example:

Hospitals.  Generally speaking, people are allowed to visit patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, and examination rooms.  So you are allowed there, too, along with your service animal. On the other hand, the general public is probably not allowed into areas like operating rooms or burn units. So people with service animals would not be allowed there either.  

Restaurants. Places that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas, even if state or local health codes generally prohibit animals.

You should not be banned from a space or asked to remove your service animal unless there is a legitimate reason, such as:

  • The animal is out of control. For example, your service animal barks repeatedly during a movie or growls at other shoppers.
  • The animal is not housebroken.

If there is a legitimate reason to ban the service animal, you must be allowed to use the facility without the animal.

What types of animals are covered by the ADA?

The ADA says that only dogs can be “service animals.” These dogs must be trained to do work directly related to a person’s disability.  Examples include:

  • Psychiatric service dogs, trained to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes
  • Sensory signal dogs, trained to help people with autism
  • Seizure response dogs, trained to help people with seizure disorders
  • Seeing-eye dogs, trained to help people who are blind or have vision problems
  • Signal dogs, trained to alert people who have hearing loss or are deaf
  • Working dogs that pull wheelchairs or help people to balance or walk.

Dogs that provide companionship, comfort, or relieve anxiety or phobias - but do not have special training - are not considered “service animals” under the ADA.  A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.  Under the ADA it is the specialized training of the dog that makes it a “service animal.”
 
If your disability and need for the service animal is obvious, the dog should be allowed to enter the public space with you, no questions asked.  If this is not so obvious, you may be asked two questions only: 

  1. Do you require the service animal because of your disability?
  2. What work or task has the service animal been trained to perform?

You cannot be required to:

  • show proof of your disability,
  • provide medical documentation,
  • show an identification card,
  • show other proof of the dog’s training, or
  • make the dog demonstrate the work or task that it performs.

The ADA does not restrict service animals to particular breeds, size, or weight.  Service animals must be vaccinated according to state and local laws.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The FHA protects people with disabilities from housing discrimination.  So, the FHA covers a narrower range of spaces than is covered by the ADA; it is limited to housing and common areas within a housing complex. But the range of covered animals is much broader than under the ADA.

What is an “assistance animal” under the FHA?

The federal agency HUD (Housing and Urban Development) enforces the Fair Housing Act. HUD rules use the term “assistance animal” rather than “service animal.”  HUD says that “assistance animals” perform work, provide emotional support, or otherwise reduce symptoms of a person with disability symptoms. Other examples include: alerting a person of impending symptoms, guiding a person, and many other helping functions.

Any animal can be an assistance animal (not just dogs). And the animal does not have to be specially trained.

What does the FHA mean by “reasonable accommodation?”

This law says that housing providers (like landlords and housing authorities) must provide “reasonable accommodations” to people with disabilities.  The goal is to give you the same chance to live in decent housing as others enjoy.  “Reasonable accommodations” are exceptions to housing provider rules. For example, a landlord may have a “no pet” rule.  But he may also be required to allow you to have an “assistance animal.”  Service animals are not pets.  They are living "assistive devices," similar to wheelchairs and assigned parking spaces. A tenant cannot be charged for a reasonable accommodation, so a landlord cannot charge a fee or deposit for a service animal.  If the animal causes damage, the tenant can be charged for repairs or replacement.

How do I get a “reasonable accommodation” if I need one?

Make a “reasonable accommodation” request to the landlord or housing provider in writing.  Attach a note from a health care provider stating that you have a disability and need the assistance animal for disability-related assistance or emotional support.  This note can come from a doctor, psychiatrist, other mental health worker, or social worker. You do not need a medical diagnosis.

Get interactive sample request letter here.

View a sample provider note here.

Or you can demonstrate to the landlord or housing provider that your animal has been trained to help you, such as by pulling your wheelchair, bringing you your medication, and other such services.

The housing provider must say yes to your request unless he has a compelling reason to say no. This is a very narrow range of exceptions, such as:  The animal threatens the health or safety of others, or causes damage. (This must be based on the actual behavior of the animal.)

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

The ACAA allows you equal access to air travel.

What types of animals are covered?

The ACAA uses the term “service animal.”  But here the term “service animal” is broader than under the ADA. Under the ACAA “service animal” means dogs and other animals.  To identify a service animal, the airline can use:

  • animal identification cards,
  • other written documents,
  • harnesses, or
  • credible verbal assurances by the person with a disability.

An airline should allow your service animal to sit with you unless the animal obstructs the aisle.  In that case, the airline should try to offer another seat next to you. Your service animal should not have to travel in the baggage compartment unless there are no other feasible alternatives.

What can I do if I think someone has violated one of these laws?

 

Get Legal Advice

In most areas of the country, you can find free legal advocates that may be able to help you with your issue.  Free help sources include:

Each state runs a website to help you find a free legal help office in your area.

If you do not financially qualify to free legal help, you can contact your nearest Legal Referral office for help finding a paid lawyer. Ask for someone who specializes in disability rights law.

Get help from Federal Agencies

People who work for the federal government also enforce these laws. These agencies offer online complaint systems:

File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

File a complaint with the H.U.D.

File a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

All states have departments that enforce similar state laws.  Check your state government website or contact  the legal aid office in your area to find out where to get government help within your state.

July 2015