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A young girl in a wheel chair sits with her service dog.

Service Dog Teams

This question and answer PDF document from the Federal Government provides the legal definition of service animals as determined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA defines service animals as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The trained work or tasks must be directly related to the person’s disability. A person with a disability and their service dog partner are referred to as a team. If a dog’s sole function is to provide emotional support, the dog does NOT QUALIFY AS A SERVICE ANIMAL.

Use of a trained service dog partner makes individuals more independent. There is only one legally recognized definition for a service dog. Service dogs are task-trained specific to an individual not to a disability. Often people label a service dog based on the work they do. Labeling a dog by its job creates confusion.

One example of mislabeling a dog based on the work it does is the term “psychiatric” service dog. Labeling a team by diagnosis can present access problems and ultimately discrimination for some teams. More importantly, it confuses people including journalists and other professionals. The confusion can often create access problems for a bonafide service dog team. For example, a dog trained specifically to interrupt or disrupt a behavior that may be a symptom experienced by a veteran or other person with a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD diagnosis is still a task-trained service dog and the team is protected by the ADA to access and equal treatment in all places of public accommodation with his or her service animal.

Other examples of the work service dogs do include (but are not limited to): guiding people who are blind, seizure alert, alerting people with hearing impairments, fetching dropped items or opening doors and drawers for individuals with mobility issues, balance work, or performing other task-trained duties. Whether or not a dog qualifies as a service dog is dependent on task-training to mitigate an individual's disability.

Service animals may also provide emotional support to their partner BUT they must be task-trained to mitigate a disability. An example might be to calm a person who is “melting down” or who has an anxiety attack by application of deep pressure or interrupting certain behaviors.

Fake Service Dogs Endanger Service Dog Teams and the Public

Recently, there are more and more examples of unethical people who for selfish reasons decide to buy fake credentials online and a vest so they can take their pet dog into stores, restaurants and other places of public accommodation. This act is not only illegal and unethical, but also it endangers the public and real service dog teams.

Service animals are working animals, and considered by IRS to be durable medical equipment. Service dog training, equipment, vet bill and even food are deductible as medical expenses.

Some Words About Use of Miniature Horses

In some cases, individuals use horses as guides. Take a look at this YouTube video about the use of miniature horses as guides for the blind. In addition to the provisions about service dogs, the Justice Department revised ADA regulations with a new, separate provision about miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Miniature horses generally range in height from 24 inches to 34 inches measured to the shoulders and generally weigh between 70 and 100 pounds or about the size of a larger Golden Retriever.

Entities covered by the ADA, places of public accommodation, must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable. The regulations set out four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in their facility. The assessment factors are:

  1. Whether the miniature horse is housebroken;
  2. Whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control;
  3. Whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight; and
  4. Whether the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.

A miniature horse takes very specialized training. The plus side of using a miniature horse is there extended lifespan.

Remember, using a service animal is a very personal decision. The decision is all about each person’s individual need and the task-training required to mitigate the disability for an individual.

A comparison of service dogs with emotional support animals and therapy animals.
The chart explains some key differences between therapy animals, service dogs and emotional support animals and emphasizes only service dog teams have public access rights.
For more information on how animals are used for therapies visit the Animal Assisted Therapy page

Key Points to remember:

  • Some disabilities are invisible but still very real.
  • Emotional support is not a trained task.
  • Service dogs are NOT pets.
  • Service dog teams are welcome in all places of public accommodation (generally defined as facilities, both public and private, used by the public. Examples include retail stores, rental establishments, and service establishments as well as educational institutions, recreational facilities, and service centers).