Everything You Need to Know About Service Animals

If You Have a Service Animal, Know Your Rights

Man in wheelchair with spinal cord injury talking with service dog with his pregnant wife in the background
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In the past, "service animals" usually evoked images of seeing-eye dogs helping the blind navigate the world outside their homes. Nowadays it's not unusual for the term "service animal" to include animals like birds, snakes and miniature horses. Service animals provide a necessary service to their owners, like getting help if the owner is about to have a seizure, picking up dropped items, or altering the owner to sounds, intruders or other danger.

Types of Service Animals

If you aren’t used to seeing service animals other than dogs, you may be confused as to what qualifies as a service animal. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title III, 28 CFR, Sec. 36.104, a service animal is "any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability."

Not all animals are capable of taking on such serious duties, but there are some who have proven to be especially adept at service work, including Capuchin monkeys, miniature horses and certain dog breeds, such as German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers.

What Service Animals Do

Service animals can be trained to do lots of things, but specific tasks depend upon the owner's disability. Capuchin monkeys can wash people’s faces, turn lights on and off, microwave food and do other human-like tasks. Miniature horses can be trained to perform like service dogs. They can guide owners around obstacles, stop at intersections and guide the owner's hand to press crosswalk buttons.

Service Animal Owners' Legal Rights

So many different types of animals qualify as service animals, but the public, including business owners, is beginning the question the legitimacy of certain animals. The American with Disabilities Act fully protects all animals that have been properly trained, but not everyone is willing to accept that. In some cases, even service dogs are unwelcome visitors at a business.

Although these animals are providing life-saving services, there are concerns. For example, a service animal might be turned away from a movie theater for fear of barking or causing an allergic reaction for a patron. Service animals like birds and rats are perceived as unclean no matter how well behaved they are.

The ADA supersedes any local or state laws that prohibit service animals in any place that is open to the public. If you have a service animal and have been turned away at a public place, that's illegal. An individual with a service has exactly the same rights as a non-disabled individual.

Service Animal Registration

Businesses can't charge you extra or separate you from other customers if you have a service animal. By law, they aren't even allowed to ask owners to prove a dog is a service animal, but that doesn't mean they won't ask. You don't have to register a service animal, but you're probably better off doing so.

There are several registry websites, including the National Service Animal Registry and the United States Dog Registry, that provide photo IDs of the owner and the service animal.

How to File a Discrimination Complaint

If you’ve been discriminated against because of your service animal, you have a legitimate legal complaint. The ADA has a discrimination complaint form you can fill out online.

You can also file a complaint by mail by sending a letter to:

US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section – 1425 NYAV
Washington, D.C. 20530

In the letter, be sure to include the following information:

  • Your contact information. Your full name, address, and phone numbers.
  • The organization's information. The name and address of the business, organization, institution or person you believe has discriminated against you.
  • A description of the discrimination. Include the dates and the names of those involved. Include any relevant information you believe supports your complaint, including copies of documents, etc.
  • How you want to receive communication. Include whether you want to receive communication in a specific format, like large print, Braille or video phone.

If your disability prevents you from filing a complaint online or via mail, contact the ADA Information line at 1-800-514-0301 (voice) or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY) to schedule an appointment. The Department of Justice can help you file your complaint by phone or videophone.

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