(6) What is a service dog and do I qualify?

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly:

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)


What is the definition of a service animal?

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the law that governs public access for service animals so we look to the Act to define a service animal. The law states, “a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” The Act provides a brief list of examples of tasks that the animal might be trained for and specifically lists Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where the dog is trained to calm a person “during an anxiety attack.” Emotional support dogs are not considered a service animal under ADA, however, these dogs have special privileges under the Fair Housing Act (for more information see www.servicepoodle.com).

Miniature horse is a service animal . . . really?

While a briefing paper provided by the Department of Justice (DOJ) (the federal agency responsible for enforcement of the Act) stated that only dogs are recognized as service animals, curiously, miniature horses were added to the Act for horses measuring between 24 and 34 inches in height. This is the honest truth—no horsing around.

Do I qualify for a service dog?

Do you wonder if you qualify for a service dog? The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines who qualifies. “Title III of the Act protects three categories of individuals with disabilities:

  1. Individuals who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  2. Individuals who have a record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the individual’s major life activities; and,
  3. Individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment, whether they have the impairment or not.”

In my husband’s case, the need for a service dog was documented by his Psychiatrist, Primary Care Physician, Mental Health Counselor, and his Podiatrist. A business is not permitted to ask him the nature of his disability or ask him to prove he is disabled.

Businesses are permitted to ask an individual with a service animal only two questions: (1) Is a service dog required because of a disability?  and (2) What task is the service animal trained to perform?

Molly in her service vestAlthough it is not legal to require proof of her training, William and I carry special identification cards, showing proof of Molly’s training and status as a service dog. Molly also wears a service vest with her identification clearly visible.

Must my service dog be certified or registered?

Service dogs are not required to be certified or trained by a certified individual. The DOJ (Department of Justice) specifically did not want to add this requirement, as individuals requiring service dogs are often economically disadvantaged. Adding a requirement for this might exclude those in need from obtaining the critical access needed under ADA. As well, there is no central registry for service dogs; however, as mentioned in an earlier blog, the US Registry of Service Dogs is working towards a mandated central registry because of the abuse of some individuals, claiming their dog is a service dog to obtain public access reserved for legitimate service dogs.

What rights do I have with my service dog? 

An individual with a recognized disability has the following rights:

  1. Right to request a special accommodation in the workplace to bring his/her service animal to work and
  2. Access to places where the public has access such as lodging, eating establishments, gathering places, sales and service establishments, public transportation, museums, recreational facilities, schools, social service centers, hospitals (except for the operating room or places where the presence of a dog could compromise a sterile environment), and public offices.
  3. He/she may not be charged a special fee or deposit to take his/her dog in these places.
  4. This access is federally granted and applies to any place in the United States.


The DOJ provides a fact sheet that you might want to carry with you to help educate a business owner, who refuses to allow your service dog to enter their business. You can obtain a copy at ADA website.

What must I do to preserve public access with my service dog?

A service dog owner must keep the dog well-groomed and the dog must be well-behaved when in a public place. If the dog exhibits disruptive behavior and the owner does not control the dog, the dog may be asked to leave the establishment. Not being house-trained is the second cause permitted to deny public access.

Need to file a complaint for violation of your access rights with a service dog?

If you believe you and your service dog have been discriminated against by restricting public access, the DOJ recommends you provide the business owner with the ADA fact sheet. If that does not help, you can file a complaint against the business. The DOJ is the enforcement arm for ADA compliance. The ADA.gov website contains instructions and details on filing a complaint.

For general questions about public access, call the Department of Justice (DOJ) at 1-800-949-4232  

Test your knowledge of ADA rules for service dogs with this true/false question:

An establishment that sells or prepares food may restrict access to a service dog if local or state health codes prohibit animals on the premises?

False; federal law trumps local or state codes and laws

Federal law says you and your service dog have access to public places regardless of local or state codes  

Post your Comments :

Have you and your service dog ever been denied public access without cause? Please post your comments below. 

About the blogger

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her husband, William, and dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren