Service Animal Basics

Use the "Facts You Should Know About Service Dogs" brochure to learn more about service dogs and to educate businesses in your area about the access rights of people with disabilities and their service dogs. Please feel free to download, print, and copy the brochure in its entirety to share with others.  Also available is as bi-lingual "Service Dog Law Card" that you may print, laminate and fold into a wallet-sized card.

Scroll down the page to find answers to the following questions.
What Is a Service Dog/Animal?
How can I make my dog a service animal?
Minimum Standards for Service Animals
Other Terms Used to Refer to Service Dogs/Animals
The Difference between Service, Therapy, Companion and "Social/therapy" Animals


What Is a Service Dog (Animal)?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), a dog is considered a "service dog" if it has been "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability." Also according to the ADA, a 'disability' is a "mental or physical condition which substantially limits a major life activity" such as:

•  caring for one's self
•  performing manual tasks
•  walking
•  seeing
•  hearing
•  speaking
•  breathing
•  learning
•  working
•  as well as some disabilities that may not be visible, such as:
   deafness, epilepsy, and psychiatric conditions

To be considered a service dog, s/he must be trained to perform tasks directly related to the person's disability.

Example: Chris has a hearing disability and can't hear sounds such as a smoke alarms, doorbells, sirens, or her name being called. Chris is otherwise able to function with no other assistance. Chris has a dog named Dusty. If Dusty is trained to let Chris know when a sound occurs (e.g., smoke alarm, doorbell), Dusty is considered a service dog. On the other hand, if Dusty is only trained to retrieve items around the house and does not know how to alert Chris to sounds, Dusty is not considered a service dog for Chris, because the task of retrieving is not directly related to Chris' disability.

How can I make my dog a service animal?

The most frequent question posed to our Service Dog Resources representatives is, “How can I make my dog a service dog so that I can take him/her everywhere I go?” 

 The only way that a dog can be recognized as a true “service animal” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is when the following conditions are met:

  • The owner or handler has a documented disability as defined under the ADA, “….a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”.
  • The dog (or miniature horse) must be trained to perform a task or tasks that alleviate that disability.  The mere presence of the animal (for example, “s/he gives me a reason to get up every morning”) does not qualify a dog as a service animal.
  • The dog (or miniature horse) must not alter the environment for others.  This means that s/he must be kept on a leash and under the control of the handler at all times in public, must not show signs of aggression, must be kept quiet and clean.

 Unfortunately, there is considerable lack of knowledge among the public regarding the rights of the disabled.  Many people believe that without a “Service Dog” vest or tag, a dog cannot be a legitimate service animal — and there are several unethical companies that profit by this ignorance.  They sell these forms of identification without requiring proper proof of the level of training  a dog has had, nor medical documentation of a person’s disability.  If a dog does not meet all the requirements listed above, but a person misrepresents their dog as a service animal, they are in violation of a federal law and subject to a heavy fine and/or imprisonment.

Minimum Standards for Service Animals

The Minimum Standards for Service Dogs, were developed by a team of service dog trainers, animal behaviorists, people with disabilities, and veterinarians to guide the development of the Service Dog Education System.

The Minimum Standards includes only those recommended characteristics and minimum behaviors required of all service dogs. The characteristics and specialized behaviors required of individual dogs should vary, based on the individual requirements of the person for whom the dog is trained.

Download and Print the Minimum Standards for Service Animals

Other Terms Used to Refer to Service Dogs/Animals

To be consistent with the legal definition in the ADA, Pet Partners uses the following terms:

Service Animal
Any DOG (or, in some cases, minature horse) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.

Service Dog
Adapted from the term service animal, service dog is a species-specific term to generically describe any dog in the role of a service animal.

The terminology used to label specific types of work dogs perform for people with disabilities has not been standardized. For example, a dog trained to help a person walk might be referred to by different sources as a 'mobility dog', a 'walker dog', or a 'support dog'. In addition to the wide variety of terms used, many service dogs are cross-trained to perform more than one category of work (such as guide and mobility for a person who is blind and has severe arthritis) and labeling them by the work they do becomes cumbersome.

Many individuals choose to identify their service animal generically because it identifies the roles of the animals without disclosing the nature of the persons' disabilities, and it is consistent with the terminology of the laws that protect them.

The Difference between:
Service, Therapy, Companion and "Social/therapy" Animals

Service Animals are legally defined (Americans With Disabilities Act, 1990) and are trained to meet the disability-related needs of their handlers who have disabilities. Federal laws protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals in public places. Service animals are not considered 'pets'.

Therapy Animals are not legally defined by federal law, but some states have laws defining therapy animals. They provide people with contact to animals, but are not limited to working with people who have disabilities. They are usually the personal pets of their handlers, and work with their handlers to provide services to others. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have "no pets" policies. Therapy animals usually are not service animals.

Emotional Support Animal
Providing comfort and security, emotional support animals (ESAs) can be very valuable to people with psychological limitations. Although they may also perform some type of “work” for their owner, it is mostly the pet’s mere presence alone that is beneficial.  People who own ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act to keep these animals in a public housing situation, but the property manager has the right to ask for documentation from a health care provider that the animal(s) is necessary for the person’s health and well-being. As with the ADA, however, the Fair Housing Act requires that the animal does not alter the environment for others; s/he must be held on a leash in public areas, must be well-controlled, clean and quiet. For more information about the Fair Housing Act as it relates to assistance animals, please visit, section 16.1.

A Companion Animal is not legally defined, but is accepted as another term for pet.

'Social/therapy' Animals have no legal definition. They often are animals that did not complete service animal or service dog training due to health, disposition, trainability, or other factors, and are made available as pets for people who have disabilities. These animals might or might not meet the definition of service animals.


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