Dogs in Public… Which Service Dogs Are Allowed Where?

Guide dogs, Service dogs, Support dogs, Therapy dogs, Companion dogs. These are some of the different roles dogs play. Some of those roles allow dogs automatic and full access to public spaces while others don’t. Here is a guide to the differences between these roles and the types of access to public areas that those dogs are allowed.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines guide dogs and service dogs. Title III defines Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals.

GUIDE DOGS – A.K.A. “seeing eye” and “hearing ear” dogs. Guide dogs spend 14-18 months living with volunteer puppy raisers who teach the dogs good house manners and social skills for public. Guide dogs are allowed access to every public space without question. Therefore, as puppies they go everywhere with their raiser family so that they are exposed to (and can become comfortable with) everything they may come across during their working career from cars to grocery carts, cats to squirrels, restaurants to shopping malls. Then they return to the training facility for several months of intensive training where they learn to obey commands given by their handler and to IGNORE commands that would lead the pair into danger. They learn to stop at elevation changes such as curbs and stairs, avoid obstacles such as low-hanging branches or objects in the path. They learn to lead their handler in a straight line and keep them out of danger. “Hearing Ear” dogs learn to respond to traffic noises and prevent handlers from stepping off curbs if cars are coming from out of sight, and alert to alarms and other such noises. Once training is complete, they’re paired with an appropriate human (matched by personality and communication styles) and go through a 2-4 week class with their new human partner. When their harness is on, they are working: focused, ignoring even the heaviest of distractions, polite and respectful of their surroundings. When the harness is off, they are free to play and romp and be “dogs.” The working life of a guide dog is usually 8-10 years, and often the dog will remain with their human partner through their retirement, though sometimes they’re adopted out to a loving home where they can enjoy their golden years in peace and comfort.

SERVICE DOGS – The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines “service dog” as ‘any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.’ This may include skills such as pushing a wheelchair, retrieving dropped objects, opening doors, alerting to the sound of a telephone or other noises, alerting to an imminent seizure and many other such skills. Like Guide dogs, Service dogs are NOT considered pet dogs and are allowed free access to all public spaces without question. Service dogs are well socialized and obedience trained as puppies, with tailored training for the specific service they’ll be providing. It’s not mandatory to have a special service dog training organization train your service dog. You‘re allowed to train your own service dog or enlist the help of any professional trainer you wish. But, in order to qualify as a service dog, the dog must be able to perform specific tasks on cue that are directly associated to the disability of the handler.

There are several types of working dog that fall under the category of Service Dog. Below are three of the more common types:

PSYCHIATRIC SERVICE DOGS – The ADA definition of a Psychiatric service dog is, “a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.” This category would also include dogs who perform specifically trained tasks for those suffering debilitating social anxiety or agoraphobia, where the dog allows the individual to live and interact with the world in an independent manner.

SENSORY SIGNAL OR SOCIAL SIGNAL DOGS  are trained to assist persons on the autism spectrum. These dogs are trained to alert handlers to distracting repetitive movements common among those with autism, allowing the individual to stop the movements.

SEIZURE RESPONSE DOGS  assist people with seizure disorders. The training for this service is individual to the person’s needs. The dog may stand guard over a person during a seizure or they may be trained to seek out help for the person. A small number of dogs have learned to predict a coming seizure and alert the handler before the seizure begins, allowing the person to sit down or otherwise get somewhere safe.

The dogs that fall under the categories described above are allowed full access to all public places. These dogs allow people with disabilities to live independently. The dogs in the below categories have more limited access to public spaces.

EMOTIONAL SUPPORT DOGS – The ADA definition of an emotional support animal is an “animal [which] provides companionship, relieves loneliness and sometimes helps with depression, anxiety and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.” Although Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are often used in medical or mental health treatment, they are NOT considered service dogs under the ADA and they are not allowed to go in any public place where pet dogs would not be allowed. In order for your dog to be registered as an ESA, you must get a prescription from a medical professional. The written prescription from a medical professional for the need of an ESA will pave the way to allow your dog to live in housing that is otherwise pet-free. These dogs are also allowed to travel in the cabin of the plane with their handler (the airline is allowed to ask for documentation proving the ESA status of the dog).

THERAPY DOGS – A Therapy Dog generally has basic obedience and public manners. They provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools and even airports. They work in a variety of settings and with a variety of people from those with learning disabilities to those in highly stressful environments such as after disasters. These are typically companion dogs who have solid obedience training and an even temperament and the owner decides to participate in such activities. The dog and owner are referred to as a Therapy Dog Team.

Therapeutic visitation dogs are pet (companion) dogs whose owner takes the time to visit hospitals, retirement facilities and other places where people need cheering up and/or distraction; where people may be away from home and missing their own pet.

Animal Assisted Therapy dogs often work in rehabilitation facilities, helping people regain limb motion, fine motor skills and even pet care skills for when they return home. Therapeutic visitation dogs often do this job as well.

Facility Therapy Dogs primarily work and live in nursing homes. They are trained and handled by a professional member of the staff and help keep Alzheimer’s patients and others with mental illness from leaving the premises or going into areas that are unsafe.

All of these therapy dogs must be well tempered, well socialized, love to be in the company of humans – focused on making the humans happy – and not shed excessively. Therapy dogs must be certified – usually by the facility where they will be volunteering or working. Therapy dogs are NOT allowed in public places where pet dogs would not be allowed. They are only certified to be in the public place where they’re actually working.

COMPANION DOGS – Companion dogs are any dogs who live with us because we wish to share our lives with them. They’re not working dogs, though they may be therapy dogs. Companion dogs are only allowed in certain public areas such as parks and public walkways. Some restaurants allow companion dogs to join you on their outdoor patios, though they’re not allowed within 15 feet of any food preparation areas. These dogs provide love, companionship, joy and comfort. In order to have the best, most harmonious life with our companion dogs as possible, it’s necessary to train them. Ideally using positive reinforcement (AKA force free methods) rather than coercive methods, we work with our companions to teach good house manners as well as public manners. We teach them how to ask for things they want, when they’re allowed to snuggle and when we’d prefer they enjoy a chew toy on their own bed, we teach them tricks which are fun and life-saving skills, which should also be fun!

In sum, the ADA requires that guide/service dogs have access to all public places allowing their handlers to live independently. ESAs are allowed to live in pet-free housing and travel in the cabin of airplanes with their handler (after providing proper documentation of ESA status), but they are not allowed in any other public space that pet dogs would not be allowed. The ADA doesn’t have specific training requirements nor certification regulations as far as who trains your service animal. You’re allowed to train your own service skills, or enlist the aid of any professional trainer to help you train specific skills. You’re not required to register your service dog, though doing so and having visible service dog ID on your dog may help ease the process of gaining access. Although there is no formal regulations in place, Guide dogs and all Service Dogs dogs must be trained for at least one specific skill that they can reliably do ON CUE that directly assists the handler with their disability.

Businesses are allowed to ask what service a dog performs. They’re NOT allowed to ask what is wrong with the person needing the service. Though asking what service the dog performs is something of a loophole in that telling what the provided service is may directly or indirectly tell what the disability is.

While there is no required registration and anyone can purchase the service dog IDs on line, it’s important that we do NOT take advantage of this easy access. For every pet owner fraudulently claiming their pet is a service dog, a person with a true need and a true service animal is being hassled about gaining access to a public space. Taking advantage, committing fraud, may seem like a victimless crime, but in reality it puts a greater burden on service dogs and those needing them to prove they’re legitimate. In our litigious nation, if a fraudulent service animal causes damage or harm, it could lead to legislation changes that limit access for legitimate service animals and their people, thus limiting the ability of those with disabilities to live independently.

About Jody

I have a masters degree in Animals and Public Policy with a minor in Animal Behavior. I also have 3 years of graduate education in animal learning and behavior through different graduate programs. For more than 9 years I have offered professional obedience training and behavior modification to clients in the L.A. area (and one year in MA while earning my masters degree). I have been answering behavior questions for people around the world since 2009 on the volunteer website All Experts. I educate pet parents in obedience, house manners and behavior modification for undesirable behavior issues. I specialize in timid/fearful dogs, resource guarding and leash reactive dogs.
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