What are the service dog laws? What’s the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an emotional support animal (ESA)? What’s the difference between a psychiatric service dog and a therapy dog?
PSDP answers these common questions about both service dogs and related laws, and more! These answers are given in the context of United States laws, unless otherwise noted.
For accessibility, there are no drop-downs or internal hyperlinks in this FAQ. Instead, the questions are collected at the top, then listed again with their answers.
There are many answers that contain links to resources for those who would like to know more. Some of these links are to external websites, for which PSDP is not responsible.
• What is a service dog?
• What does the Americans with Disabilities Act say about the use of service dogs?
• How can my business ensure compliance with service dog access laws?
• What is a service dog in training?
• What is an emotional support animal?
• What is a therapy dog?
• How might my dog be covered in housing situations?
• How can I fly with a psychiatric service dog?
• Do I need a doctor’s letter to be accompanied by a psychiatric service dog?
• How many work or task items do I have to teach my dog for it to be a “real” service dog?
What is a service dog?
A service dog can be looked at as a living, breathing assistive device for someone with a disability. Service dogs are sometimes compared to wheelchairs in their ability to help their disabled partners live more independent lives. Since service dogs are not primarily kept for companionship, they are not considered pets.
The Americans with Disabilities Act essentially requires three things for a dog to be a service dog. First, the person helped must have a life-limiting disability. Second, the dog must be trained to recognize and respond to the handler’s disability by doing either work or tasks. Third, the dog must not cause a disruption in public, otherwise the dog can be legally excluded. Service dogs must be both housebroken and leashed (except when the dog needs to be off-leash to provide disability-related work or tasks).
In July of 2015, the Department of Justice released an excellent nine-page FAQ document about service animals and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). PSDP recommends you investigate this document if you have specific questions that aren’t answered here. We believe this printable (pdf) resource is consistent with the information PSDP provides, reflecting case law developments in recent years, and is available both on our site and directly on the ADA site:
For more information on a basic level, see the Department of Justice’s three-page overview of service animals based on their 2010 updates to the ADA regulations:
Those interested in the regulations themselves can see the definition of “service animal” in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 28, Part 35, §35.104, by scrolling down to that term on the following page:
What does the Americans with Disabilities Act say about the use of service dogs?*
Service dogs are generally allowed with their disabled users wherever the general public is allowed. This includes grocery stores, theaters, restaurants, non-sterile hospital areas, and public transportation. In addition to these rights, service dog handlers have the responsibility to make sure their service dogs are housebroken and otherwise under control.
Public entities cannot be held responsible for the care or supervision of service dogs, and can ask that an animal, service dog or not, be removed if its actions cause a disturbance (repeated barking in a library, aggressive behavior, etc.).
Service dogs are not considered the same as pets. A service dog user cannot be charged extra fees to engage in an activity any other individual without a pet would not be charged for (assuming the service dog does not somehow cause property damage).
If it is obvious a service dog is acting as a service dog, users should not have challenges to their access. If a dog’s service dog status is not obvious, a business cannot ask about a person’s disability or require work or task performance or documentation of any kind, but may ask only two questions to figure out whether the dog is a service dog:
(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
(2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
For much more detailed information on service dog access under federal law, see CFR Title 28 §35.136 (this falls under Title II of the ADA, pertaining to state and local government services):
As well as part (c) of CFR Title 28 §36.302 (under Title III of the ADA, pertaining to places of public accommodation):
For an extensive Department of Justice analysis of controversial subjects pertaining to service animals, scroll down to “Section 35.136 Service animals.” in DOJ’s 2010 Guidance on ADA revisions regarding Title II of the ADA:
In the same vein, scroll to ‘“Service Animal”’ for DOJ’s discussion under Title III of the ADA:
*Note that technically, the ADA itself (an act or law) says nothing about service dogs. We follow convention here in describing DOJ’s regulations that separately implement the ADA as the ADA itself. Each regulatory agency affected by the ADA can enact different regulations to implement the ADA in places or situations under that agency’s control, but DOJ is the agency with the broadest jurisdiction regarding service dogs.
How can my business ensure compliance with service dog access laws?
While PSDP offers many resources to educate the general public, managers of businesses and other places of public accommodation can find targeted support on the portion of our website dedicated to the interests of business operators:
We offer a free, easy-to-understand, one-page gatekeeper (employee) guide and suggestions for its use. In addition, we have a webpage within our business section devoted to making staff training easy, fun, and lasting.
The use of service dogs is on the rise, so the average business is increasingly likely to have customers with service dogs. Prepare your business before any issue arises, avoiding costly problems other businesses have endured—including bad publicity!
What is a service dog in training?
Before a dog can become a service dog, it must undergo a lot of training; this can be done by the owner (professional assistance is strongly recommended) or by a professional (an independent trainer, or within a program). We typically consider a dog to be a service dog in training only after it has undergone basic socialization, housetraining (“potty training”), basic obedience training, and training roughly to the point at which it could pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test. The essential idea is that the dog must reliably be able to safely be in public (pets-prohibited places) for its training, while keeping the training and stimulus recovery under threshold for each member of the team.
If the dog remains a good candidate for service work after this point, and there is a plan being executed for the dog to be trained for good public behavior and to help deal with someone’s disability, the dog can be considered a service dog in training. Generally, we do not consider it good practice to call a dog a “service dog in training” before this point, even if the plan is for the dog to become a service dog.
It takes about 1–2 years to train a service dog. During that time, the Americans with Disabilities Act (a federal law) does not apply. Instead you may be covered by state laws. Every state has a different law regarding service dogs and service dogs in training, and some have no regulations.
Read your state law to find out what types of disabilities are covered, and to see if you must get a special license or tag to be covered for service dog in training access. The law that gives greater access to the disabled person is the one that prevails. Other countries may have different laws, and it is a good idea to consult with a disability law organization in your area to learn which laws are applicable to service dogs in your nation/municipality.
To search for United States state-level, animal-related laws for a particular state, see:
What is an emotional support animal?
An emotional support animal is a pet that provides disability-relieving emotional support to an individual, but is not necessarily trained to do so. Unlike with service dogs, service dog laws do not allow emotional support animals (ESAs) to go out in public to places dogs are normally prohibited. ESA owners do have certain legal rights in housing situations and when flying, though ESAs are supposed to be public access trained for flight access.
Emotional support animals can be important residential companions for people with disabilities ESAs can mitigate. Some may even have the temperament to undergo the training needed to work as a psychiatric service dog.
However, Psychiatric Service Dog Partners is focused on service dogs and those dogs being trained to work as service dogs. These are trained both for public access and to do work or tasks to mitigate psychiatric disabilities.
To find out more about emotional support animals and how they are covered under United States laws, see:
What is a therapy dog?
Unlike a service dog, a therapy dog is a pet trained to interact with many people other than its handler to make those people feel better. Therapy dogs are also trained to behave safely around all sorts of people, and are often certified.
A therapy dog handler is not given public access rights by any service dog laws to take the dog out everywhere like service dog users, because the handler does not have a disability the dog is individually trained to mitigate. Therapy dogs are only allowed into places like hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and libraries by prior agreement (again, not by service dog laws).
PSDP cautions against using a dog as both a service dog and therapy dog in most cases. This is both to ensure the dog has adequate downtime, preventing physical and mental burnout, and because service dogs are trained to ignore other people—the opposite of therapy dogs.
How might my dog be covered in housing situations?
The law that covers access in housing situations for both service animals and emotional support animals is the Fair Housing Act (FHAct). The agency responsible for FHAct regulations is the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD uses “assistance animal” roughly as an umbrella term for service animals and emotional support animals. In many housing situations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504” or “the Rehab Act”) also apply.
Service dogs are generally allowed to live in no-pet housing, with minor exceptions (see the regulations linked below). Users do not have to pay pet-related fees, barring damage to the domicile.
If your housing is not covered by the ADA or your dog is not yet a (full) service dog, your landlord can request proof that you have a disability and thus need the help of an assistance animal (unless your disability and need for the dog is apparent or known). This proof is usually accomplished with a letter from your doctor. Many housing facilities are covered by the ADA (see the linked document below). In those facilities, the housing provider may only require answers to the standard two ADA questions if you have a service dog and an inconspicuous disability (and they don’t know your disability status). For these questions, see above: “What does the Americans with Disabilities Act say about the use of service dogs?”.
Emotional support animals, which are NOT the same as psychiatric service dogs (see above), are also allowed in housing situations. Psychiatric service dogs in training may fit the “emotional support animal” definition and live in no-pet housing without extra fees, if they provide emotional support that helps relieve a person’s disability.
For more information about United States laws that cover housing situations, consult this HUD Assistance Animals 2013 document from the Department of Housing and Urban Development:
For the regulations about which housing providers do not have to comply with the FHAct, see 24 CFR §100.10(c):
How can I fly with a psychiatric service dog?
When flying, you are no longer covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Instead you are covered under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Various laws affect access in airports, but generally the ADA regulations apply there.
If a passenger is traveling with a service dog exclusively for a psychiatric disability, the passenger can be required to provide a detailed letter stating the handler has a disability and needs the assistance of the animal during the flight or at their destination. Such a letter can also be required of passengers traveling with emotional support animals, which are different (see above).
Passengers with service dogs that are not exclusively used to mitigate a psychiatric disability can fly without any documentation.* This discrimination is something PSDP is working to fix!
Scroll to the second page of the following document to read the United States Department of Transportation’s “Policy Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation” from 2003:
Section 382.117 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations provides current regulations (not necessarily policy) regarding air carriers’ obligations toward service animal users:
*Note that Hawaii has its own special requirements regarding the entry of any animal, in order to protect its isolated ecosystem. It is especially important to research current requirements well in advance of travel.
Do I need a doctor’s letter to be accompanied by a psychiatric service dog?
Service dog laws do not require you to have a doctor’s letter when going out to public places with a psychiatric service dog. However, you can be required to give situation-specific letters for housing, flying, and the workplace.
It is also a good idea to have a doctor’s letter for your files, so that if you have to go to court, you have proof that your doctor has been supportive. What the letter should say depends on the purpose of the letter; be sure to read the laws concerning the type of letter you want.
For more background information on letter-writing, see “What Every Psychologist Should Know About Writing Letters for Patients with Service Animals” at the following address:
For information on service dogs laws and service dogs in the workplace, explore the resources of the Job Accommodation Network:
How many work or task items do I have to teach my dog for it to be a “real” service dog?
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) only requires that your dog be trained to do one work or task item to help with your disability. There is some confusion in the service dog community because people sometimes confuse an organization’s or school’s internal requirements with the law.
For more information, see our extended answer to this question in our “Work & Tasks” resource page, where we cite several DOJ resources: