A: One (or none, if the dog’s recognition and response training is “work”).
Justifying the answer about how many work or task items the US Department of Justice (DOJ) requires is mildly complicated, but is fairly clear nonetheless. The definition of “service animal” in DOJ’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations at 28 CFR §36.104 refers to “work or tasks”, with “tasks” pluralized:
Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Examples of work or tasks include[…]
However, apparently only one task (or work item) is required to actually determine whether an animal is a service animal, which undermines the thinking that more than one is required. In the regulations, see 28 CFR §36.302(c)(6), which begins:
Inquiries. A public accommodation shall not ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability, but may make two inquiries to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal. A public accommodation may ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.
In addition to the Title III (and identical Title II) regulations about inquiries, DOJ’s guidance bears this out. The latest guidance, from 2015, is in a long Q&A document, which specifically asks and answers the question through Q2:
What does “do work or perform tasks” mean?
A: The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.
Since guidance is meant to clarify how an agency intends a regulation to be interpreted, DOJ has pretty clearly said that “do work or perform tasks” requires only one trained (disability-mitigating) action: “The dog must be trained to take a specific action[…]” (bold added).
If you want to delve even further into this, DOJ performed a section-by-section analysis in an appendix for the 2010 ADA regulation update. Under the “Service Animal” heading, there’s a section on “‘Doing work’ or ‘performing tasks.'” Here are some excerpts that confirm the single-task interpretation:
The Department agrees with this statement but cautions that unless the animal is individually trained to do something that qualifies as work or a task, the animal is a pet or support animal and does not qualify for coverage as a service animal.
Several commenters objected to the use of this example, arguing that grounding was not a “task” and therefore the example inherently contradicted the basic premise that a service animal must perform a task in order to mitigate a disability. […] It is the Department’s view that an animal that is trained to “ground” a person with a psychiatric disorder does work or performs a task that would qualify it as a service animal as compared to an untrained emotional support animal whose presence affects a person’s disability. It is the fact that the animal is trained to respond to the individual’s needs that distinguishes an animal as a service animal. The process must have two steps: Recognition and response. For example, if a service animal senses that a person is about to have a psychiatric episode and it is trained to respond, for example, by nudging, barking, or removing the individual to a safe location until the episode subsides, then the animal has indeed performed a task or done work on behalf of the individual with the disability, as opposed to merely sensing an event.
Even if DOJ had not clarified this in multiple places and we didn’t have 28 CFR §36.302(c)(6) to help us reason this out, the “3 tasks” claim some community members wrestle with has no basis in law. That is, there is a common myth among some in the service dog community that “3 tasks” (or some greater number) are required for a service dog to be a service dog. The most you could get out of DOJ’s service animal definition is that either work or two tasks are required, but as we’ve seen, even that’s not the case. (Note that not even one task is required if the dog is instead trained to do work. See our Work & Tasks page articles for more.)
How did this myth begin, and why does it persist? Some organizations have their own internal standards. Somewhere along the way, people started confusing such internal standards with the law. This is why it’s so important to read the law itself, and don’t rely on any organization to tell you what the law is—even PSDP.
In this spirit, we’ve linked the references above. We’ve also added these links below for easy reference. Please take some time to read through these resources so you can be a better-prepared service dog community ambassador. We always appreciate fellow community members combating misinformation in friendly ways that allow folks to see for themselves what the law says!
DOJ’s section-by-section analysis appendix for the 2010 ADA update:
Remember that minimum legal requirements probably aren’t the same as what’s best for you and your dog. We encourage teams to exceed minimum requirements in ways that make sense for their situation.