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 service dogs and related laws, and more! These answers are given in the context of United States laws, unless otherwise noted.
The answers are expandable by clicking on the questions below.
Understanding termsWhat 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 main law in the United States that governs service dog use, 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 in a helpful way by doing either work or tasks. Third, the dog must not cause a disruption in public, otherwise the dog can be legally excluded.
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). We recommend 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:
An emotional support animal (ESA) is a pet that provides disability-relieving emotional support to an individual, but is not necessarily trained to do so. Since ESAs are not 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 sometimes in the workplace (see further FAQ questions below). Emotional support animals can be important residential companions for people with disabilities ESAs can mitigate. Some even have the temperament to undergo the training needed to work as a psychiatric service dog.
Psychiatric Service Dog Partners’ focus is 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 disabilities.
To find out more about emotional support animals in housing, see:
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 to no-pets places (like service dog users can). This is because service dog laws are civil rights for disabled individuals who have a dog that is individually trained to mitigate their disability. Therapy dog handlers are not necessarily disabled, nor do their dogs need to be individually trained to help with a disabled person’s impairment. 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 generally trained to ignore other people—the opposite of therapy dogs.
In general, the term “service dog in training” refers to a dog that is being intentionally trained to both help with someone’s disability and behave in public, with a reasonable chance that the dog will successfully work as a service dog. Laws and community standards/opinions are developed for slightly different reasons, creating differences in what gets counted as a pet vs. a service dog in training vs. a service dog.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal US law, does not give public access rights to someone with a service dog in training. Some states do. To understand when a dog is considered a service dog under the ADA, see the first entry above.
Different US states have different laws regarding service dogs and service dogs in training, with some having no laws granting special access to those with service dogs in training. Read your state law to find out what types of disabilities are covered (some discriminate), what counts as a service dog in training, and whether a special license or tag is required for service dog in training access rights.
Different countries also have different service dog and service dog in training laws. You may be able to consult with a disability law organization in your area to learn which laws are applicable where you live.
A dog needs a lot of training before most people in the service dog community would consider it a service dog. This purposeful training is to learn its work or task item(s) and especially to learn good public behavior. It usually takes 1–2 years and can be done by the owner, an independent trainer, or a service dog program. We strongly recommend owner-trainers also use professional assistance, even if they themselves are experienced dog trainers.
Most early training can occur in pet-friendly places. The dog should also be exposed to other environments and activities so it can develop the psychological shock absorbers needed for work as a service dog.
Dogs can be trained in no-pets places where service dog in training laws apply or where there is permission from an owner or manager. Trainers may want to assess a dog’s preparedness before visiting no-pets places. For this specific purpose, someone might consider a dog to be a service dog in training after it has enough early training to be able to pass PSDP’s Service Dog in Training Manners Evaluation.
This early training includes basic socialization, housetraining (“potty training”), basic obedience training, etc. There are two aspects to the essential idea for judging when a dog is ready for no-pets places. (1) The dog must reliably be able to safely be in public (pets-prohibited places) for its training. (2) The recovery from training and stimulation should stay under threshold for each member of the team.
The next-level internal community standard for graduating a dog to service dog status is a public access test, such as PSDP’s.
Interplay of laws and community standards
If you aren’t familiar with the motivations behind the laws and the internal community standards, the differences can be confusing. Laws about service dogs are usually meant to lay down a baseline of disability rights protections. Internal/optional community standards are often meant to exceed laws and reflect further values, such as bolstering safety or the chance of long-term success, but it should not be assumed they are one-size-fits-all.
Because of these differences, a person or organization may have a higher training standard than the ADA requires. In that case, it’s possible they have a dog that could qualify as a service dog under the ADA, but separate from the law, they consider it to be a service dog in training until it meets the desired community standard.
To find service dog in training laws for US states, a good resource is the Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center:
Going placesDo I need a doctor’s letter to be accompanied by my psychiatric service dog?
US service dog laws do not require you to have a doctor’s letter when going out to public places with your psychiatric service dog. However, you can be required to give situation-specific documentation to get workplace accommodations. See the answer below for info on flying.
It is a good idea to have at least a basic doctor’s letter for your files. If you have to go to court, you then have proof that your doctor has been supportive. Since there are different reasons for service dog letters, what the letter should say depends on its purpose.
We strongly advise you not to show documentation or an ID where these are not required by law. Showing these can easily make gatekeepers (employees) believe they can require them from other service dog teams, who may wish to travel freely without them. In that way, showing documentation or an ID to make things easier on yourself can make it much harder for those who come after you. Instead, learn the law, consider showing a “law card” (not ID) instead, and role play so you are prepared for access challenges.
PSDP has developed resources to make letter-writing easier and the context clearer for healthcare professionals:
For information on service dogs laws and service dogs in the workplace, explore the resources of the Job Accommodation Network:
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 under control.
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.
Service dogs must be housetrained. They must also be under leash or harness control, except when the dog needs to be off-leash to provide disability-related work or tasks. Businesses may not require that a service dog wear identifying gear or apparel, such as a vest, harness, patch, or special color leash.
Businesses and other places cannot be held responsible for the care or supervision of service dogs. They 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.).
If it’s obvious a service dog is acting as a service dog, users should not face access challenges. If a dog’s service dog status is not obvious, a business cannot ask about a person’s disability details or require work or task performance or documentation of any kind. Instead, they 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) and 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 ‘”Service Animal”‘ and “Section 35.136 Service animals.” in DOJ’s 2010 Guidance on ADA revisions regarding Title II of the ADA; also scroll to ‘“Service Animal”’ and “Section 35.136 Service animals.” for DOJ’s discussion under Title III of the ADA:
*Note that technically, the ADA itself (the act/statute) says nothing about service dogs. We follow convention here in describing DOJ’s regulations that 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.
The main 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.
Assistance animals, including service dogs, are generally allowed to live in no-pet housing under the FHAct. There is an FHAct exclusion for rentals where the owner lives in a room/unit of the property, and there are no more than four units (see the regulations linked below). Assistance animal users do not have to pay pet-related fees, with the exception of specific damage caused by the animal.
According to HUD’s 2020 guidance linked below, all housing providers covered by the FHAct should first ask and 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 details, see the 2020 HUD guidance.
Psychiatric service dogs in training may fit the “emotional support animal” (ESA) definition and live with a disabled person as an accommodation in no-pet housing without extra fees, if they provide emotional support that helps relieve the person’s disability.
In many cases, your landlord can request documentation that you have a disability and thus need the help of a support animal. This documentation can be a letter from your licensed healthcare professional. However, if your disability is observable or known to your landlord and your landlord understands your disability-related need for your dog, your landlord can use their discretion and not require documentation.
Whether you have a service dog or ESA, you should almost always get disability-related housing accommodations in writing, even if it’s through text messages. HUD clearly breaks down the process and requirements for service dogs and ESAs in its 2020 guidance linked below.
For guidance from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) about animal-related disability accommodations in housing situations, see the following 2020 HUD assistance animal guidance document.
For the regulations about which housing providers do not have to comply with the FHAct, see 24 CFR §100.10(c):
Healthcare professionals and assistance animal users can learn more about writing/getting service dog letters on PSDP’s templates page:
While HUD is fine with telemedicine (you may consult with a healthcare professional over the phone or online), in a November 6, 2019 letter, HUD clarifies that assistance animal letters from many online sources are not only meaningless, but are harmful to the disability community:
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.
Starting in early 2021, airlines are only allowed to require you to fill out forms from the US Department of Transportation (DOT). They can require that you do so at least 48 hours before your flight if you buy your ticket before then.
There are two forms: (1) a flying form that asks about your dog’s rabies vaccination, public access training, and disability mitigation training, and (2) an animal relief form that is only for flights that last eight hours or more. No outsider is needed to fill out or sign these forms. Lying on the forms is a violation of federal law.
Flying can be unusually stressful for dogs, so flyers need to take their preparatory training seriously. Airlines are free to interpret bad behavior as evidence of insufficient training, whether the dog normally behaves that way or not. This would mean the airline can treat the dog as a pet—regardless of the dog’s past training or the person’s disability.
The United States Department of Transportation announced new flying rules for early 2021 in late 2020, after several years of pressure from PSDP and other stakeholders to stop discriminating against psychiatric service dog users:
14 CFR §382 provides the regulations about 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.
While state laws or other federal laws may apply to facilities owned or operated by religious organizations or private clubs, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has particular exemptions for these kinds of groups.
Religious entities—including churches, synagogues, and mosques—are never legally required to follow the ADA in any of their operations. Regardless, most people would be shocked to hear of a religious organization choosing not to welcome people with disabilities to come as they are!
If a religious group donates its facility to a non-religious group (such as use of a room for a monthly meeting or a daycare business), the non-religious group is also not necessarily covered by the ADA. However, if the religious group acts as a landlord and charges for use of the space, the non-religious group may have to follow the ADA.
Legally, private clubs are supposed to be highly selective, expensive-to-join, member-run nonprofit organizations that were not created just to avoid civil rights laws. Country clubs are the common example. Their internal operations are not covered by the ADA.
However, a private club may choose to have an event or rent out space in a way that is open to the public, such as with an open golf tournament or non-member wedding rentals. Then the club does have to follow the ADA to the extent it is engaged in that non-member enterprise, acting like a normal place of public accommodation.
ADA exemptions for religious entities and private clubs are expressed in 42 USC §12187 and 28 CFR §36.102(e). See III-1.5000–6000 of DOJ’s ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual for detailed guidance.
“EqUUal Access” created a useful guide for religious groups, called “When a Service Dog Comes to Church”.
This entry was written with the assistance of George M. Powers, JD of the Southwest ADA Center.
Other concernsWhat about others' allergies and fears?
Allergies and fears (of dogs) may rise to the level of disability, although they commonly do not. Non-disabling allergies and fears are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This does not mean they do not deserve polite treatment whenever possible, regardless of the law.
When allergies or fears rise to the level of disability, people with these conditions merit reasonable accommodation under the ADA, just like those with disabilities who use service dogs. Usually, both parties can be accommodated in a location by staying away from one another. What exactly is reasonable depends largely on the specifics of the situation, but a little respect and empathy on both sides go a long way.
For a deeper exploration with illustrating examples lifted from a service animal user’s experiences, see Dr. Veronica Morris’s article on “Allergies and Fear of Service Dogs”:
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) speaks to allergies and fears in the second bullet point of a short 2011 document on service animals:
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:
PSDP offers many resources to educate the general public. In addition to these resources, professionals—including managers of businesses and other places of public accommodation—can find targeted support on the portion of our site linked below:
We offer a free, easy-to-understand, one-page gatekeeper (employee) guide and suggestions for its use; a page within our business section devoted to making staff training easy, fun, and lasting; a section for healthcare professionals; and more.
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!
There are many answers on this page 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. PSDP resources are never personalized legal advice and are always to be used at your own risk, as we do not practice law. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney—possibly through your state’s disability rights office.