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Service Animals Overview

Summary: Service animals are one of the most asked about topics on the Northeast ADA Center’s technical assistance line. Questions about service animals come from businesses, county governments, medical providers, individuals with and without disabilities, students, professionals, and many others. This article offers a basic introduction to service animals and key things to know about them.

Why Service Animals Matter

Some people with disabilities use service animals to assist them with tasks related to their disability. Sometimes, these tasks are easy to see, but often they are not obvious. The work done by service animals allows their handlers to more easily participate in the community, so it is crucial to understand the rights and responsibilities of service animal handlers and their service animal partners under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Service Animal Basics

Service animals are dogs individually trained to perform a specific job for a person with a disability. No other animals with the possible exception of a miniature horse can be considered a service animal in terms of accessing public places.

Just as there is a variety of disabilities and ways a disability may effect a person, there is an equally wide range of potential tasks done by a service animal. A service dog might:

Where May Service Animals Go?

Service animals are generally permitted to go wherever the public is allowed. This includes places that have a “no pets” policy. When out in the public, a service dog may wear a vest or tags, but these are not required under the ADA. The animal must be under the control of its handler at all times and should be on a leash, tether, or harness unless the handler’s disability prevents them from using one.

If a business or agency is not certain if a dog is a service animal, they may ask two questions. First, is this dog a service animal needed because of a disability? And second, what task has it been trained to do? A person using a service animal cannot be asked for a demonstration of the task or for a special service animal license; no such licenses are recognized under the ADA.

If the service animal acts inappropriately while in the business or agency, such as by barking excessively, being aggressive, jumping on others, or running around out of control, then the person can be asked to remove their animal. It must be remembered though that the person has the right to remain without their dog.


Service animals are indispensable to their owners with disabilities. They can accompany their handlers into most public spaces where the ADA applies. With this right to access a store, restaurant, doctor’s office, school, sports arena, or other public place comes a responsibility for the person with a disability to ensure that their animal meets the definition of a service animal and that it behaves accordingly. To learn more about what a service animal is under the ADA, read The ADA and Service Animals. And to find out more about the rights of a service animal handler, read The ADA and Service Animal Handlers.


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