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What Is a Service Animal?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 21, 2024
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A service animal is an animal which has been specially trained to assist an individual with disabilities. Common examples of service animals include guide dogs and horses, therapy animals, psychiatric service dogs, and animals which pull wheelchairs or otherwise assist people with mobility impairments. Service animals are an important part of life for their disabled partners, who have more independence and freedom thanks to their service animal companions. In addition, most nations have laws protecting the rights of service animals, along with people with disabilities.

In order to be considered a service animal, an animal needs to be individually trained to provide a service. Many service animals are also registered with a service animal organization and a state or national service animal registry, but this is not required. The training for a service animal represents months of work, as the animal must be trained to be good natured and obedient in a variety of situations, while also protecting its owner. Service animals are taught to perform tasks such as looking out for traffic when their owners are blind, or alerting a deaf owner to a potential hazard. At the same time, a service animal is taught “intelligent disobedience,” meaning that it will refuse to carry out an order which it believes is dangerous.

While some breeds of animal are favored more than others for service, the primary concern is the animal's temperament. Dogs, for example, are chosen for being friendly, easy to handle, loyal, and patient. Typically, a potential service animal undergoes extensive behavioral testing before being accepted into a training program. Above all, a service animal is not a pet, although the animal is probably loved by its owners. If you see someone with a service animal, always ask for permission before petting or handling it, and be aware that if the animal is working, you may not be allowed to touch it.

In addition to service animals assisting people with obvious disabilities, such as blindness, other service animals work as comfort or therapy animals. Some of the most famous therapy animals have been unusual species, like chickens. A therapy animal can either work in a hospital or clinical location helping a large number of patients, or be assigned to work with a specific person. Studies undertaken by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States indicate that working with animals really does make people feel better, and this is the goal of a therapy animal.

People with service animals sometimes face discrimination from business owners who do not know the law. In the United States especially, there are extensive legal protections for service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, a service animal must be allowed everywhere its owner is, and shall not be treated as a “pet” by business owners. This law supersedes local ordinances, which may, for example, prohibit dogs from restaurants. Failure to admit someone with a service animal into a business or workplace is grounds for a very serious lawsuit.

Frequently Asked Questions

What qualifies an animal to be considered a service animal?

A service animal is typically a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. The tasks performed by the service animal must be directly related to the person's disability, such as guiding someone who is blind, alerting someone who is deaf, or assisting someone during a seizure.

Are emotional support animals and therapy animals considered service animals?

No, emotional support animals and therapy animals are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability, while emotional support animals provide comfort just by being with a person. Therapy animals are used in clinical settings to provide comfort and support to multiple individuals.

Where are service animals allowed to accompany their handlers?

Service animals are allowed to accompany their handlers in all areas where the public is normally allowed to go. This includes businesses, public transportation, schools, and housing. According to the ADA, service animals must be permitted to accompany their handlers unless doing so would fundamentally alter the nature of the service or pose a direct threat to health and safety.

How can a business verify if an animal is a legitimate service animal?

Businesses are limited to two questions for verifying a service animal: they may ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. They cannot ask about the person's disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the animal, or ask that the animal demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

Is there a certification process or official registry for service animals?

There is no official certification or registry for service animals recognized by the ADA. Service animals do not need to be certified or registered to be considered a service animal. Handlers are not required to provide documentation proving that their animal has been trained as a service animal.

Can service animals be any breed of dog?

Yes, service animals can be any breed of dog. The ADA does not restrict the type of dog breeds that can be service animals. The important factor is whether the dog is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Breed bans do not apply to service animals.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By croydon — On Apr 28, 2014

@Ana1234 - Dogs are friendly, but that is why people really need to be trained on how to act around service animals. All too often I see people trying to pat or even play with a dog that is working, whether it is the drug dogs at the airport, or a guide dog leading their person around town. Those dogs are supposed to be doing a job and they deserve to be left alone.

By Ana1234 — On Apr 28, 2014

@pastanaga - Dogs are absolutely amazing and I'm always blown away by the different things they do for us. It reminds me of a story I heard about how the dogs searching the rubble at 9/11 were finding so few people that they started getting depressed, thinking that they were failing. Their partners had to start deliberately hiding people in the rubble for their dogs to "find" so that they would feel like they were succeeding.

There is also research that dogs can actually recognize when a person is upset and will respond to it by trying to comfort them, even if they don't know the person. Community service animals that go into rest homes and hospitals are often just ordinary dogs that respond like ordinary dogs and that's enough to make people feel happier.

By pastanaga — On Apr 27, 2014

There's an amazing ad I've seen online which has a soldier experiencing a nightmare flashback to his days in combat and then it shows his service dog waking him up, turning on the light and laying down next to him to help comfort him.

I think it's an amazing idea to match dogs with returned service people, especially if they don't have family to return to and might end up living by themselves.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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