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Service Dogs and the Confusing Issue of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

 happy dogService dogs are canines that provide amazing services to human beings. I have seen some of those amazing things. Veterans, returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with both physical and psychiatric wounds, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, receive a lot of treatment but none like what is provided by these special dogs. These veterans return to families who are shocked to discover that their husband, wife, father, mother, son or daughter are no longer the people they were before. Angry, suspicious, unable to sleep and closeting themselves at home rather than going out and living, these survivor heroes of the war are seriously disabled. Yet, when teamed with a highly trained psychiatric service dog and after learning how to use the dog, these veterans become shining examples of the powerful bond between humans and animals and how dogs truly are our best friends. These disabled veterans, fully trained in how to use their dogs to help them, return to more normal lives, once again shocking their families with how fast life can change and improve thanks to psychiatric service dogs. One of the programs that places service dogs at no cost with disabled veterans who have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan is the Dog Tags program, offered by Puppies Behind Bars in New York City

There are various types of animals that can qualify as service animals. However, this article is devoted to canines as they are and have been in the past, my primary interest. I have seen service dogs used with individuals who are either physically or mentally disabled. It is always an inspiration to witness how these animals succeed in enabling the disabled to function at far higher levels than they previously had beeen doing.

There has been a debate raging on the article I posted in September of 2006. The article is titled, "The Story of A Psychiatric Service Dog Team." Both the posting and ensuing debate can be viewed by clicking on the following URL:


It is hoped that this new article will clarify issues, resolve confusion and provide important information for everyone interested in these dogs.

Guidance provided to those with disabilities and the service animals they need comes under an important law called "Americans With Disabilities Act. This law spells out who has a disability and what a service animal is and is not. From this point on the act is called ADA.

What is a disability according to ADA?

A. According to the ADA, a person must have a disability or have a relationship or association with an individual with a disability.

B. An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered. (Department of Justice, 2002).

Please note:

A. In order to qualify for the full protection of the ADA an individual must have a disability or an association or relationship with someone with a disability. In other words, those people who train service dogs and the people who are disabled come under the protection of the ADA.

B. Also note that the definition of a disability, according to the ADA, includes those with physical or mental problems that limit their lives. Service dogs are trained to help people with psychiatric disabilities such as anxiety and panic disorders, bipolar disorder, depression and many other types of emotional conditions that prevent them from functioning as full members of society. As an example, service dogs are being provided to a few select soldiers and marines returning from combat in Iraq and
Afghanistan with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What is a service dog according to ADA?

The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.(Department of Justice, 1996).

In other words, the dog must be trained to meet the needs created by the disability. This function can be for a number of medical or other necessities that are required by the owner. Some of these functions are:

1. A seeing eye dog for someone who is blind. 
2. A hearing dog for the hearing impaired.
3. A dog that can perform certain functions such as informing the owner when she or he is past due on taking medications or,
4. When he or she is beginning to have a change in a medical or mental condition.                       5. Alerting a spouse or companion to an upcoming medical problem.
6. Reducing stress caused by certain environments, be that at work, in an airplane, in the supermarket or in the shopping mall.

Psychiatric Disabilities:

Joan Froling, a trainer and consultant with Sterling Service Dogs, provides a detailed list of tasks for which service dogs are trained to assist those with psychiatric disabilities. Some of these include:
1. Assistance in a Medical Crisis - Service dogs are trained to retrieve medications, beverages and telephones. They can bark for help, answer a door bell, and even dial 911 on special K9 speaker telephones.

2. They can be trained to deliver messages, remind individuals to take medications at specific times, assist with walking, as well as alert sedated individuals to doorbells, phones or smoke detectors.

3. Assist the person in coping with emotional overload.

4. They can be taught to prevent others from crowding their owner.

5. They can be taught to recognize a panic attack and nuzzle a distraught owner to help with calming.

These trained dogs benefit those with psychiatric disabilities.


Under ADA people with disabilities are permitted to take their dog with them anywhere they go, including places that would normally prohibit dogs. Some examples of places that might prohibit dogs are restaurants and supermarkets where there are public health concerns. However, the disabled have the right to enter and use those places with their dogs. In addition, business owners, employers, managers, supermarket staff, airline officials and others are not permitted to ask the individual the nature of their disability. The only requirement is that the individual be disabled, either physically or emotionally.

Service dogs are also allowed in such places as:

1. Businesses open to the public such as hotels, taxis, shuttles, grocery and department stores, hospitals and medical offices, theaters, health clubs, parks, etc.


Those with a service dog are responsible for the training and manners of the dog while in public. If the dog starts to bark in a theater, place of work, restaurant, etc. and is otherwise making a nuisance of its self then the owner of the establishment can ask the individual to either leave or to remove the dog from this public establishment. The service dog can also be denied access if it poses a threat to itself or others.

All of this can be checked at:

U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section

Where to find service dogs:

There are many fine organizations that train service dogs as well as the individual who will use such dogs. Often, there are various grants and that make it possible for the individual to purchase such a dog. In actuality, being partnered with one of these dogs can be expensive.

I would suggest that anyone interested in acquiring a service dog go to this website:

They have a list of all the organizations that train these dogs by state.

Can you train your dog to be a service dog?

This question seems to have created a lot of heat and misunderstanding. In actuality, the answer is yes, you can train your dog by yourself. But, should you?
I do realize that there are people who cannot afford a service dog. For those, self training is a viable option. However, one of my concerns is that someone could get into difficulties if their self trained dog "acts up" in a private place. Remember, you can be asked to remove your dog if it is becoming a nuisance or threat. I am also not sure that an individual can provide the strict (but human) training that is required by these dogs.

There are dogs, due to their temperament, that do not make good service animals. Those can become great pets but that is very different.

What service dogs are not:

A. Service dogs are not pets although their owners certainly enjoy having and using them.
B. Service dogs are not emotional support or therapy dogs. Those types of dogs are the types that, with training, owners can bring with them to visit ill patients in hospitals and nursing homes.

C. While seeing eye dogs for the blind are service dogs, not all service dogs are seeing eye dogs. Seeing eye dogs are the most highly trained and most remarkable of all of these dogs. That is why so many nice dogs fail out of seeing eye training.

Final Note:

A service dog is trained to perform the types of functions described above. However, if someone returns their service dog to a company because they do not like the dog or no longer wish to have it, and this does sometimes happen, it is still a trained service dog. What I mean is that it is somewhat like being a doctor. A doctor is a doctor whether he or she is seeing patients.


These are wonderful animals and they perform miracles. I do not say that lightly. The article I wrote about Juli is true and, to bring it up to date, she was able to enter and complete nursing training. She is also about to be married. Would this have been possible without her service dog? No! That dog has made a huge difference in her life. It has helped her summon up and use a huge amount of courage.

I welcome questions, comments and requests for information but I no longer will engaged in futile debates as exemplified at the URL above.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD