While many different animal species can be trained to perform tasks that aid individuals with disabilities—including pigs, cats, horses, monkeys and birds—by far, the most common service animals are dogs. Dogs can be trained to perform and variety of tasks, and their work helps individuals with disabilities and impairments lead more fulfilling and independent lives.

The use of emotional support animals and therapy animals has risen dramatically over the years and has provided an important benefit to many within the veteran community. A wide body of anecdotal evidence and scientific studies reflects what many already suspected—animal companionship can help support positive outcomes in physical and mental health.

However, with no governing body regulating the use or licensure of service animals, problems have arisen, often having the most negative impacts on individuals who rely on these animals to perform tasks related to their disability. With limited public understanding of the differences, some service animals have been unfairly and illegally denied access in public. In other cases, emotional support animals have wrongfully gained access to establishments under the guise of a service animal when they were not properly trained.

These three categories of assistance animals all perform different tasks and, as such, have different levels of public access protected by law.

Service animals:

  • Are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and afforded rights to enter public establishments.
  • Are trained to assist a single person.
  • May live with owners regardless of pet policies under the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • May fly with their disabled owner in the cabin of an aircraft as part of the federal Air Carrier Access Act.

Therapy animals:

  • Provide emotional support or comfort to a number of different people in various settings (e.g., visiting hospital patients, comforting witnesses during court testimony or offering support to trauma survivors).
  • Are not considered a service animal under the law and are not covered by or afforded rights through the ADA.

Emotional support animals:

  • Provide emotional support through companionship.
  • May live with owners regardless of pet policies under the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • May fly with their disabled owner in the cabin of an aircraft as part of the federal Air Carrier Access Act with adequate documentation from a licensed health care professional and with sufficient notice.
  • Are not considered a service animal under the law and is not covered by or afforded rights through the ADA.

It is important to note these differences. Even though therapy animals and emotional support animals may be very well trained and properly behaved, they are still not qualified service animals and do not have the same access rights.

Some websites offer to—for a fee—add pets to a national registry of service animals. They may even provide special vests or identification cards. The problem is, however, that no such registry exists, and even with a vest, non-service animals are still not legally afforded the same access rights.

Rights and restrictions                                                                       

According to the ADA, “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The dog must not be a pet but is to be specially trained to assist the handler with tasks directly related to his or her disability.

The ADA also notes that its definition of a service dog “does not affect or limit the broader definition of ‘assistance animal’ under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of ‘service animal’ under the Air Carrier Access Act.”

Under the ADA, service dogs cannot be denied entrance to businesses (even food service establishments), state and local government facilities, or nonprofit organizations that serve the public.

However, service dogs must be under control at all times. This generally means they should be leashed or harnessed (unless these get in the way of the dog’s duties, in which case the dog must still be under the handler’s control).

The ADA mandates that a disabled person cannot be asked questions about his or her disability. The staff of businesses can only ask the following two questions to the handler of a service dog:

  • Is the dog indeed a service animal and required to assist with a disability?
  • What specific task(s) has the dog been trained to do (in service to the handler)?

Handlers of service dogs cannot be charged more money because of their dogs nor can they be denied the rights and access granted to those without service animals. Disabled persons with service dogs can only be asked to leave the premises if the dog is out of control and cannot be corrected by the handler, or if the dog is not house-trained.

Types of service dogs

There are many types of service dogs, and some even serve multiple purposes. Potential service dogs go through rigorous training programs before they can team up with a handler. Here are a few common types of service dogs:

  • Guide dogs for the blind
  • Hearing dogs for the deaf or hearing impaired
  • Mobility assistance dogs for those in wheelchairs or those with mobility limitations
  • Seizure response dogs
  • Diabetes assistance dogs to detect blood sugar highs and lows (dogs are scent-trained)
  • Mental health service dogs or psychiatric service dogs are task-trained to assist those with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, major depression, autism spectrum disorders, etc.

 

Service dogs on the job

Most of the time, service dogs can be easily identified. Many wear special vests and/or harnesses and pay close attention to their handlers. However, special identification is not actually required.

Never assume that a dog is or is not a service animal. Always be sure to ask before petting a dog. (Even if the dog is a pet, this is essential to prevent bites.) Service dogs should not be petted, fed or otherwise given attention while at work. Please be respectful and allow these dogs to do their jobs. They make a major difference in the lives of disabled people.

There are no specific rules about what a service dog should or should not wear. They do not need to be identified with special harnesses or vests.

Does the VA cover service dogs?

In some cases, VA benefits will cover service dogs. Veterans need to meet with their health care provider to discuss their physical or mental health limitations to determine if a service dog will be an appropriate treatment approach. If it is determined that a service dog is ideal, the application will be submitted on behalf of the veteran. Each case is individually reviewed by a clinician to assess the goals to be accomplished by use of a service dog and the ability and means of the veteran and/or caregiver to care for the dog.

Working service dogs prescribed by the Department of Veterans Affairs are provided veterinary care and equipment through the VA Prosthetic & Sensory Aids Service. However, the VA does not pay for the dog or for boarding, grooming, food or other routine expenses. Read more about the VA’s veterinary health benefits at http://www.prosthetics.va.gov/ServiceAndGuideDogs.asp.

In 2016, the Center for Compassionate Care Innovation partnered with the VA Offices of Mental Health Services and Prosthetic & Sensory Aids Service to extend eligibility for veterinary care, travel support, specialized equipment and travel support to veterans with chronic mobility issues associated with a mental health disorder, to include help with costs involved with caring for their service dogs when they receive them from an approved agency accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

Could your dog be a service dog?

Many people wish they could take their pet everywhere with them. However, wanting this and needing it are two different things. Many instances of improperly trained animals biting, messing or otherwise misbehaving in public settings have created issues for individuals who require the assistance of a service animal. This can add to mistrust and poor sentiment among business owners and the general public.

The ADA rules are intended to ensure that disabled people are not interrogated or made to feel inferior when out in public with their service animals. This is an important rule. However, it also makes it easy to pass off pets as service animals.

A pet may have the appropriate temperament to train as a service animal, though many begin their training very early in life and spend many months undergoing rigorous training in specific tasks. You can seek out reputable trainers to aid in preparing an animal for service work. This can be an expensive investment, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and not all trainers will consider working with personal dogs.

Assistance Dogs International accredits training groups throughout the world, holding them to rigorous, high standards. A full list of member training groups in the United States can be found here.

DAV and service/assistance animals

The DAV Charitable Service Trust awards grants to help local and national programs provide direct services to veterans. Among the many program that the Trust supports are several that deal with service dogs and other types of service animals.

Dogs

  • NEADS Inc.: Supports ill and injured veterans in securing a trained service dog through the Service Dogs for Veterans program.
  • American Humane: Supports the Shelter to Service program in providing the training for one veteran-dog team.

Other animals

  • Quantum Leap Farm Inc.: Supports equine-assisted therapy programming and retreats for ill and injured military personnel, veterans and their families.
  • Island Dolphin Care Inc.: Provides scholarships allowing ill and injured veterans to receive therapeutic and educational dolphin-assisted services.

 

Additional resources

Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services

VA Service Dog Fact Sheet

VA Service Dog FAQ

Assistance Dogs International Inc.