The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as "any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability." This definition protects the owner of a service dog from discrimination by restaurants, airlines, sporting arenas, theatres or any other business where dogs are usually prohibited. This protection applies to service dogs even if they are not registered or certified by a governmental agency.
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Dogs have long been used to assist the blind with mobility. Today, dogs are being put into service for a variety of disabilities. Signal dogs are used by deaf people to alert them to phones, doorbells and smoke alarms. Assistance dogs help people in wheelchairs by carrying items in special backpacks, opening doors and retrieving dropped items. Some dogs help people with balance issues, while others help pull wheelchairs up steep grades. As the ADA points out, service dogs are not pets but working animals intended to help a disabled person become as independent as possible.
There is no legal requirement to register a service dog. However, the United States Service Dog Registry says registering your service dog with their privately owned agency will assist you in providing documentation to a business that questions your right to keep your service animal with you. This can come in handy when you are travelling (for airlines and hotels) or you are in an emergency situation (such as riding in an ambulance or staying in a shelter). Registered Service Dogs provides certification (based on an application signed by your doctor and veterinarian), an ID card for your dog and a service patch. Though these are helpful in reminding a business of its legal duty to allow your service dog entry, certification is not required.
Most regulations regarding service dogs are imposed on businesses that ordinarily prohibit dogs from entering the premises. These include restaurants, medical offices, concert halls, airlines, grocery stores and sporting arenas. Business owners who refuse the inclusion of a service dog in areas where customers are usually allowed are at risk of fines and lawsuits. If you are refused entry to a privately owned business because of your service dog, contact the Department of Justice to file a complaint. The business owner may cite a local health department regulation against any service dog other than guide dogs but the federal law allowing all service animals takes precedence.
Canine Good Citizen
All service dogs must be well-behaved when fulfilling their role as an assistance animal. Though businesses cannot prohibit service dogs as a rule, the ADA does allow for exclusion if the service dog presents a danger to the other customers or acts in a disruptive way. For example, a theatre owner can require the removal of a service dog if the dog barks during a play. The customer must be allowed to remain, however. Obtaining a Canine Good Citizen certificate from the American Kennel Club can demonstrate that your service dog can behave appropriately in public. No business owner can require any sort of certificate, documentation or ID from a person with a service dog.
Many people with a disability who benefit from having a service animal identify their service dog in some way to make acceptance easier. Special vests, collars, harnesses and badges can make a service dog more visible and acceptable to the general public and the business owner. This type of identification is not required, but for some people with invisible disabilities---deafness, multiple sclerosis, psychiatric disorders, epilepsy---it often creates a more tolerant climate.
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