Animals, People, & the Earth

Legal Rights of Assistance Dog Handlers

Americans with Disabilities Act offers protected access to all public establishments

Assistance Dogs in the World

All month, we’ve celebrated the many ways that assistance dogs help their people to live easier lives. From helping their people to safely cross the street to alerting for help if their people have medical emergencies, assistance dogs work hard every day to keep people with disabilities safe and to help them navigate a world that often wasn’t designed with them in mind. For example, with their assistance dogs by their sides, people with disabilities can have the independence to shop, utilize public transportation, exercise, and travel on their own.

But animals aren’t typically allowed to go in all the places that people go, so laws set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide that people who live with assistance dogs don’t have to worry about that. This Federal law protects the rights of people with disabilities to keep their animals with them in any setting so that they can enjoy the same freedoms as every other American.

Unfortunately, there are some people who abuse this law by attempting to bring untrained dogs where they aren’t permitted under the guise that these dogs are assistance animals. While we love our dogs and want very much to bring them with us just about everywhere we go, pretending that an untrained dog is an assistance dog can create problems for legitimate service animals and their handlers and is a practice that needs to be stopped.

In order for a dog to be considered an assistance dog under the ADA, the animal must be specifically trained to complete tasks required to help a person with a disability. According to the statute:

Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

This is specifically in reference to people with disabilities (as defined in the ADA) bringing their assistance dogs into places where dogs are typically not allowed. It does not limit the broader guidelines of the Fair Housing Act, nor does it restrict state and local laws that may be written more broadly. There are minimal limitations to the ADA regulation and, in general, it is legally permitted that assistance dogs may accompany their people wherever they need to go.

Fake Service Dogs Threaten Access

There has been a rise, unfortunately, in people purchasing fake service animal vests for their dogs and claiming that the dog is a service animal when he is not in order to gain entry into places that are off-limits to dogs. Alternately, some people pay a service to denote that their dog is an emotional support dog. These fraudulent organizations provide a made-up registration certificate and vest that the people then use to attempt to bring their dogs with them into places where dogs are not permitted.

This is problematic for several reasons, most significantly that if an untrained dog hurts someone or damages property while thought to be an assistance dog, this damages the reputations of legitimate assistance dogs and could make it harder for people with disabilities to go where they need to go. If business owners stop trusting that assistance animals are legitimate, they could deny entry to people with bona fide assistance dogs. Additionally, untrained dogs may attack assistance dogs, making an immediately unsafe situation for a person with a disability.

Pretending that a dog is an assistance dog when he is not is a crime. Although it can be hard to identify and prosecute culprits, it is important that citizens who recognize this practice report it to the authorities. We need to work together to protect the people with disabilities and their assistance dogs.

True assistance dogs are a necessity for people with disabilities. Thanks to laws like the ADA, these people are guaranteed their rights to live independently with the help of an assistance dog. Unfortunately, some people threaten this freedom by illegally claiming that untrained dogs are service dogs. Stopping this practice is challenging, but we need to find a way to end it and maintain the freedom and safety of people with disabilities and their superhero assistance dogs.

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