Service Animals

We share the real deal on service and emotional support animals, including what they do, protections for handlers and businesses, and tips for the animal lovers and leavers among us.
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ix dogs of a variety of breeds and sizes, some of them wearing vests, sitting and looking straight at us. They urge us to learn about the critical roles of service animals and emotional support animals.
Six dogs of a variety of breeds and sizes, some of them wearing vests, sitting and looking straight at us. They urge us to learn about the critical roles of service animals and emotional support animals. Image from

With serious, silly, and strange stories about service animals and emotional support animals making the news lately, it’s no wonder there are lots of questions.

There is an abundance of resources on the many laws, etiquette questions, workplace wonderings, and common conundrums surrounding service and emotional support animals. You can find some of these throughout the tip, and in the links at the end. 

If you’re looking for the CliffsNotes (or should I say Clifford’s Notes?) read on!

What’s the Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals?

Service animals are trained to take a specific action to assist a person with a disability. Service Animals are protected under the rules for Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that service animals must be allowed any place the public is allowed, including restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. Dogs, and in some cases miniature horses, are the only animals that can be recognized as service animals under the ADA. Under Oregon State Law, service-animals-in-training are also protected.

Emotional support animals (sometimes called companion or comfort animals) provide disability-related emotional support. Emotional support animals are not specifically protected under the “in public” parts of ADA, and they do not have to be allowed into public spaces.

And what about workplaces? Employers should fairly consider a request to bring a service or emotional support animal to the workplace like they would consider any other employee accommodation request.

The Fair Housing Act requires reasonable modifications to policy so that disabled people can use and enjoy our housing. It is common to modify a no-pet policy to allow service and emotional support animals.  Any animal can be recognized as an emotional support animal.

Both employers and landlords can ask for documentation from a health professional stating that an emotional support animalis required because of a disability.

If the need for a service animal is not obvious, employers and landlords can also ask for documentation from a health professional that a service animal is required because of a disability. This is different than in public places, where documentation cannot be requested.

Who Uses a Service Animal? And What Do Service Animals Do?  

a light brown bulldog, wearing glasses and a tie, sits in front of a computer. A mouse is under its right paw.
a light brown bulldog, wearing glasses and a tie, sits in front of a computer. A mouse is under its right paw. Service dogs can be trained in a range of skills, but they won't be checking email anytime soon! Image:

Service animals are not just for blind people. It is a common misconception that service animals are only used by people with visual disabilities.

Dogs can be trained to perform a variety of tasks like alerting their handlers to sounds, checking areas for a threat, detecting seizures, retrieving items, detecting low or high blood sugar, interrupting self-harm or distress, and more. As you might imagine, these services could be useful for people with many kinds of disabilities. And people may have different service dogs who are trained to do different things.

Service animals are NOT leading the way

Notice all those discrete and very specific tasks listed above? This is also an excellent opportunity to mention that service animals do not “guide” or “lead” blind people from place to place. Service dogs are responding to a series of commands given by their handlers. They are not canine GPS [VIDEO].

What about emotional support animals?

Emotional support animals could be any kind of animal, and they are not usually specifically trained. Instead, their presence provides disability-related emotional support and alleviates symptoms of a disability, like lessening anxiety or depression.

Still fuzzy on the difference? Check out this excellent example of a psychiatric service dog vs. an emotional support dog.

What If...The Section Where Everyone Predicts Total Chaos

To recap, service animals are highly trained perform work or tasks to assist a person with a disability.

Want to know how highly trained? Check out this Service Dog Test [VIDEO].

Because service animals are allowed in any public place, there are still a lot of fears about badly-behaved service dogs disrupting business. Let’s talk about some of the protections that exist and offer some brief thoughts on some of the most common, “What If’s” out there.

Tiny golden retriever puppy sitting in a harness way too big for it. The harness says, service dog in training.
Tiny golden retriever puppy sitting in a harness way too big for it. The harness says, service dog in training. And this is not an exaggeration. Most service animals begin training when they are only pups. Image:
What if I Think Someone is Lying About Having a “Service Animal?”

Business owners and staff are allowed to ask two questions of anyone bringing in an animal they say is a service animal:

  1. Is your dog required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task is it trained to perform?

Questions about someone’s disability, asking the dog to demonstrate the task, or requests for “certification” or other kinds of documentation are not allowed.

Why? Well, disability is private, the task may not be demonstrate-able, and people are allowed to train their own service animal (meaning they may not have documentation).

This is a situation where we are balancing the right of people with disabilities to have some privacy and autonomy with the rights of business owners to protect their business and customers.

Registration and Certification: The Controversy Continues

With the increasing visibility of service animals, confusion over emotional support animals, and conversation around fraud, there are lots of people wondering why service animal handlers don’t have to provide proof that their animal has been trained or registered as a service animal.

Properly training a service animal yourself is a long, arduous process. And yet getting a professionally trained animal from an organization means long waits and a high cost, including weeks or months of travel. Self-training with the assistance of a local trainer may be the only option. And this means no documentation or “official” certification.

The Cost of “Show Me Proof”

Requiring registration would also mean additional costs for both individuals and society, including financial, transportation, and administrative costs. And fraud could still be an issue.

And service animal handlers could potentially be stopped at every public place.

Would you want to show paperwork every time you went into a business? What if the paperwork itself were questioned? Or you forgot it? Or they didn't ask but you knew that they could at any time? 

Besides being an ordeal just to run errands, history and current events shows us these kinds of rules are enforced in biased and harmful ways. Racism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, Islamaphobia, and other forms of oppression would likely affect when and how documentation rules would be enforced. 

Requiring some form of registration or certification brings its own set of complex issues and is not a straightforward solution.

But Really, What if They’re Lying?!

But I still think they’re lying! That’s why I asked those questions! What if they just lie?! [I can hear you vehemently exclaiming] Yes, it is awful to feel lied to. Some states agree and are trying to help.

 And yet a more useful question to ask is:

Why is this animal presenting a problem in this situation? Read on!

What if a Service Animal is Bothering My Customers or Guests?

How is it “bothering” them? Is it barking, going up to people, making a mess on the floor, or being aggressive with people or other animals? This should generally not happen with a trained service animal, but if it does: You can ask that the handler control the service animal, and if that’s not possible, to take it outside.

The individual should then be given the opportunity to come back without the animal.

What if a Service Animal Damages Property?  

While people cannot be charged extra fees just for having a service animal in public (or an emotional support animal in their apartment), business owners and landlords can charge for any damage caused by an animal.

 Just like a person is held liable for damage they (or their children or pets) cause at some businesses, service animal handlers are responsible for the damage their animals cause. Again, this should generally not happen with a trained service animal, but if it does, there are protections.

Bottom line? Any animal that is not behaving can be asked to leave.

What if People Are Allergic or Afraid of Dogs?

This is one of those situations that calls for creativity and working together. Can a service-animal user and person with allergies or fears be seated far away from each other? Can they agree to access the space at different times? What would it take to make this work? These ideas for the workplace might be a helpful place to start.

Rules of Engagement

Let’s say someone isn’t afraid of dogs or the damage they might cause. They love dogs! All dogs! And all animals! And they want to pet them! And talk about them! All. The. Time.

We hear you. We’re with you. And if you have a free hour sometime, ask me about my cat.

The Essence of Staying Cool:

  1. Ask people if it’s okay to pet their service animal.
  2. Be okay if they say no. The animal is working, and distracting a working animal can be dangerous to the handler and the animal.
  3. Think of other things to talk about with service animal handlers besides their animal. It’s a new topic for you. It’s perhaps a daily or hourly topic for a handler.

Still want an official etiquette guide? Here’s one.

The Fine Print

Hungry for details? We’ve only skimmed the surface (or should I say, service?!) of the mountain of resources that exist on this hot topic.

This comprehensive resource page from Disability Rights Oregon on Service Animals is a great place to start. It includes resources (and a video!) for owners, Fact Sheets, guidance on service animals in the workplace, and more etiquette guides.

Want a breakdown on all the laws? Check out this Service and Assistance Animal FAQ, including Federal and State Laws from Disability Rights Oregon.