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Service animals

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According to the US Department of Justice, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), service animals are animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. Service animals are working animals, not pets! (DOJ)

Service animals may perform any of the following tasks, and many more:

  • guiding people who are blind
  • alerting people who are deaf
  • pulling wheelchairs
  • alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure
  • picking up things for persons with mobility impairments

Categories of Service Animals

Guide Animal

Guide animals provide assistance for the blind or visually impaired. They are trained to lead their owner around obstacles.

Hearing Animal

Hearing animals provide assistance for the deaf and hearing impaired. They alert their owner to important sounds, such as doorbells, smoke alarms, telephones, and alarm clocks, sirens, forklifts, approaching people, and people calling the owner’s name.

Service Animal

Service animals provide assistance for people with disabilities other than the vision and hearing impaired. This classification includes seizure assistance, mobility assistance, psychiatric, neurological, and learning disabilities.


Seizure dogs include alert and assist/response dogs. Alert dogs are able to alert the owner to an oncoming seconds to hours before onset allowing the person to get to a safe place or get another person for help. Assist or response dogs are trained to stay close to their companions for the duration of the seizure, fetch medications, a telephone or a caretaker. An assist dog is trained to assist the person but does not necessarily alert them to an oncoming seizure.

Mobility Assistance

Mobility assistance animals perform tasks such as pulling wheelchairs and fetching items that the person cannot get themselves.


Psychiatric service animals are trained to assist with such disabilities as depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Although assistance dogs classically help with physical disabilities, there are a wide range of psychiatric issues that an assistance dog may be able to help with as well.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are not included in the ADA definition of service animals, but are often included in the classification since they offer a form of assistance. Therapy animals are not covered by the ADA, and therefore have no more right of access to a hospital, nursing home, or public place than any other pet.

The following is a list of activities that therapy animals perform:

  • Promoting a general feeling of wellbeing
  • Providing unconditional affection to those who lack it
  • Improving focus (Alzheimers patients and persons with clinical depression)
  • Interacting with those who have difficulty communicating
  • Stimulating memory functions (especially in Alzheimers patients)
  • Motivating simple physical activities for the mobility impaired (e.g., patting, brushing ,etc.)

Species of Service Animals


Dogs are the most common species used as service animals. They can be trained as guide, hearing, and service animals. The advantages of using a dog are they can live in the home and adapt easily to new habitats. However, some people are allergic to dogs. Another disadvantage of using dogs to assist the blind is they can be trained to navigate obstacles, but they are red-green color blind and are not capable of interpreting street signs. Because of this, the owner must know how to get from one place to another and the dog’s job is to get them there safely.

Various breeds are used as service animals, with golden retrievers, Labradors, and german shepherds being the most common. Labrador/poodle cross-breeds are also used for those who have hair and dander allergies.


Monkeys are used as service animals for the mobility impaired. People with quadriplegia who are paralyzed from the neck down are common recipients of monkey helpers. Others with mobility impairments such as multiple sclerosis, diabetic neuropathy, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and polio also use monkeys for mobility assistance. Monkeys have a large advantage over other service animals as they can use their hands to perform functional tasks that no other assistance animal can accomplish. They can perform activities such as opening and setting up a drink, providing food, picking up dropped or out-of-reach objects, and turning book pages. A laser pointer directed by mouth control enables a quadriplegic or mobility impaired person to communicate their needs.

The species trained as a service animal is the Capuchin monkey.[1]

Miniature Horse

Miniature horses can be used as guides for the blind or service animals for the mobility impaired.

Advantages of miniature horses as service animals:

  • Strong enough to pull wheelchairs and assist in rising from the seated position
  • Non-allergenic alternative to dogs
  • For those who have difficulty dealing with the grief of losing their service animal horses have a life expectancy of about 30 years, much longer than other service animals
  • For people who are afraid of dogs

Disadvantages of miniature horses:

  • Difficulty with transportation, especially on limited-space public transportation such as buses and taxis
  • Require outdoor living arrangements, including barn and pasture
  • Require more frequent bathroom needs than a dog



Cats can be used for the mobility impaired to fetch small items and pick up dropped items. Cats also function well for the hearing impaired to alert to important noises.


Birds can function as hearing animals for the deaf and hearing impaired to alert them to important noises.


Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses and organizations that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go. This federal law applies to all businesses open to the public, including restaurants, hotels, taxis and shuttles, grocery and department stores, hospitals and medical offices, theaters, health clubs, parks, and zoos. However, religious organizations are not required to provide such access. The Fair Housing Act requires that landlords allow tenants to have service animals in residences that normally have a “no pets” policy without charging extra fees.

The following are specific rules according to the Department of Justice:

  • Businesses may ask if an animal is a service animal or ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform, but cannot require special ID cards for the animal or ask about the person's disability.
  • People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be charged extra fees, isolated from other patrons, or treated less favorably than other patrons. However, if a business such as a hotel normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may be charged for damage caused by his or her service animal.
  • A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless:
  1. the animal is out of control and the animal's owner does not take effective action to control it (for example, a dog that barks repeatedly during a movie)
  2. the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

In these cases, the business should give the person with the disability the option to obtain goods and services without having the animal on the premises.

  • Businesses that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
  • A business is not required to provide care or food for a service animal or provide a special location for it to relieve itself.
  • Allergies and fear of animals are generally not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people with service animals.
  • Violators of the ADA can be required to pay money damages and penalties.

Certification and registration

If the animal meets the definition, it is considered a service animal under the ADA regardless of whether it has been licensed or certified by a state or local government. The ADA does not require mandatory or voluntary certification of service animals. However, many service animal users can attest to the fact that voluntary registration and service animal identification makes it easier when dealing with accessibility in public places, private housing with no-pet policies, and public transportation. The Service Animal Registry of America (SARA) provides registration and certification documentation for service animals, and is a widely recognized organization.


Department of Justice:

Service Animal Registry of America:

Helping Hands:

The Guide Horse Foundation: