Unleashing the Facts About Service Animals & the ADA

  • March 13, 2018

There’s been a lot of buzz in the media about service animals. Dogs in Dunkin Donuts? Cats at Costco? Peacocks on a plane? What exactly is a service animal, and where are they allowed to go? This article will ‘unleash’ ten myths vs. facts about service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).[1]


Myth: Service animals have legal rights.

Fact: People with disabilities who use service animals have legal rights.

The ADA covers individuals with disabilities, not animals. Individuals with disabilities—not animals—have legal rights. An individual with a disability is defined in the ADA as an individual with a physical or mental impairment. The impairment must substantially limit one or more of the individual’s major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, etc.

yellow dog with harness guiding person on brick sidewalk


Myth: Only people who are blind or deaf use service animals.

Fact: People with many types of disabilities use service animals.

As noted above, people with a variety of disabilities use service animals.  This includes people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disabilities. 



Myth: The ADA covers airplanes.

Fact: The ADA covers local/state governments and places of public accommodation not airlines.

The ADA is not applicable to airlines. Airlines are covered under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and regulations. The ADA applies, in part, to local and state governments (Title II) and places of public accommodation (Title III).[2] Local and state governments include local and state law enforcement agencies, jails, and government buildings. Places of public accommodation include hospitals, lawyers’ offices, theaters, restaurants, malls, and gyms, to name a few. 



Myth: Any animal can be a service animal.

Fact: Under the ADA, only dogs and miniature horses qualify as service animals.

The ADA defines a service animal as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. The ADA also allows for a miniature horse if a place of public accommodation or state/local government facility can accommodate the miniature horse. A service animal under the ADA cannot be a cat, monkey, pig, peacock, etc.  It can only be a dog or a miniature horse. 



Myth: A service animal includes animals used solely for comfort.

Fact: A service animal does not include comfort or emotional support animals.fireman with service dog standing in front of fire truck

The ADA definition of service animal does not include a dog or mini horse used to provide only comfort or emotional support to an individual with a disability. Instead, the service animal must be trained to perform a work task for the individual with a disability. Examples of work tasks include: Assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation (guide dogs); alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds; alerting an individual to an impending seizure and/or assisting during a seizure; pulling a wheelchair; providing non-violent protection or rescue work; retrieving items; and alerting individuals with psychiatric and neurological disabilities to impending anxiety or panic attacks. The work or task performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. 



Myth: Service animal users must show documentation to take their animals into government buildings or places of public accommodation.                     

Fact: It is illegal for local and state governments and private businesses to ask service animal users for documentation.

Since its passage in 1990, the ADA has prohibited requests for documentation, such as training certificates or licenses for the service animal, or documents that explain the nature and extent of the individual’s disability. State and local governments and private businesses can ask two questions to a person with who has a service animal: 1) Is the service animal required because of a disability? and 2) What work or task has the service animal been trained to perform? An entity may not ask these questions, generally, when it is readily apparent that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability (e.g., guide dog for a blind individual or dog pulling a person’s wheelchair). Finally, service animals must abide by local vaccination requirements. 



Myth: Service animals can only enter the lobbies of buildings.

Fact: A service animal can go anywhere the person with the disability is allowed to go.

Under the ADA, a person with a disability may take his or her service animal anywhere he or she is allowed to go in the building.  This includes patient rooms in hospitals and places where food is served. The only exceptions to this rule would be places that must remain completely sterile, such as an ICU. 


Myth: Service animals must be “certified.”                  

Fact: Service animals do not have to have certifications.

Service animals do not have to be trained by “professionals” nor do they have to be certified or licensed as a service animal. Service animals can be trained by a person with a disability. They also do not have to wear a service vest. 

yellow dog with harness sitting next to speaker seated in a chair   


Myth: Service animals must always be admitted to government buildings and private businesses.

Fact: Service animals can be asked to leave government buildings and private businesses under certain circumstances.

An individual with a disability must keep a service animal under control and it must be housebroken. If the animal is out of control and the animal’s handler does not take effective action to control it, or the animal is not housebroken, an entity may ask the individual to leave with the service animal.  For instance, if a person with a disability takes her service dog into a movie theater and the dog begins to bark during the movie, the person must attempt to stop the dog from barking. If the dog continues to bark and be disruptive, and the person is unable to stop the barking, then the person may be asked to remove the dog from the theater. Even if a service animal is asked to leave, an entity still must give the individual with the disability an opportunity to obtain the goods, services, and accommodations without having the service animal on the premises. In the prior scenario, the person should be allowed to finish watching the movie without the service dog. Finally, an individual with a disability must clean up any ‘accident’ a service animal has inside the premises of a government building or private business. 



Myth: Everyone tries to pass off their pets as service animals so that they can take their pets with them everywhere.

Fact: While some people may try to abuse the service animal rules, most people respect the ADA and the importance of service animals to persons with disabilities.

There is no doubt that some people have abused the service animal rules. Service animal vests can be purchased online and put on any animal. However, this is the exception as opposed to the rule. Most people respect the ADA and respect the importance of service animals in the lives of persons with disabilities. Service animals promote safety and independence in the lives of the people they serve. Remember, if you are not sure if an animal qualifies as a service animal under the ADA, ask the two allowable questions (see #6 above). Finally, it is not a good idea to pet a service animal without the permission of the owner---remember, the animal is on duty! 


From retrieving medication to alerting someone of an oncoming panic attack, service dogs provide necessary and active support for the humans they serve, in turn promoting independence and confidence in humans. Service animals play a vital role in the lives of millions of individuals with disabilities.  


Learn more about service animals.


[1] This article will only cover the ADA and not the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or Fair Housing Act (FHA). 

[2] The ADA also covers employment under Title I. 

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