Assistance Animals

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Brief Summary of Assistance Animals Laws
Cynthia Hodges, J.D., LL.M., M.A. (2010)

State and federal laws prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, including those who rely on service animals. The intent of many of the laws appears to be to put disabled people on the same footing as non-disabled people as much as possible. To this end, many states provide for equal access to public places for disabled people with service animals. States also try to protect service animals from intentional harm. States may also mandate that drivers yield to people with physical disabilities and reduce or eliminate dog licensing fees for service animals.

Accommodation laws have been enacted in most states that give disabled people the right to be accompanied by a service animal in places of public accommodation or transportation. Businesses may not discourage a person with a service animal from patronizing the business. For example, businesses may not refuse to allow a person with a service animal to enter or collect an additional fee for the animal. Many such laws provide for fines, restitution, and sometimes incarceration for violations. Many states protect against abuse of these laws by making it a crime to wrongfully impersonate someone who needs a service animal.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals who rely on service animals from extensive inquiries into their disability. Under the ADA, businesses may ask which tasks a service animal has been trained to perform and require some evidence of that training. However, they may not ask about the person’s disability or demand special ID cards. A person who violates the ADA may have to pay monetary damages to the person wronged.

In addition to ensuring equal access to disabled people with service animals, state laws may also make it a crime to intentionally, knowingly, or even negligently harm a service animal. Such statutes may make it a crime to interfere with or harm a service animal. This is almost always a misdemeanor if the animal is not injured. If the animal is killed or stolen, then it may be a felony. It may also be a crime (misdemeanor) for another dog to harm a service animal. If one of the above situations occurs, the disabled person may be compensated for the monetary loss of the service dog or the cost of training a replacement.

Whether by fines, restitution, or imprisonment, state and federal laws try to protect the rights of disabled people and safeguard their service animals from harm.


Overview of Assistance Animal Laws
Rebecca Wisch (2007)


I. The History of Guide Dogs

Dogs are believed to have become part of human history some 12,000 years ago.   Whether domestication was a happenstance event or a concerted effort to provide a warning system to human tribes, the result was that dogs soon achieved companion status.   (For more on the history of dog domestication, see Professor Rebecca Huss’ article entitled, Valuing Man's and Woman's Best Friend: The Moral and Legal Status of Companion Animals , 74 Univ. Colo. L. R. 181 (2003 )).   Ancient murals and plaques further suggest that dogs may have been used to assist blind individuals as far back as the first century AD.   But the first recognized attempt to truly train dogs to assist blind persons began in the 20th Century following World War I.   In Germany, Dr. Gerhard Stalling began training dogs to assist soldiers who were blinded, mainly by poison gas, during the war.   In 1916, the effort began in earnest when Dr. Stalling opened the first guide dog school for the blind in Oldenburg.   While the school ceased function in 1926, other operations followed in Germany, training dogs for veterans and other blind citizens. (For more on this amazing history of guide dogs, see the International Guide Dog Federation at ).

An American woman named Dorothy Harrison Eustis, who was abroad in Switzerland training dogs for the military and police, heard about the efforts in Germany and wrote an article about it for the Saturday Evening Post .   A blind man in the United States read the article, and then contacted Ms. Eustis about setting up a guide dog school in the U.S.   After successfully helping this man to train his dog, Ms. Eustis was encouraged to establish her own guide dog school in Switzerland and later in the United States.   This effort in the U.S. and abroad led many others to train canine leaders for the blind. (See the International Guide Dog Federation at ).


II. The Laws Follow the Lead

Where guide dogs led, the laws followed not far behind.   During the next decades, most states enacted accommodation or equal access laws, which gave blind individuals the right to enter public establishments with their seeing-eye dogs.   These laws prohibited establishments or common carriers from collecting additional fare for the dogs, and levied fines for such violations.   Most significantly, these laws embodied the public policy that blind individuals who use dog guides should be given the same right to access as sighted people.  

Even the terminology soon expanded to reflect the new roles of canines.   In later years, the term “seeing-eye dog” gave way to “guide dog,” “signal dog,” and finally the all-encompassing “service” or “assistance animal.”   This change recognized that dogs were being trained not just to lead the blind, but to also signal sounds for the deaf, retrieve items for those who are physically handicapped, and even alert others when the dog’s owner has a seizure.   Today, the term “assistance animal” has further expanded to include those animals who, by their very nature, assist individuals with mental or emotional impairments.   (For more on this rapidly growing area of the law, see the Emotional Support Animals Topic Page ).

Most assistance animal legislation occurs at the state level simply because states are better suited to determine what type of laws should be enacted to protect their citizens and what enforcement mechanisms should be in place.   However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted in 1990, created a federal cause of action for persons who are subjected to discrimination based on their disabilities.   Both state and federal laws prohibit disability discrimination including discrimination based the use of an assistance animal.

This overview will discuss the federal and state laws addressing service and assistance animals.   In doing so, the varying definition of “service” or “assistance” animal will be discussed as well as what individuals are covered under various statutes.   The varying laws addressing service animals are analyzed, including accommodation laws, criminal interference laws, blind pedestrian laws (also know as “white cane laws), and those laws that prohibit the use of assistance dogs by non-disabled persons.  The discussion first begins with an examination of the definition of "service animal" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) and parallel definitions under various state laws.  



Related articles

Monkeys and Horses and Ferrets...Oh My! Non-traditional Service Animals Under the ADA , Robert L. Adair, 37 N. Ky. L. Rev. 415 (2010).

Using Dogs for Emotional Support of Testifying Victims of Crime , Marianne Dellinger, 15 Animal L. 171 (2008).

Evolving Functions of Service and Therapy Animals and the Implications for Public Accommodation Access Rules, John Ensminger and Frances Breitkopf, Animal Legal & Historical Center ( 2009).

Dog-Focused Law's Impact on Disability Rights: Ontario's Pit Bull Legislation as a Case in Point, Barbara Hanson, 12 Animal L. 217 (2005).

No Pets Allowed: Housing Issues and Companion Animals, Rebecca J. Huss, 11 Animal L. 69 (2005).

Related cases

Table of Cases Dealing with Assistance Animals/Service Dogs


Related laws

Table of State Service Animal Laws (shows different categories for types of laws dealing with assistance animals with links to those laws)

Final Rule to adopt enforceable accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (28 CFR Part 35)  - contains a new definition for service animal that includes a provision for miniature horses; responds to comments concerning breed limitations for service dogs; and discusses species limitation for service animals, including primates and wild animals. 

Change to Federal Rules regarding Pet Ownership for the Elderly and Persons With Disabilities - 73 FR 63834-01

Table of Administrative Regulations Dealing with Animals and Disabilities


Related Links

Emotional Assistance Animal Topic Page  (Web Center)

ADA Business Brief: Service Animals, available at

U.S. Department of Justice - Civil Rights Division's Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals -


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