What is a Service Animal?

Submitted by Dana Barton on Tue, 02/26/2019

One of the most popular topics at the Rocky Mountain ADA Center is Service Animals and it seems to be a trending topic throughout the nation. We’ve seen airlines take a stand against peacocks on flights, state laws cracking down on the misrepresentation of service animals, and legitimate service animals being denied access to public places.

With so many opinions flying around, sometimes it’s difficult to get to the facts. I hope to help you sort this out today!

Tell me, what IS a service animal?

Simply, a service animal is any dog* that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Service animals are working animals, NOT PETS!

So, what’s that * for?

Stay with me now – The ADA does allow for the exception of miniature horses under the definition of “service animals.” All the same rules for dogs apply to miniature horses, most importantly that it has been trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of an individual with a disability. It’s important that we acknowledge this exception.

Define task

The tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the disability of the person handling the animal. I can’t create an exhaustive list for you, but some tasks include: Guiding a person who is blind or has low vision, alerting a person with hearing loss to certain sounds, picking up or retrieving objects, assisting an individual during a seizure, providing physical support or assistance with balance, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, detecting blood sugar levels, and assisting a person with psychiatric disabilities by interrupting impulsive behaviors.

How can I tell if an animal is really a service animal?

If the person handling does not have an obvious disability, a business or public entity can ask two questions:

  1. Is this a service animal? This question only requires a yes or no answer!
  2. What is the task that the animal has been trained to perform? The response should sound something like the tasks listed above (but, remember that is not an exhaustive list).

These are the ONLY two questions you can ask. You aren’t permitted to ask a person to have the animal perform the task, ask for details about their disability, or ask for documentation that the animal is a service animal.

Isn’t there a certification for a service animal?

Nope! There is not a certifying agency and there’s no specific licensing for service animals. Some animals may have been trained through a specific agency and, therefore, have a certification that they have completed training, but this is not necessary.

Often animals can be seen wearing a vest or harness that says, “Service Animal,” but this does not automatically mean that it’s a service animal. In fact, anyone can purchase one of these vests online. This makes things much more confusing. But remember, you can ask the two questions listed above! That’s the only way to verify if an animal is a service animal.

But what about the person who just wants to bring their dog with them?

It all goes back to the two questions you can ask and the task that the animal performs. Providing comfort and emotional support are not tasks that are performed in association with a person’s disability.  Making person feel better is not a task.

In addition, animals other than dogs (or a miniature horse) cannot be a service animal. Any other species of animal, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are NOT service animals under the ADA. This means no cats, pigs, peacocks … you name it!

What else?

Some other important things to note include:

  • Businesses cannot charge an extra fee or surcharge for customers with service animals.
  • If the animal is disruptive, out of control, or damages property, you may ask the handler to remove the animal. But, the individual with the disability should have the option of returning without the animal.
  • You cannot deny access due allergies or a person’s fear of dogs.
  • A business or public entity is not required to provide food, water, or care for the animal.


If you have any further questions about service animals, contact us at 1-800-949-4232.

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