How can I tell if a Service Dog is legitimate?

What’s the best way to tell if a dog is a Service Animal and not a pet? Ask! The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for Service Animal owners to be taken at their word and you are limited to only two questions — and only if it isn’t obvious that the animal is a Service Animal. You may not demand proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed.

Not every disability is apparent.
Be aware that many disabilities are invisible, such as deafness, epilepsy, autism, multiple sclerosis (M.S.), life-threatening allergies, psychiatric disabilities and others. In some cases, you may not be able to determine if someone is disabled or the extent of their disability.

It is illegal under Federal law for anyone to require documentation of a team.
Many disabled individuals choose to provide a vest for their Service Dog and/or carry identification, however it is not required that they do. You may encounter a disabled individual who chooses to keep their disability private. Their Service Dog may not be wearing a vest and they may not be carrying any documentation on their person. Other disabled individuals choose to make their own identification materials at home. If a team decides to present you with a card or other identification, it is their choice. Registering with us is a formal way for someone to declare they understand what is involved with training and using a Service or Assistance Animal; how important their behavior,  and that of their Service or Assistance Dog is to the general public and other Service and Assistance Animal teams; the legal definition of a Service or Assistance Animal; the Minimum Training Standards for a Service or Assistance Animal and what is involved with a Public Access Test.

Vests or other identifying gear is not required.
While we recommend that every team is clearly identified, Federal law is very specific about not requiring vests or other forms of identification. Many disabled individuals who use Service Dogs choose not to provide a vest for their dog because they don’t want to be labeled as disabled. They believe that a vest is like being emblazoned with a Scarlett Letter. 

Service Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and breeds.
The ADA does not limit breed or size. For example, large dogs can be used for bracing those with balance or mobility issues. Small dogs are perfectly suited as Hearing Dogs or Medical Alert Dogs.

There is no universally recognized “certification” for Service Dogs (or trainers).
There is no such thing as a universally or legally-recognized certification, registration or training standards for Service Dogs — or trainers. While some trainers and organizations may say they “certify” their graduates, that status is something granted by them and is not recognized under law, and often not by other trainers or organizations. Anyone can call themselves a trainer and because there is such a wide variety of training techniques, styles, schools, online courses and more, there is no universally recognized standard. Some of the best trainers in the world have never graduated from a course, as well, some of the best Service Dog teams do not come from programs.

Dogs may be trained by an individual trainer, an organization or by the disabled handler themselves.
As said above, there are no universal standards for Service Dog trainers. Service Dogs may be trained by an individual trainer, an organization or by the disabled handler themselves.

You are limited by Federal law as to what you can ask.

  • View the U.S. Department of Justice ADA Business Brief: Service Animals in your browser.
  • Download the U.S. Department of Justice ADA Business Brief: Service Animals as a PDF.

The law states:

§ 35.136 Service animals
(f) Inquiries. A public entity shall not ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability, but may make two inquiries to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal. A public entity may ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. A public entity shall not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. Generally, a public entity may not make these inquiries about a service animal when it is readily apparent that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability (e.g., the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision, pulling a person’s wheelchair, or providing assistance with stability or balance to an individual with an observable mobility disability).

Source: Part 35 Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services (as amended by the final rule published on September 15, 2010)
Authority: 5 U.S.C. 301; 28 U.S.C. 509, 510; 42 U.S.C. 12134.
Subpart A—General § 35.104 Definitions

View the full ADA Legislation >

Behavior is the best indication whether it’s a well-trained team or not. If a “Service Dog” is interrupting a business’ daily operation with its behavior, causing problems in a housing situation, is a danger to anyone or its conduct is NOT conduct acceptable in a Service Dog (barking, growling, stealing food from other clients, knocking people over, jumping, or many other behaviors), by law, the manager or business owner has every right to ask the person to remove the dog from the premises, “Service Dog” or not.