When it comes to hospital access rights for Service Dogs, United States federal law permits Service Dogs to accompany their disabled handler into in non-sterile, public areas. Cut through the chaos with this plain English explanation of the rules, exceptions, laws, requirements and expectations for Service Dog hospital access.
Service Dog Hospital Access Rights: The Basics
To make a long story really short, Service Dogs are allowed in hospitals, doctor’s offices, patient rooms, and other health care facilities as long as their presence doesn’t pose a threat or danger to standard medical practices and doesn’t impede operations of fundamental services and functions.
Professional offices of health care providers and hospitals are specifically mentioned in subchapter III, Section 12181 (definitions), point 7 (Public Accommodations), part F, as being a “public accommodation,” and federal law goes on to state,
“Individuals with disabilities shall be permitted to be accompanied by their service animals in all areas of a place of public accommodation where members of the public, program participants, clients, customers, patrons, or invitees, as relevant, are allowed to go.”
As quoted directly from the ADA and the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, here are other pertinent parts of federal Service Dog law that grants hospital access to Service Dog teams:
(a) General. A public accommodation shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when the modifications are necessary to afford goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the public accommodation can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations.
(4) Animal under handler’s control. A service animal shall be under the control of its handler. A service animal shall have a harness, leash, or other tether, unless either the handler is unable because of a disability to use a harness, leash, or other tether, or the use of a harness, leash, or other tether would interfere with the service animal’s safe, effective performance of work or tasks, in which case the service animal must be otherwise under the handler’s control (e.g., voice control, signals, or other effective means).
(5) Care or supervision. A public accommodation is not responsible for the care or supervision of a service animal.
If you’re interested in learning more about U.S. federal Service Dog, check out this point-by-point breakdown in plain English. Consider carrying this official ADA brief on Service Dog law or our one-page Service Dog law handout just in case you encounter issues.
Service Dog Hospital Access Rights: The Problems
If a Service Dog handler requires admission to the hospital, there’s likely something wrong, either medically or psychiatrically, that requires medical attention, intervention or assistance. In other words, the handler is sick. When someone is sick, they’re often not able to function normally, especially within the context of “hospital admission.” Many hospital admissions require the use of medical equipment (like heart monitors or an IV) that may limit the ability of the handler to move around. Federal law requires the handler to be in direct control of their Service Dog and further stipulates that staff, employees, or other individuals cannot be expected to care for the dog in any way. If a handler can’t move around effectively or is too sick or too unaware or otherwise unable to care for their Service Dog (feeding, exercising, taking out, cleaning up after), then, under federal law, there’s an issue.
Hospitals are highly regulated, oftentimes sterile, environments, and disease control is incredibly high on the priority list. It’s a well-documented fact that therapy dogs have been at the root of several cases of MRSA outbreak and spread within hospitals and there have been isolated cases of other infectious disease outbreaks that have traced back to dogs on the premises. Federal law is quite clear, though: even when the health codes prevent access by pets or animals, Service Dog teams are allowed.
However, that’s not a free-for-all. The access of a Service Dog team can’t fundamentally alter the way a “public accommodation” does business or provides their service. In a hospital, that means the presence of the Service Dog can’t violate standards that are in place for patient or staff safety and are medically necessary.
Service Dog Hospital Access Rights: The Real Facts
Here’s what hospital access rights for Service Dog teams actually look like: the Service Dog and handler are allowed anywhere visitors are allowed without special precautions. For example, visitors are allowed in patient rooms, the gift shop, cafeterias, some labs, and other “public” areas of the hospital. However, visitors AREN’T allowed in the maternity ward, ICU, burn units or other areas where special footwear, masks, or specific and medically necessary precautions are taken for the
safety of the individuals on that unit or in that area. Visitors AREN’T allowed in operating suites or rooms or in other biologically sterile areas, and visitors aren’t allowed in trauma areas or specific triage units specializing in disease control, burns or potentially infectious open wounds. Depending on the attending physician and the specific emergency, visitors may or may not be allowed in certain emergency rooms or situations.
Service Dog Hospital Access Rights: An Awesome Example
Johns Hopkins Hospital, associated healthcare units and affiliated university medical study facilities offer an excellent example of Service Dog hospital access rights in their “Service Animal for Patient/Visitor Policy.”
Their policy is ADA compliant, accurate, detailed and offers specific information for the restrictions, use and requirements of a Service Dog in the hospital.
Great Lakes ADA Center offers a Model Service Animal Policy for Hospitals handout that may come in handy if your local hospital or hospitals you visit or utilize the services of regularly don’t have a written policy.
Service Dog Hospital Access Rights: Things to Consider
There’s an old s
aying that goes something like this: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”
Before bringing your partner with you to the hospital, especially for a lengthy stay or during an emergency, ask yourself the following questions:
1.) Are you well enough or stable enough to take care of your partner?
2.) If you’re not, can you make arrangements for someone else (a family member or friend, NEVER staff) to care for your partner?
3.) Will your partner be safe? Consider whether you’ll be aware enough to properly look out for your partner’s best interests, whether or not she will be exposed to pathogens, dangerous substances or highly charged situations over which you can’t help her cope, and whether or not she has the skills and training necessary to keep herself calm, quiet, settled and out of the way at all times.
4.) Will you be safe? Consider whether your partner is familiar enough with medical procedures and equipment to not be in the way, not prevent doctors and nurses from doing their job, and not create problems that otherwise wouldn’t be there, like knocking over IV poles, tearing out lines or leads and unplugging machines.
5.) Will those around you, including nurses, other patients, doctors and visitors who don’t know you, be safe? Is there a possibility your Service Dog’s presence might be dangerous to anyone for any reason?
6.) How does your partner respond to high levels of stress and uncertainty? Even the most well-trained Service Dog can react poorly during highly charged events, especially if they’re not familiar with the circumstances. Keep in mind yourself, your partner AND those who must provide care to you. If you’re unconscious, non-responsive or coding and your partner displays any protective behavior (which is, by the way, unsuitable for Service Dogs, but isn’t unheard of in high-stress environments), typically, your partner will be removed from the situation and collected by Animal Control as quickly as possible so medical staff can tend to you.
7.) How is your partner’s training? Be brutally honest with yourself. If your Service Dog isn’t capable of laying quietly on a blanket, mat, or bed for hours on end with little interaction, stimulation and under exceedingly high levels of distraction, whether you’re present or not (consider that you may be taken out of your room to radiology, the lab or for other testing and your partner must remain behind for her safety), and without interfering with doctors, nurses and visitors in any way, she may not be ready for a hospital trip.
8.) If your partner isn’t settling in as well as you would have hoped, can you make alternate arrangements for her? Would a friend or family member be able to come pick her up and care for her until you were able to do so?
9.) Do you have a plan in place in case you’re transferred to a unit where your Service Dog wouldn’t be able to accompany you?
10.) Does your partner possess the training and skills required to navigate the unique environment the hospital presents? For example, if you’re on a locked unit, is your partner capable of using large potty pads on command, as you won’t be able to leave the unit? Is your partner able to successfully move with you and work with you while you’re hooked up or surrounded by unfamiliar equipment, smells and sights? Is your partner able to be a calming, healthy presence during your stay?
Service Dog Hospital Access Rights: The Hospital’s Rights
- To be able to operate normally with regards to the movement, care, safety, treatment and recovery of patients and staff.
- To remain as disruption free after your partner is on-site as they were before your partner arrived. This means they have the right to ZERO interruption, disruption or harassment from your partner in any way, shape, form or fashion, unless your partner is performing necessary task work that does not impede your treatment or infringe on the rights of others in any way.
- To not have to take care of or otherwise interact with your partner. Staff members have the right to not be expected to “take your partner out,” feed, water or otherwise care for your Service Dog in any way. If you’re too sick or too unstable to care for your partner or to make arrangements for someone else (a friend or family member) to care for your dog, you’re probably too sick to have your partner on-site during a hospital stay.
- To be able to abide by the same safety, sanitary, and medical expectations they always operate under. Hospitals have strict protocols regarding visitor and staff expectations, dress and access to certain areas of the building, especially in environments where highly unstable, very young or very old, immunocompromised or severely injured patients are recovering and being treated.
- To be able to ensure the hospital environment remains, first and foremost, an environment of healing and recovery.
Service Dog Hospital Access Rights: The Service Dog Team’s Rights
- To be able to access non-sterile and non-medically regulated patient and visitor areas.
- To be able to request “reasonable accommodation” for the canine partner.
- To have the treatment team focus on the patient, not the Service Dog.
- To receive the exact same treatment, care, respect and communications someone without a Service Dog would receive.
- To not have their Service Dog distracted, interacted with, moved or otherwise molested without permission, except in the event of an emergency.
We’ve heard hundreds of stories of highly successful hospital stays with a Service Dog. However, before arranging for your Service Dog to stay with you at the hospital, ensure your partner is going to be a HELP, not a hinderance. Your first focus while you’re at the hospital needs to be getting better and recovering, not on stressing over or trying to manage your partner’s behavior, training or responses.
What about you and your partner? Have you guys been hospitalized as a team? How’d it go?