The general public, employees at businesses and other public places, and people considering a partnership with a guide, hearing, or service dog often have questions about how these working animals are identified. Because assistance dog identification is such a poorly understood but important topic, we’d like to address some of the most common related questions.
Also, some people try to fraudulently pass of other dogs as assistance dogs to gain otherwise prohibited access or avoid surcharges. This is illegal, promotes misconceptions, and creates additional obstacles in public for people who are actually partnered with a service, hearing, or guide dog.
Most of the rights of assistance dog handlers are legally bestowed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Generally speaking, people with assistance dogs cannot be denied access to any business, recreational area, or other place where the public is permitted, nor can they be treated differently or charged any extra fees due to the presence of their dog. Employers, educational institutions, government facilities, housing and transportation providers, and others must also allow equal access and make reasonable accommodations for assistance dogs.
Some state and local governments expand on the definition of an assistance animal, expand the rights of their handlers, and/or increase penalties for infringing on the protected rights of people partnered with an assistance dog. It’s important to note, though, that no state or local laws can restrict or infringe on the rights guaranteed at the federal level.
With that in mind, here are answers to some common queries about assistance dog registration and identification based on federal law. In other words, these answers are applicable anywhere in the US, and assistance dog handlers can only have more rights under state or municipal laws than what is reflected in the answers—never fewer rights or more restrictions.
How Is an Assistance Dog Defined?
An assistance dog has been trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate the disability of her human partner. There are three main categories of assistance dogs: guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs. Emotional support animals and therapy dogs are not types of assistance dogs, and their owners have no rights under the ADA or other federal disability or discrimination laws.
Does an Assistance Dog Have to Be Professionally Trained?
While many service, guide, and hearing dogs are trained by a professional or through an assistance dog program, this is not required by law. An individual may train his or her own assistance dog. However, the completion of training to perform specific tasks to mitigate a disability is, as seen in the previous answer, necessary for an animal to be a legally protected assistance dog.
Do the Same Rights Apply to Assistance Dogs-in-Training?
No. Until a dog has completed training, her handler is not legally afforded the access, housing, and other rights that come with assistance dog partnership.
Do Assistance Dogs Have to Be Registered?
No. While many companies, nonprofits, and state and local organizations offer registration services for hearing, guide, and service dogs, there is no official assistance dog registry. There is also no requirement for any registration whatsoever, and nobody may ask for proof of registration before accommodating a person with an assistance dog.
As a side note, some state and local governments mandate registration and/or licensing of all dogs. These laws do apply to assistance dogs, as do any vaccination laws. However, no state or local laws can require specific registration, licensing, or identification of assistance dogs.
Do Assistance Dogs Have to Wear any Type of Identification?
No. Many service, hearing, and guide dogs have a vest or harness that helps them perform their tasks, but there is no official assistance dog uniform, patch, collar, tag, or other accessories that must be worn. Many assistance dogs have no identifying items, and this is entirely acceptable by law. Nobody may ask to see any identifying document, item, or accessory before accommodating a person with an assistance dog.
How can Someone Ask for Assistance Dog Identification?
Again, nobody can demand any type of proof of registration or any other identifying documentation or item before accommodating a person with a hearing, guide, or service dog. However, there are two questions that may be asked of a person seeking access with a dog:
- Is the dog an assistance animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Anyone answering the first question in the affirmative and providing a specific answer to the second must be allowed equal access and accommodation with their assistance dog.
Are Only Certain Breeds Used as Assistance Dogs?
Any breed can be trained as an assistance dog. This is not helpful in determining whether an animal is a legitimate hearing, guide, or service dog. There are some breeds that are most often used as assistance dogs, but just because a dog is not one of these breeds, that does not mean she isn’t a legally protected assistance dog.
As a side note, some state and local laws prohibit certain dog breeds. These laws do not apply to assistance dogs.
Can Someone Who “Looks Healthy” Have an Assistance Dog?
Absolutely. This is another common misconception that sometimes causes people to illegally deny access to someone with an assistance dog. These working animals partner with people who have all sorts of “invisible illnesses” and disabilities that are not evident upon sight or otherwise obvious. For just a few examples, assistance dogs help people with deafness, epilepsy, diabetes, PTSD, life-threatening food allergies, autism spectrum disorders, and more.
Can Someone Have Multiple Assistance Dogs?
Yes. If, for example, someone has experienced a traumatic brain injury that caused blindness and a seizure disorder, they may be partnered with both a guide dog and a seizure alert dog. In such cases, equal access and accommodation are required for the person and all assistance dogs.
How Can I File a Disability Discrimination Complaint?
If you believe your rights were violated because of your disability or your assistance dog, please file a discrimination complaint. This promotes awareness, proper training, and accountability. Different government agencies handle these complaints in different circumstances.
Learn more about where to file your discrimination complaint here.