Service Dogs: Ethics and Education Part Two—Certification, or Common Sense?

Written by Barbara Handelman

This is the second part of Barbara Handelman’s series on the ethical issues around service dogs, which started in Issue 1

A persistent myth exists that service dogs have been granted rights to access places where pets are not allowed. No government agency grants such access rights to dogs; it is the people who have disabling conditions who have the right to be accompanied by appropriately trained dogs. To be considered a service dog, the animal must be specifically trained to mitigate some aspect of the handler’s disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require certification or specific identifying equipment for service dogs. Opportunistic people pretend to be disabled in order to have their pet dogs accompany them everywhere, and their fraudulent actions make their dogs into imposters, not service dogs. In this article, I will consider how education, common sense, and ethical behavior join together to solve the issues in a manner that protects the rights of individuals who have disabilities, and the rights of businesses, transportation agents, restaurants, and other places of public accommodation that serve them.

The subject of certification inevitably arises when there is discussion of pet dogs entering places of public accommodation under the guise of being service dogs. Certification is not the remedy. It places the burden of proof on individuals who have disabilities.

Service dogs mitigate myriad disabilities by performing an equally broad range of tasks that meet the needs of individual handlers. Service dogs are medically necessary for those with both physical and mental disabilities. They address the need for accommodation in ways similar to inanimate durable medical equipment. Should laws require that a person with a disability be certified to operate a wheelchair, or use a walker, cane, or crutches?

Who would perform the certification tests for working dogs? Who would determine qualifications for the certifiers? Who would evaluate the skills of myriad types of service dogs working to mitigate a wide range of disabilities? Who would pay for the tests that could impose an undue logistical and financial burden on a person with disabilities? What if qualifying certification tests were only offered in locations a hundred or more miles from a person with a disability’s home? What if the person with a disability cannot physically withstand the rigors of travel or afford transportation to the certification site? Such a burden would be a breach of that handler’s civil rights. No able-bodied or unimpaired individual is required to have any type of certification to enter a restaurant or ride public transportation; it is unfair and illegal to require this of individuals with disabilities.

Education is a far better response. Shop owners, restaurant staff, bus drivers, hospital personnel, etc. are allowed, according to the ADA regulations, to stop a person accompanied by a dog. They may only ask two questions: 1) “Is that a service animal?” 2) “What tasks has the dog been trained to do to mitigate the handler’s disability?” These provisions were part of the revisions to the ADA published in 2010. They do not require certification; they also do not require that the dog wear identifying equipment. By allowing merchants to ask these questions, the ADA found a way to regulate access without restricting it.

Debi Davis and service dog Finn. Finn is grabbing a ticket while they wait in line. ©Barbara Handelman

Unruly dogs, even those whose handlers have disabilities, should be asked to leave a place of public accommodation. The handler has the right to return without the dog that was being disruptive.

In today’s litigious era, many operators of places of public accommodation fear being sued if they ask handlers to remove disruptive service dogs. They are doing their best to respect the rights of people with disabilities, sometimes to the detriment of their own right to earn a living. Many believe they must allow access to dogs even when that dog’s behavior is inappropriate to the setting.

A friend and fellow service dog handler was recently standing at a bus stop with her service dog. The bus stop was outside a bar. The barkeep approached her with a compliment and a question:

“I see you have a service dog that is very well behaved. May I ask you, what am I supposed to do or say when a person claiming that her dog is a service dog enters my bar, and the dog begins barking and jumping on other patrons?”

My friend asked in response, “What would you do if a human patron was being similarly disruptive?”

The barkeep said, “I would ask the person to leave, and if she refused, I would call the police.”

My friend said, “Of course you would, and you may do the same if a service dog creates a disturbance.”

The onus is on the service dog community – both service dog handlers and those individuals and agencies that professionally train service dogs for others – to educate the community. We have done well in teaching places of public accommodation that they must provide equal services for people with disabilities and their service dogs. Now we need to help them understand their own rights and protections.

Service dogs Luca (left) and Peek (right) nap while the author and Debi Davis have lunch in a restaurant. ©Barbara Handelman

It should not be up to proprietors to determine whether or not a dog is a service dog, emotional support dog, or therapy dog whose handler might, or might not, have legitimate access rights. While a person in a wheelchair’s disability may be obvious, one cannot see a traumatic brain injury, seizure disorder, mental illness, diabetes, or heart disease. Conversely, a visible disability does not necessarily mean that an accompanying dog is a service dog. The dog’s behavior is the single salient criterion.

The dog must be quiet, unobtrusive, under the control of his handler, and he must not be threatening to others or disruptive to the flow of business.

If other patrons are allergic or fearful, creative accommodations may be required. The person with the service dog may not be asked to leave, or be served in a less preferred location, because of another patron whose discomfort does not rise to the level of disability.

Clearly, this is fraught terrain. Because certification is not required and unfair to impose, the rule must be common sense.

For example, when service dogs enter hospitals or other medical settings, the safety of the general population must be considered. Dogs can carry zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans). If a person with a disability is a patient or is visiting a patient in a part of the hospital where immunosuppression is an issue, the presence of a service dog is likely inappropriate. Similarly, if a person with a service dog requires a procedure in a sterile environment, the presence of a dog could endanger her life or the lives of others. Most likely the patient’s service dog will not be allowed access to operating rooms or other sterile facilities. Hospital security personnel report dealing with protests. Some people with service dogs declare that bringing the dog with them is their right, and therefore they must be allowed.

Service-dog-in-training Piper hangs out while the author talks with a doctor in his office. ©Barbara Handelman

Most service dog handlers prefer that other people not reach out to touch or otherwise engage with or distract their dogs. Such behavior disrupts the dog’s focus on the handler’s needs. However, some people with emotional support dogs or psychiatric service dogs may have severe social anxiety, or other diagnoses that cause them to feel socially isolated. A trained dog might be a bridge to social interaction, helping the person with a disability make contact with other people in a setting where it might otherwise feel impossible. Again, common sense must prevail. If dog and handler are in a hospital where there are people whose health might be compromised by a dog touching them, in that setting it would be inappropriate to direct the dog to seek out petting in order to ease the handler’s social anxiety.

Poorly trained pet dogs and dogs with unstable temperaments pose risks to handlers of service dogs. Some might think that the answer to these problems is certification and regulation. In fact, certification and regulation would further impede and impinge upon the rights of people who have disabilities. Instead the solution lies in the kind of common sense and educational practices I have described above. We need to work together, as a community of responsible dog handlers, to make our public spaces safe for people with disabilities and their working dogs.

Barbara Handelman, M.Ed, CDBC is the author of Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, and creator of the four-DVD series Clicker Train Your Own Assistance Dog. For information about accessing these resources email: