This page provides basic information about the rights and responsibilities of people with service and support animals; obtaining and licensing a service or support animal; traveling with a service and support animal; and some of the laws that govern service and support animals.
To read a section, click on the appropriate heading below.
What Is a Service Animal?
Under the newest ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations enacted March 15th 2011, a service animal is a dog (or miniature horse) trained to perform beneficial tasks directly related to an individual’s disability. Because there are so many helpful tasks performed by dogs, there are no specific legal definitions of a task.
In spite of the ADA changes, San Francisco is maintaining its broader interpretation of the laws. Both the Fair Housing Amendments’ Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which cities are required to comply with, has a broader definition of service animal. With this broader definition, San Francisco’s current policy will remain in effect for most situations. This means:
You CAN Bring Your Service / Support Animal (of any species) into:
- City and County buildings, agencies and departments such as City Hall, Department of Public Health or the County Clerk.
- Contracted agencies and programs such as public health clinics, case management or mental health services.
- Public or private housing, including SROs, homeless shelters and residential treatment programs funded by or contracted with the City.
Click HERE to see SF Mayor’s Office on Disability information regarding 2011 ADA Definition and requirement of Service Animals.
What Is a Support Animal?
Unlike service animals, support animals do not require training to perform specific tasks. Instead, a support animal provides comfort and companionship. The human-animal bond that results from a support animal provides assistance in many ways for example: reducing the effects disabling psychiatric ailments, providing a positive immune boost or decreasing healing time. Though these animals are not considered service animals, they are protected under both federal and state housing laws as reasonable accommodations. For more information on laws related to housing and support animals click here.
Registration of Service or Support Animal
Registration of a service or support animal is not a requirement. Legally, what determines that an animal is a service or support animal is a letter from your doctor (see “Get a Doctor’s Letter” below). Therefore, you cannot be prevented from entering a business or residence with your service or support animal simply because you do not have proof of registration.
However, California does register service dogs through county animal enforcement departments. Though service dog tags (or vests) are not required by the ADA or any California laws, they are a convenient and visible way for business owners, landlords and others to recognize a service animal.
In San Francisco, service dogs only can be licensed through Animal Care and Control (ACC). Click for ACC’s Service Dog registration process and requirements. ACC is located at 1200 15th Street in San Francisco. You can contact ACC at 415.554.6364.
Getting a Doctor's Letter
In order to prove that a dog is a service or support animal, you may be asked to have documentation from a licensed professional (doctor, nurse practitioner, psychiatrist, other mental-health professional or social worker) stating that the animal is an essential part of treatment for a disability. A doctor’s letter must have two essential components.
- It must state that you have a disability. The disability does not need to be identified.
- It must state that it is the professional opinion of the provider that is it essential for you to have a service/support animal.
Regardless of whether you are asked to show a doctors letter, it is very helpful to have one on file just in case. (Click for Sample Doctor’s Letter.)
Getting a Service Animal
Training Your Animal
Since a service animal needs to accomplish some task that aids a disability, it is likely that the animal needs to be trained. Training can be completed by anyone including a licensed trainer, a friend, family member or the person with a disability. Some animals such as seeing-eye or signal dogs may require extensive professional training. There are organizations that can assist people with disabilities to get a pre-trained dog or provide training, including Canine Companions for Independence and California Canine Academy / Assistance Dogs.
If you cannot find or afford a trained animal or are looking for a support animal it is always great to adopt. Shelter and rescue animals make wonderful support and service animals and often require less hard work to train than a puppy from a breeder. There are many shelters and rescue organizations in the area.
What You Should You Know About Having a Service Animal
Like pets, service and support animals must be under the control of their guardian. This means you are responsible for using a leash, harness or tether or the use of hand or voice signals (where the disability requires).
In addition, you are responsible for any property damage caused by your animal. Additionally, California and many other states have laws which make owners liable for any damage as a result of a dog bite.
Lastly, service and support animals should be cared for in a healthy and humane manner. You are responsible for cleaning up after your animal in both public and private spaces and you should avoid creating a nuisance due to barking, meowing or other behaviors that might affect other people.
Access to Businesses and other Public Buildings (public accommodations)
Laws you should know about:
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
According to the ADA, if you have a service animal, public entities and accommodations must modify their policies to accommodate the use of your service animal. A public accommodation is a business or other place that is open to the public generally such as a restaurant, hotel or retail store whereas a public entity is a government building like city hall or a courthouse.
Unruh Act (California Civil Code section 52)
The Unruh Act makes it unlawful for businesses of any kind to discriminate against people with disabilities. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is responsible for enforcing the Unruh Act and will investigate any denial of accommodation for service dogs. Additionally, the DFEH may investigate a denial of accommodation for access to public entities or accommodations regarding support animals.
Denial of Access to Public Buildings
If you are denied access (for either a valid or invalid reason) the establishment must still allow you to enter without your animal and provide the same services that all other public entrants receive. In order to provide the same services and to ensure full access the establishment may need to make accommodations.
What is a Valid Reason for a Denial of Access?
A denial of accommodation may be justified if there is undue burden (financial or change in function of facility) or a direct threat (an immediate threat of substantial harm to person or property). There may be other legitimate reasons for a denial but in all instances the decision must be made on a case by case basis.
In regards to animals, there must be some criteria or prior history regarding the animal to claim undue burden or direct threat.
Service and Support Animals in the Home
Service and support animals are just as important in the home as they are in public places. There are several laws that protect the rights of people with support or service animals in their homes.
Federally, the Fair Housing Amendments Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require reasonable accommodations to provide an equal opportunity to use and enjoy one’s home. These federal laws are enforced by the Housing and Urban Development department (HUD). In California there are similar protections provided by the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) which is enforced by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
For more information, visit our Basic Housing Information Resources page.
Traveling With a Service and Support Animal
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) provides a large number of protections for people with disabilities, including allowing service and support animals to travel with the supported individual in the main cab of the plane regardless of size.
If you are traveling with a service animal, be sure that you have a doctor’s letter with you. It’s not required, but it would be helpful if your dog wears service tags. See section on Registration of Service or Support Animal.
Make sure to inform the airline beforehand that you will be traveling with a service/support animal, so there are no surprises when you arrive.
For domestic flights, service animals are allowed in the cabin without a muzzle and at no cost. International flights may be different. If there is a problem accommodating the animal, the airline may allow a seat change (within the same class only).
You are 100% responsible for the care and control the animal. No obligation falls on the air carrier. Your animal must be well behaved and act appropriately during the entire trip, especially for long trips. (If the need arises you might have to provide appropriate means for the bathroom; i.e. a pad). If your animal does not behave, the airline has the ability to deny your animal or require your animal to travel as a “pet.” Airlines have different rules for pets.
Trains, Buses, Taxi Cabs
Means of transportation (other than planes) falls under the ADA in regard to access for people with disabilities. Access for people with a service dog should not be restricted but access for a support animal may be restricted. Yet, most public means of transportation have pet policies that, when followed, will allow access for support animals. Your animal must still be well behaved.