Defining ‘service animal’, according to the ADA

Don’t White Fang: Kaya, is certified through Tackett Service Dogs, an agency recognized by multiple veteran funds. (Hailey Yocham/Courtesy) 


Service dogs are not an unusual sight at Saddleback college; they are also not just any ordinary dog. These service dogs are working animals that have had countless hours of socialization and intense behavioral and obedience training. These working animals  are schooled to be mentally and physically ready to assist and help their human partners in multiple situations.

However, there has been a spike in fake service dogs, pets who have had a service vest stuck on them and who have had none of the training needed to be an active service animal, that could potentially jeopardize real service dogs due to the flaws in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 or ADA that have created unintentional loopholes to get around the regulations, which have been poorly defined and managed by the ADA itself, thereby leaving things ripe for loopholes. To fully understand what qualifies as a working service animal, one must look at the official definition stated by the ADA that is defined as follows:

“A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.”

Within the confines of this general definition, service animals are required to be trained for a specific task in helping their partners such as seizure alert and other medical responses. Another oversight of the ADA is a lack of a formal certification system and a service dog registry that could help weed out pets who are being passed off as trained service dogs. But, the technicality that is taken advantage of by individuals who try passing off their pets as service animals. That technicality being that bystanders and members of the public are discouraged from actively speaking up about fake service animals due to the ADA putting a rule in their own handbook that can only allows people to inquiry the legitimacy of an individual’s disability and the explanation to why their service dog should be accommodated. This is to protect disabled people from being excluded and questioned to disclose their disability which is an invasion of privacy.

Unlike pets, service dogs are allowed in places with no pet policies because the business or facility cannot separate the service dog from their handlers because they are protected by the ADA laws prohibit discrimination of disabled service dog handler and could face legal action. For example, Trader Joe’s has a no pet policy but they allow service dogs in their store to comply with ADA law. An individual who has a dog wearing a tag that says ‘service animal’ on the collar yet the animal is being disruptive by barking and growling at other customers. The store manager might approached the individual and is allowed to ask only two questions in regards to their service animal’s needed presence in their location:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability”
  2. “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”

Staff members of businesses are not allowed to ask to see the dogs certification or question the individual about their disability. If the individual with the disruptive dog at Trader Joe’s can successfully answer those two questions in a competent manner, the staff cannot press any further questions of the legitimacy of the individuals ‘service dog’.

The South Orange County Community College District, which governs Saddleback Irvine Valley Community College and the Advanced Technology and Education Park, has had board policies put into place to help disabled students who require the aid of a service animal. SOCCCD Board policy 5640 states:


“It is the policy of South Orange County Community College District to permit qualified individuals with disabilities to use service animals in campus facilities and on campuses.”

This policy keeps any individual from discriminating against a disabled student and their service animals, a professor could not bar a student with a service animal from being separated from them during a class, unless under very specific circumstances.

“The District imposes some restrictions on service animals for safety reasons. Restrictions may include but are not limited to nursing and health sciences programs, food services programs, rooms with heavy machinery, custodial closets, areas where protective clothing is required or areas that can pose a safety risk to the animal.”

A pet owner can obtain a service vest on Amazon for $24.95 and fake certifications for their eight pound chihuahua to pass them off as a service animal. There are websites such as “USA Service Dog Registration. Com” offers free certifications for service and emotional support dogs. The fact that the website says that they register ‘emotional support dogs’ is a red flag. The ADA clearly defines that emotional support dogs are not considered to be working service dogs.

“Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.”

Emotional support dogs, or access dogs, are defined in the ADA legislature as animals who perform a benefit, not a service, for individuals who have a disability. They can help individuals who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks to feel safe and secure, which is a benefit of their presence. Those who are caught with a fake service animal, here in California, face a $1,000 fine and spend up to six months in jail for violating the ADA regulations of our state.

It is hard to get an exact number of people trying to pass off their pets as fake  service dogs, but it has become serious issue to service dog handlers who are upset that the fake service animals are misrepresenting and undermining the credibility of  trained service dogs. With news reports of fake service animals, has lead to places, such as airliners like Delta, to place stringent restrictions on service animals in the attempts to weed out the fake service dogs.

The abuse of the ADA non-discrimination clauses has caused a spike in fraudulent service animals. Without a formal registry and an actual certification process, these pets masquerading as working animals, many who serve veterans who suffer from PTSD and physical disabilities, will continue to derail the progress of working dogs who are trying to enrich and support their human partners who have to face some form of disability in their everyday life.