Over the years at Highland Canine Service Dogs, we have trained numerous top-quality service dogs who improve their handler’s quality of life. From autism assistance dogs to mobility service dogs, our dogs are impeccably trained to perform their given tasks in a variety of situations.

Task training is just one part of the equation, though. Another important part of our role is to learn about the service dog owner and their family. We have to get to know them. We have to understand the challenges they face. We have to know about their home life, work life and school life. This knowledge enables us to tailor our approach for individual recipients of service dogs. It helps us at every step of the process – from the initial matching of a service dog candidate with their eventual handler, to the tasks we train and the socialization activities we undertake.

After we deliver the service dog to a family, we keep in contact with them to see how things are progressing. Unfortunately, during these conversations, a common theme frequently emerges – the service dog handler has experienced a situation which is in breach of the legal provisions in place to protect them. This is usually in a public setting; typical examples would be where the handler has been prevented from entering a place such a healthcare facility or an airplane, or has been asked to pay a pet fee to stay in a hotel.

Often, it would seem that these situations arise not from malice, but simply because there is a lack of understanding and knowledge among the general public on the topic of service dogs. Of course, it doesn’t matter if the intent is malicious or not – the law is the law.

Our Service Dog Accessibility Survey

We wanted to learn more about similar scenarios, and if they are a common occurrence. Were the experiences of our families just anecdotal, or are they part of a wider pattern?

To help us answer this question and learn more about the situations faced by service dog owners, we conducted a survey of service dog owners across the United States – our Service Dog Accessibility Survey.

We surveyed 509 service dog owners between May 22, 2021 and June 6, 2021. The survey respondents comprised not just families we have worked with directly, but service dog owners who have trained their own dogs, had purchased a service dog from another provider, or had the service dog donated to them.

We asked questions covering the following topics:

  • The service dog owner’s understanding of the legal provisions in place to protect them

  • How comfortable they feel taking their service dog out in public

  • If they had ever been asked a question regarding their service dog that legally could not be asked

  • Experiences in educational settings

  • Experiences in public settings such as healthcare facilities, airplanes and hotels

What did we learn from this survey?

The full results of the survey can be found below, but here are the main findings:

  • Service dog owners know their rights. In our survey, 97.1% of service dog owners know what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is and 99.2% know the difference between an emotional support animal (ESA) and a service dog. 96.5% of service dog owners are aware of the two questions an establishment can ask them. (Jump to section)

  • Unfortunately, the general public is nowhere near as knowledgeable. Almost three-quarters (73.8%) of service dog owners have been asked a question that legally could not be asked. (Jump to section)

  • Crucially, some healthcare facilities have denied access to a service dog owner. 17% of service dog owners said they had been denied access to a healthcare facility. (Jump to section)

  • Some hotel, motel and Airbnb owners also need more understanding of service dog laws. Over one-fifth (22.5%) of respondents said they had been charged a pet fee when staying with their service dog at a hotel, motel or Airbnb. (Jump to section)

  • Some service dog owners have faced difficulty renting properties because of their service dog.  12.6% of service dog owners have had to pay an extra fee to rent their property because of their service dog – and 12.1% were denied a rental agreement altogether. (Jump to section)

How much do service dog owners know about their rights?

For this series of questions, we wanted to learn about the level of understanding service dog owners have about their rights. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of respondents said they had extremely good knowledge of the laws and provisions surrounding service dogs.

Firstly, we asked about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA came into law in 1990 and prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all parts of public life. The law is designed to ensure that people with disabilities are treated equally, with the same rights and opportunities as other members of society. Title II and Title III are the relevant sections of the ADA applying to service animals.

Overwhelmingly, service dog owners said they were aware of the ADA. 97.1% of service dog owners said they were familiar with the ADA:

The law also outlines the two questions that establishments such as hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and healthcare facilities are allowed to ask service dog owners about their animals:

Does the handler need the animal for a disability?

What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform?

Responses to our survey showed that 96.5% of service dog owners are aware of these two questions:

Finally, confusion often arises for the general public regarding the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal (ESA). We addressed in this a previous blog article – a service animal is a highly trained, well-socialized animal that performs specific tasks for one person. An emotional support animal simply provides comfort through companionship, and is not covered by the ADA.

As you might expect, service dog owners are very familiar with the difference between the two, with 99.2% of service dog owners confirming they are aware of the difference:

Main takeaway: These statistics clearly demonstrate that, as expected, service dog owners are familiar with the rights and legal protection provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The public (and the business community) is poorly informed about service dog laws

It’s very clear that service dog owners are aware of the rights and protections afforded to them under the ADA. But is the general public aware of these rights?

We asked service dog owners if they had ever been asked a question about their service dog that legally could not be asked. As we previously mentioned, a business (or the person representing the business) can only ask if the handler needs the animal for a disability, and what tasks the animal has been trained to perform.

Although we frequently hear individual stories of this occurring, we were shocked to learn that 73.8% of respondents have had someone ask them a question that shouldn’t have been asked:

If respondents answered that someone had asked a question that shouldn’t have been asked, we asked them if they were willing to elaborate on the circumstances. Here is a small selection of their comments.

  • I was asked “what is your disability?” – “what tasks does she know?” is okay, but asking about my disability is not.

  • Someone asked me “what’s wrong with you?”

  • Why do you have your dog?

  • I was asked what my disability was, medical proof of my disability, and “are you sure you need a service dog? You look fine.”

  • It was at my job. They asked what my dog was for and what training he had. Then they said they would need to talk to their legal team and decide if my service dog could be there or not.

  • I’ve been asked for ID/paperwork/certification multiple times.

  • Typically, it’s very invasive questions about “what’s wrong with me”, followed by saying I don’t look/seem disabled enough to need a service dog. It’s so rude.

  • To remove my dog because he wasn’t a Lab or a Golden and clearly can’t be a service dog. The other was requiring registration papers because my dog was not vested before going through security at an airport.

In summarizing the responses to this question, it seems that the questions faced by service dog owners fall into one of these categories:

  • They were asked about the specifics of their disability
  • They were asked for registration papers for their service dog
  • They were asked why they had a service dog

Any question of this nature – or indeed, any question that isn’t one of the two permitted questions that can be asked of service dog owners – is a breach of the law.

We then asked our survey respondents if they had been denied access to an establishment because of a service dog. There are very limited scenarios where a service dog may have to leave the premises, and usually, these relate to a service dog behaving in an unruly manner which would endanger the health or safety of staff or other patrons.

In response to this question, over half of respondents said they had been denied access to an establishment because of the presence of their service dog:

Again, we asked our respondents to detail the reasons they were given for being told to leave. Here is a selection of responses:

  • I was denied because I didn’t have an ID, which is illegal.

  • It was an Uber car. The car just straight up left us once he saw us, despite it being against company policy and being politely informed prior that I had my dog with me.

  • I was told to leave a gas station and not come back because my dog’s vest was not red. Also, at a doctor’s office, I was told “fine – we’ll let you stay with the dog, but ONLY THIS ONCE”. In both situations, they refused to listen when I explained the laws. The gas station kept implying my dog was fake because there wasn’t a red vest, and the doctor’s office kept saying he wasn’t a service dog and was actually an ESA, despite the fact I explained several tasks in detail.

  • My therapist considers service dogs a ‘distraction’ and refers to them as ‘pets’, regardless of their purpose. I was told that if I needed him, I could leave him in my car. I was also told that I would not be allowed back if I brought him inside again.

  • I’ve had two problems with two different restaurants refusing to seat or serve me. They insisted dogs weren’t allowed and pets could not come inside. I continued to kindly explain the circumstances and laws but was ultimately denied. I ended up having a panic attack and stopped explaining.

  • When I bought my car, the dealership didn’t want to allow my service dog in the car during my test drive because of the dog hair. My dad was with me, and I didn’t want to argue or cause a scene because I was already stressed, so I just left my service dog with my dad while I test drove the car.

  • We entered a high end clothing store and were told that dogs weren’t allowed. We then tried to explain our rights and eventually left. I emailed the head of the outlet mall and they were going to talk to the owner and the manager and that employee on ADA and service dogs.

The fact that 52% of our survey respondents have experienced being denied access to an establishment demonstrates that businesses have a lack of understanding when it comes to the laws and protections provided by the ADA.

Despite their vast knowledge on the subject, it is not the responsibility of service dog owners to have to explain aspects of the law to businesses and justify the presence of their service dog.

Businesses have a responsibility to abide by laws. Discrimination in many forms is protected at federal, state and local levels, and that includes discrimination towards service dog owners. Businesses have a duty to educate their management and employees on the specific provisions of the ADA and service dogs – doing so will ensure they are following the law and, just as importantly, provide a more pleasant experience for customers who bring service dogs onto their premises.

Main takeaway: Many businesses have a distinct lack of understanding of service dog laws. Management should familiarize themselves with the ADA and ensure their employees have sufficient training.

How comfortable are service dog owners with taking their dog out in public?

Taking into account how common it is for service dog owners to have a negative experience in public, does this impact the frequency with which they take their service dog out in public?

On this topic, we asked how many outings per week the respondent did with their service dog:

We then also asked how comfortable the respondents felt taking their service dog out in public on a 1-10 scale – with 1 being completely uncomfortable, and 10 being extremely comfortable.

Interestingly, as the number of outings increased, the average score increased too. Handlers who only went on a couple of outings per week gave an average score of 6.01; by contrast, owners who went on more than ten outings per week gave an average score of 7.32.

This could be for a number of reasons. It could be that, because the service dog owner is more confident taking their service animal out in public, they embark on more outings. It could also be that those who only take their service dog out a couple of times each week feel less confident because of a negative experience they have had in the past.

In any event, it is incumbent on businesses and other public-facing organizations to follow the law and ensure that service dog owners feel comfortable taking their service animal into a public place.

Main takeaway: Service dog owners who go on more outings per week with their service dog expressed more confidence in taking their dog out in public.

Service dogs in educational settings

As with other public settings, education is no different – schools have to allow service dogs into their facilities. The school is not responsible for the service dog, and the student must be fully responsible to control the animal.

Our survey found that 77.88% of students who brought their service dog to a school environment said they were aware of their rights if the school administration requested removal of the service dog in class:

The same rules apply in educational settings as in other public settings. The organization can only request removal of the service animal if it poses a threat to health and safety, or is a disruption to regular activities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also stipulates that any school (public or private) receiving funding from the federal government must make their programs accessible to students with disabilities. Denying education to a student without a valid reason (and the reasons here are extremely limited) is a clear breach of that legislation.

In a situation where a service dog is attending school with a student, it is vital to establish good lines of communication between the school and the student’s family. Whilst the school and its staff should be aware of the laws regarding service dogs, there are practical considerations, such as other students who may be affected by pet allergies. In this instance, it may be necessary for the school to make arrangements to seat any students with allergies away from the service animal.

Despite these practical considerations, schools, colleges and other educational establishments must make their staff aware of the laws surrounding service dogs. They are required by the ADA to make ‘reasonable modifications’ to accommodate service dogs and their owners.

Main takeaway: Students should know that the same rights and protections exist within a school setting as outside of it. Schools and colleges should have a firm understanding of the ADA and other relevant laws. Families and schools can make the process of a service dog attending school smoother with frequent communication.

Service dogs in healthcare settings

Next, we asked about respondents’ experiences with service dogs in healthcare facilities. This is of obvious importance given that service dogs are trained to assist their handlers with disabilities.

Our survey found that one in six – or 17% – of service dog handlers have been denied access to a healthcare facility.

Most commonly, service dogs are trained to perform tasks to help with autism, mobility/stability assistance, seizure alert, and PTSD. All service dogs are trained to help their handler or child by going out in public, interrupting behaviors, providing stability, alerting to a seizure, or helping someone in a wheelchair.

There is a sad irony about this. How can a service dog be denied access into healthcare facilities – a place they are attending to improve their physical, mental or emotional health? In some cases, these appointments may even be directly linked to the disability they live with. As previously discussed, the ADA permits service dog owners to go wherever the general public is allowed to go.

We asked our respondents for more details of their experiences when they were denied access to a healthcare facility. Here are some of their comments:

  • My psychiatrist (ironically) said I couldn’t bring in my service dog because it could affect his other clients and their allergies. He was also the one that sign my papers for the application. Never brought him in due to anxiety.

  • I was denied access to a dentist’s office, they kept referring to him as an ESA. It took roughly ten minutes to be allowed inside to my appointment. They kept referring to him as an ESA despite me repeatedly telling them otherwise.

  • I went to a new doctor (general practitioner) and was denied entrance to the waiting room and to the appointment because “you don’t look like you need a service dog.”

  • At one specific doctor’s office, I was denied entry due to the owner’s fear of large dogs, as well as the fact that they bring their own dog to work with them and their dog had fear aggression towards other dogs.

  • My psychiatrist tried to leave the door open during our session due to his “fear of dogs”. He said we could do our session in front of everyone or we could leave.

  • Attempting to enter the local hospital to give a necessary object to a direct family member (that couldn’t leave), I was denied access as “no pets allowed due to Covid-19.” I explained she was a service dog and what tasks she performs, the worker insisted no animals were allowed, despite only entering the lobby.

  • I was at a local hospital. My check-in went smoothly, but when my name was called, the doctor quickly told me to leave my dog in my car. I tried to educate her on the ADA laws. She insisted that dogs can carry Covid-19. When I was heading back to the waiting room, the security guard asked me what happened, and I told him (he knows the law). He said he would get this situation handled and that I should feel free to call the higher up people. I told him I don’t have the energy to argue or to call since I’ve been sick for over 3 weeks. Once I came back in, I got my diagnoses and left. I came back within two weeks, and the security guard asked me where my service dog was. I told him I had left her at home since I didn’t feel like arguing with the doctor again. He told me he had educated the doctors and nurses and my service dog would now be welcome without issues. I thanked him for helping me out.

The reason for denying access – whether due to allergies to dogs, fear of dogs, or an incorrect mindset that they were responsible for the care of the dog – does not change the fact that these healthcare providers were wrong. These people had a reason to be at these healthcare facilities to begin with, and they were unlawfully rejected care.

The final story really encapsulates the problem. It shouldn’t need the handler to explain their rights which are protected by law, particularly if they are requiring medical care. This additional stress, aside from not following the law, is only going to add more stress for the owner. And it definitely shouldn’t need a security guard to have to explain the ADA to medical staff.

Main takeaway: Service dog owners should not be denied access to healthcare simply because they have a service dog. Medical providers should educate their staff on the rights afforded to service dog handlers under the ADA.

Service dogs and hotels, motels and Airbnbs

Pet owners may be familiar with paying a fee to stay in public lodging, such as at a hotel, motel or Airbnb. However, these businesses should not charge an extra fee if a service dog is staying with its owner.

In our survey, 22% of respondents said they had been charged extra for staying with their service dog at a hotel, motel or Airbnb:

Traveling with a service dog can be stressful enough, Service dogs are not pets. They are trained to provide specific tasks and services to their owner/handler. Therefore, service dog owners should not be required to pay a pet fee while traveling with their service animal.

Although the provisions for service dogs are already put in place by the ADA, many establishments are hesitant to allow service dogs due to past problems with pets or fake service animals. In hotels and motels, increased staff education on service dog rights, in addition to posted signage covering the establishment’s service dog policy would be helpful.

Although Airbnb already expressly forbids “charging more in fees for guests with disabilities, including pet fees when the guest has an assistance animal (such as a service or emotional­ support animal) because of the disability,” in their nondiscrimination policy, additional education of Airbnb hosts seems to be necessary. Perhaps including an option for adding a service dog as a guest when booking a stay could help set the precedent for welcoming service dogs.

Main takeaway: Hotel/motel owners and Airbnb hosts should familiarize themselves with the provisions for service dog owners in the ADA. Service dogs are not pets – so pet fees should not be charged.

Service dogs and rental accommodation

Anecdotally, we have heard stories of service dog owners struggling when it comes to rental accommodation. In particular, some landlords have tried to charge a pet fee for a service animal, and in some cases, even denied a rental application based on the fact that the applicant had a service dog. Both are illegal and contravene the ADA.

According to our survey, 12.6% of respondents have been charged an extra fee on top of their monthly rent, simply for listing a service dog in their application:

A similar number – 12.1% – said they had been denied a rental agreement because the landlord had a ‘no pet’ policy, or had refused to accommodate the fact that the owner had a service dog:

The Fair Housing Act is a key piece of legislation which prevents discrimination against tenants, including those with disabilities. Landlords are required to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ for assistance animals (including service dogs) – even if a proposed lease agreement makes mention of ‘no pets’.

The law also extends to other means of making a tenant pay extra because they have a service animal – such as a pet deposit. A joint 2004 ruling by HUD and the DOJ stated that charging an additional fee or extra deposit for a disabled tenant would be in violation of the Fair Housing Act. It clarified that if the service animal did cause damage to the property, the landlord would be eligible to seek recovery of these damages from the regular security deposit.

Main takeaway: Landlords should ensure they understand the Fair Housing Act and other applicable laws regarding service dogs. Tenants should not be charged extra (either through an additional fee or a ‘pet deposit’) for having a service animal stay in the property.

Thank you for taking the time to read our 2021 Service Dog Accessibility Survey!

For general advice, guidance and questions regarding service dogs, please contact Highland Canine Service Dogs  for more information (info@autismassistancedog.com).

For questions regarding the data and methodology of this survey, please contact Tom Dempster at True Boost Digital (tom@trueboostdigital.com).

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