Service Animals & Pet Therapy

Boy with face pressed against Dog
Animals have given people companionship, affection, entertainment, and unique friendships for centuries. According to the American Humane Society, 46% of American households have at least one dog, and 39% have a cat. But service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals go beyond the role of pets as companions. Service animals are well-trained, highly disciplined workers who can perform very specific tasks, act as guides, help their owners stay in emotional balance, and provide an essential sense of well-being. These working animals can help a person with a physical or psychological disability to live a more independent, healthier, happier, or more mobile life.

Service Animals

According to the 2010 revisions of the ADA, a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. The dog must perform tasks that are specifically related to its owner’s disability. For example, a service animal for a person who is deaf might be trained to alert its owner when an alarm sounds or when the phone rings.

The ADA definition excludes animals that are not dogs, with an exception for miniature horses. However, other animals, such as monkeys and birds, even if not included in the ADA definition (and so not regulated by federal law), can also provide valuable services for people with disabilities.

What can service animals do?

Service animals can guide people who are blind, alert people who are deaf, pull a wheelchair, remind a person to take medication, push buttons for those with limited movement or dexterity, alert and protect a person who is having a seizure, calm a person with severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can provide autism assistance and assistance to those who live with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD). Service animals are considered working animals, not pets.

Where can a service animal go?

Service animals are allowed anywhere the general public is allowed. They can legally go with their owners into businesses, hospitals, on public transit, at school, and in many other places. There are some places where they are not allowed. For example, a service animal is not allowed is an operating room because they can compromise the sterility of the environment (operating rooms are not open to the general public). They are not allowed in a place where they may compromise the safety of the public or their handler. Churches are also free to decide whether they wish to admit a service animal.
Many businesses and people are not familiar with the laws and regulations for service animals. As long as your animal is trained to help you with the limitations caused by your disability, and is under your control, it is allowed to accompany you in places that are open to the public.
You are not required to disclose the nature of your disability or to provide certification or documentation of any kind. If it is not obvious what service your animal provides, two questions are allowed:
  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Some people who use a service animal carry a card or brochures that explain the use and laws related to service animals. This way, if you come across someone who does not know the laws, or won’t let you in with your service animal, you are well-prepared to share the information. Service Dog Central (PDF Document 177 KB) offers further information and free printable resources.
A few of the laws and guidelines from the ADA include:
  • If you are in a place where the local or state laws differ from the federal laws, the least restrictive law applies.
  • Allergies or fear of dogs are not acceptable reasons to deny a service dog’s entry. If it is possible, schedules should be arranged so the dog and the allergic or afraid person do not have to share the room at the same time. Otherwise, try to situate the dog in another part of the room.
  • A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or (2) the animal is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.
  • Businesses that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
  • People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be isolated from other patrons, treated less favorably than other patrons, or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. Additionally, if a business (for example, a hotel) requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets, it must waive the charge for service animals.
  • If a business such as a hotel normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may also be charged for damage caused by himself or his service animal.
  • Staff is not required to provide care or food for a service animal.
  • See ADA Requirements for Service Animals.

Service Dogs for Children

Boy in Wheelchair being greeted by a Dog while an adult dog handler looks on
Many service dog training programs do not provide dogs for children, but the number of organizations that are successfully training dogs for children is growing. Just a few benefits of a child having a service dog can be:
  • Increased Independence
  • Increased Awareness
  • Improved Communication
  • Safety
  • Decreased Anxiety
  • Self-Esteem
  • Increased Social Interaction

Service animals can be trained specifically for the needs of the individual child. There are many organizations that train dogs for a specific disability or need.

Basic Service Dogs

Basic service dogs can help people who use assistive devices, including wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and walkers. These dogs help by picking up dropped items, manipulating light switches, opening doors, and carrying items. “Laptop Dogs” are a small service dogs with the ability to jump up on counters, retrieve items, and then to jump with the item into their owner’s lap.

Hearing Dogs

Hearing dogs help those with hearing impairment by responding to sounds such as a knock on the door, alarm clocks, or their owner’s name. The hearing dog must respond and alert the owner whenever they hear a trained sound.

Seizure Alert Dogs

These dogs identify when a seizure is about to happen and alert their partner (the child or parent) so they can respond and prepare appropriately.

Guide Dogs

Guide dogs are the oldest style of service dog, and the most commonly known by the general public. These dogs are trained to negotiate obstacles, overhangs, barriers, street crossings, city and country work, and public transportation to help people with sight impairments.

Dogs for Psychiatric Disabilities

As of March 2011, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for dogs to help individuals with psychiatric or other mental disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The ADA clearly states that the dog must be trained to do a task directly related to the handler’s disability and that companionship, emotional support, and comfort do not qualify as tasks. An example of a task which might be accomplished by a dog in this area is that the dog would nudge the handler when an undesired or impulsive behavior begins, such as body rocking caused by anxiety. The dog’s nudge helps the handler become aware of the behavior so she is better able to control the anxiety response.

Walker or Balance Dogs

Social dogs help children who cannot take on total responsibility for a working dog, but who can benefit from the assistance a dog can give in learning important social skills. These dogs are always facilitated by the nature of their work to encourage social interaction between the child, the dog, and other people.

Social Dogs

Social dogs help children who cannot take on total responsibility for a working dog, but who can benefit from the assistance a dog can give in learning important social skills. These dogs are always facilitated by the nature of their work to encourage social interaction between the child, the dog, and other people.

Autism Assistance Dogs

These dogs can help children with autism with a variety of challenges, such as:
  • Wandering: Autism assistance dogs are trained in search and rescue, so they’re great at finding a child who has wandered off or run away, as children with autism often do.
  • Repetitive behaviors: An autism assistance dog can be trained to help a child recognize and address repetitive behaviors. For example, it might place its nose on the child’s foot if the child begins a repetitive behavior, reminding the child gently, patiently, and without judgment.
  • Sleeping: Many children who have struggled to sleep through the night suddenly sleep soundly with their service dog nearby.
  • Supervision and Security: Children can be tethered to their dog when out shopping or at the park, allowing parents peace of mind, and calming the child.
  • Emotional bonding: The bond that often develops between a child with autism and her service dog can be surprising and deep. Children with autism service dogs often share affectionate relationships with their dogs, relationships they have been unable to develop with other people. Sometimes the child is even able to learn behaviors from working with their dog that are transferrable to their human relationships—hugging and kissing are a couple of examples.
The stories of children who have benefited from working with an autism assistance dog are filled with hope. Families claim to have found a more peaceful life, and to have seen their child grow in ways they didn’t think were possible.
To find assistance dogs in your area, go to:
Autism Service Dogs of America International Guide Dog Federation Assistance Dogs International

Emotional Support Animal

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) provides support and comfort for someone with a mental illness or disability. ESAs do not qualify as service animals according to federal law, but there are some special allowances made for them. They are eligible to live in “No pet” housing, or if there is a deposit or additional pet rent to live in a home, these must be waived, although owners of ESAs are still accountable for any damage caused by their animals. An ESA can also travel with its owner in the cabin of an airplane. ESAs require no special training. They need only be quiet and housebroken. If your doctor or psychiatrist determines that you will benefit from living with an ESA, he can sign a certificate or prescription for you.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are special pets who work as a team with their owner-handlers. These animals—most often dogs—are trained to give comfort and to interact in safe, non-threatening ways with people who are elderly, ill, or disabled. Therapy animals may visit places such as:

  • hospitals
  • rehabilitation centers
  • nursing homes
  • schools
  • assisted living facilities

Therapy animals are specially trained and screened for the ability to interact with humans and other animals. They do not qualify as service animals according to federal law, and do not have the same protections as service animals. Some states have laws that give therapy animals and their handlers rights and protections.

Helper Monkeys

For people with mobility limitations, such as spinal cord injuries, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, or amputations, Capuchin Monkeys can be wonderful service animals. They have excellent fine motor skills and, like humans, they have hair instead of fur, eliminating allergy problems. Monkeys can be trained to help with things like using power buttons, turning pages, reaching for out-of-reach items. They are affectionate and small, and they live for up to 40 years.

The organization Helping Hands Monkey Helpers has been training monkeys and providing them free of charge since 1979.


A service animal can sometimes be expensive. Some families raise money for the cost of the service dog. Some find organizations that provide assistance, or trainers that provide service animals at no or low cost. There are also scholarships for training. Another thing to consider is the cost of the food and veterinary care for the service animal. Below are a few resources for funding opportunities.

Little Angels Service Dogs has a goal to provide all dogs at no cost to the handler with disabilities.

Autism Assistance Dogs list of funding resources.

Canine Companions for Independence provides a variety of assistance dog programs for people with disabilities or individuals who work with people with disabilities free of charge. CCI’s goal is to teach clients how to successfully manage and utilize these highly trained dogs.

Service Dogs for America partners with foundations to provide extra funding for a service dog for individuals with special needs.

Genesis Service Dogs is a nonprofit corporation that provides service dogs free of charge to qualified people with disabilities.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

United States Service Dog Registry
The US Service Dog Registry represents the most democratic realization of an assistance animal registry and training and behavior standards agreement to date.

ADA Requirements for Service Animals
The revised ADA Requirements for Service Animals, as of March 2011, including the exception of miniature horses. SE 08/27/21 link is working

Services for Patients & Families in Utah (UT)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: January 2014; last update/revision: October 2020
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Authors: Tina Persels
Authoring history
2014: first version: Shena McAuliffe, MFAR; Gina Pola-MoneyR
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer