Disability rights for users of assistance animals

MOD can help people understand the rights and responsibilities associated with service animals and emotional support animals in different settings.

There are state and federal laws providing civil rights protections for people with disabilities who use service animals and emotional support animals. The exact rights and responsibilities depend on what type of animal it is and what the setting is.

For this reason, we start by outlining the definitions of different types of animal. Then, for each of the main settings, we outline the laws, rights, responsibilities and relevant processes for service animals and emotional support animals.

The Massachusetts Office on Disability focuses on providing disability rights information. We are not an enforcement agency and cannot intervene in disputes. We can discuss how the law applies in a particular situation and what the options could be for resolving a problem or filing a complaint. We do our best to provide neutral information to all sides of these situations.

Table of Contents

General approach

The following questions may be useful in helping you to categorize and evaluate your situation so that you can collect relevant information and figure out a suitable approach:

  1. What type of animal is this? An emotional support animal or a service animal?
  2. What setting am I dealing with?  The context will determine which laws apply. Ask yourself: is this a place of public accommodation, a government situation, housing, a place of employment, or transport?
  3. What rights and responsibilities does the law say I have in this context? 
  4. Have I followed the appropriate steps/done all of the things that are required of me?
  5. What am I aiming for with this situation? What is my main priority?
  6. Remember: the law has a lot of room for interpretation and gray area. Often, there is a process requiring evaluation of the specifics on a case-by-case basis. There may not be a clear-cut answer legally. There may be important or useful practical considerations in additional to legal rights and obligations.

Definitions: disability and types of animal

There are several different terms for animals that help people with disabilities. Inaccuracy or inconsistency in the terms you use can make things more difficult by causing confusion and can raise suspicions and allegations of fraud. We encourage everyone to get clear on the most common meanings of these terms and try to use them accurately. 

How is disability defined?

When we talk about animals that help a person with a disability, we generally use the definition of disability from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This defines disability broadly as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities

Note that many disabilities are not obvious, and an individual may choose to be quite selective about who they mention their disability to. Sometimes an individual will need to indicate that they have a disability in order to assert their disability rights, however they do not need to discuss their diagnosis.

What is a service animal?

A service animal is a dog, or in rare cases a miniature horse, that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. 

The Massachusetts Service Animal Law limits the definition of service animal to a dog that assists an individual with a sensory and/or physical disability. Federal law allows for a broader definition of service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Only dogs and miniature horses can be service animals.

Examples of service animal tasks include:

  • Guiding a person who is blind
  • Alerting a person who is Deaf
  • Interrupting a compulsive behavior
  • Retrieving objects

The ADA service animal definition includes psychiatric service dogs that are trained to recognize and respond to psychiatric disability symptoms. For example, a dog who is trained to help its owner with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) avoid environmental triggers to their disability symptoms would be considered a psychiatric service animal. 

The dog must have been trained to take one or more specific actions in response to either a command or some signal that they have sensed (e.g. onset of a panic attack), and those actions must directly help with symptoms or limitations associated with a disability. Animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support are not service animals. 

Although there are rigorous, formal service animal training programs, these can be expensive and the ADA gives individuals with disabilities the right to train their animal themselves. This means that after their animal has been successfully trained to consistently do at least one task, they can start referring to their dog as a service animal. They can continue training their dog to perform other tasks.

Service animals may also provide emotional support, but their defining feature is their training to do specific work tasks.

What is an emotional support animal?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that is providing emotional support to a person with a disability, just by its presence. 

ESAs are sometimes referred to as comfort animals or companion animals, but for clarity, we recommend consistent use of the term emotional support animal.

An emotional support animal can be any commonly kept domestic animal. Where a medical provider believes there is a disability-related need for an unusual animal, that may be possible.

An animal does not need to have been trained to be considered an ESA. However, individuals may find it useful to do socialization training with ESAs that will come into contact with other people, as the owner is responsible for their animal's behavior.

What does the term assistance animal mean?

An assistance animal can be either a service animal or an emotional support animal. This is a term used particularly in the context of housing. If discussing rules that apply to only one type of animal, we use the specific term for that animal. But where the rules apply to both service animals and emotional animals, we use the term assistance animal. 

What is a therapy animal?

Typically, the term therapy animal is used to mean an animal that has been trained to provide therapeutic emotional support to people other than its owner. Therapy animals can be taken by their owner to provide comfort to others, typically in group settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and community centers. Therapy animals differ from emotional support animals because they usually work with a range of individuals and their handler need not be a person with a disability. 

Identifying the type of animal

There are different rights and responsibilities depending on whether an animal is a service animal, an emotional support animal (ESA) or a pet, so it is useful to start by evaluating what sort of animal is involved.

Is it a dog?

Only dogs and miniature horses can be service animals. So if the animal is not a dog (or, in rare cases, a miniature horse), it can only be an emotional support animal or a pet.

Is the dog a service animal?

To find out whether a dog is a service animal, there are two standard questions someone can ask the animal owner to gather information without being too intrusive:

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

If the answers indicate that the dog performs actions that help mitigate the symptoms or limitations of a disability, then it is considered a service animal.

Note that staff should ask no more questions than needed to get the required information:

  • If it is obvious that the dog is a service dog (such as a guide dog), staff should not be asking questions.
  • If the person has an obvious disability but it is not obvious whether the dog is a pet or a service animal, staff can still ask the two questions.
  • An individual with a disability accompanied by a service animal may not be asked to:
    • Provide documentation of a disability,
    • Answer questions regarding their disability, or
    • Have the service animal demonstrate its work

The law requires staff to take the individual at their word. If the answers do not provide enough detail for staff to determine if the animal meets the definition of a service animal, they may ask questions to clarify. For example, if the animal owner answered "My dog helps me with anxiety," that could be an emotional support animal or a service animal, so staff could ask clarifying questions. Once an adequate answer has been given, further questions might be seen as harassing and should be avoided. The process is easier if service animal owners provide enough detail to indicate that their animal takes specific disability-related actions in response to a command/signal. 

Is it an emotional support animal or pet?

If the animal is not a dog, or it is a dog but does not take specific actions to mitigate the symptoms/limitations of a disability, then it is not a service animal. No further inquiries are necessary for places of public accommodation, government situations or transport.

If there is a disability-related need for the animal to provide comfort and support, then it is an emotional support animal. In a housing situation, the housing provider can request a letter of support for ESA from a medical provider for verification.

If the individual does not have a disability (note many disabilities are invisible) or does not have a disability-related need for the animal, then the animal can usually be considered a pet.


Assistance animal owners in Massachusetts are not required to possess any certification or identification. 

In recent years there has been a proliferation of websites offering service animal and ESA certification, registration or identification cards/vests. However there is not currently any recognized official registry or certification program for service animals or emotional support animals.

All dogs, whether pets or assistance animals, need to be registered with their town/city, but there is no official registry of assistance animals.

Service animals in public places and government programs

This is the situation people most often think of when they think of service animals. Grocery stores, doctor's offices and restaurants are all considered "public accommodations" — places where the general public can go. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies in these situations. For local or state government situations, Title II of the ADA applies. Both Title II and Title III of the ADA provide people with disabilities who use a service animal the right to have that service animal accompany them (except in the rare cases where doing so would require a fundamental change to the service/situation or be a direct threat to health and safety).

The Department of Justice (DOJ) publishes an info-sheet on Service Animals, which provides a solid overview of how service animals are defined, the two questions that people are allowed to ask in evaluating whether an animal is a service animal, and the rights and responsibilities around keeping the animal under control.

The DOJ also publish Frequently Asked Questions on Service Animals which gives more detailed information, including what "under control" means.

Service animals:

  • Are permitted to go wherever their handler is permitted to go.
  • Must be under the handler’s control at all times. In most cases this involves use of a harness or leash.
  • Must be housebroken.
  • May not pose a legitimate, direct threat to health or safety.
  • Are allowed even if others have fears of or allergies to dogs.
  • Do not have to be allowed to sit on furniture meant for patrons, to eat from plates provided by a food service establishment, or to ride in shopping carts.

If a service animal is not under control, for example it is barking repeatedly, staff may ask the dog owner to control their animal. If the owner does not successfully control their service animal, staff can require the owner to remove the service animal from the premises, although they must offer their services to the owner without the service animal present.

If you are visiting a place regularly (for example attending a weekly class), it is helpful to notify them in advance of your intention to bring a service animal with you, so that if anyone who might be in the same room has an allergy, the organization can make plans to meet both your need for the service animal and the allergic person’s needs for distance or whatever is required. The expectation is that the organization will try to balance needs, and the existence of an allergy is not considered sufficient reason in itself to deny you access with your service animal.

The Massachusetts laws around service animals do not offer substantially different rights from the federal laws, except that service animals in training may go anywhere fully trained service animals can go under the ADA (government programs and places of public accommodations), as long as they can meet the requirements to be housebroken, under control and not a threat.

The DOJ info-sheet on service animals and the FAQ can be useful for animal owners and organization employees to refer to if disagreements or questions about rights arise. Some service animal owners find it useful to bookmark these documents in their phone or to carry printouts.

Enforcement and Recourse

Filing a complaint usually takes months and considerable effort. Before taking this step, it is often worthwhile to evaluate whether you are in fact at an impasse, or whether there might be opportunities to resolve the matter. You can contact MOD to help you analyze the nuances of your unique situation, provide feedback, and help you understand your options before you launch into a complaint.

If you have a complaint about discriminatory acts, the recourse is to file a complaint at one of the enforcement agencies: 

Service animals in education

Users of service animals have rights in education. Most educational settings are legally considered government or public places, so they are covered by Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. However the nature of educational settings and programs makes the considerations a little more complicated than most government or public place situations. For example, in grade school, a child using a service animal may not yet be able to fully handle their service animal independently or there may be safety considerations relating to them leaving the building to toilet their animal. In all settings, a service animal user needs to care for their animal and keep it under control, or have a handler to do so. Places they are visiting are not obligated to supervise or care for a service animal.

For college, the ADA network provides information on disability rights in post-secondary education that includes a useful section on service animals.

If you have a question about service animals in education, you may contact us to discuss how disability rights laws apply and useful ways to approach the situation. 

Service animals on transport, including airlines

Transport other than air

Title III of the ADA applies to public and private transportation, including taxis, shuttles, subways, and buses. A person with a service animal:

  • Cannot be denied transportation, even if there is a no animals policy
  • Cannot be forced to sit in a particular spot
  • Cannot be charged additional fees to travel accompanied by their service animal
  • Does not need to provide advance notice that they will be travelling with their service animal, although they can choose to do so.

Air transport

The US Department of Transport (DoT) enforces the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). DoT provides guidance on flying within the US with a service animal, including the documentation the traveler must submit ahead of time and scenarios in which a service animal may be denied transport.

Airlines are required to make a Complaints Resolution Official available to you, who can assist if you believe your rights are being violated.

Note that in late 2020, DoT revised their ACAA regulations. Now emotional support animals are treated the same as pets for air travel.

Enforcement and Recourse

If you have a complaint about discriminatory acts, the recourse is to file a complaint at one of the enforcement agencies.

For non-air transport:

For air transport:

Service animals and emotional support animals in employment

The part of the ADA that applies to employment (Title I) does not specifically address service animals and emotional support animals. So if an employee needs to bring their animal to work, they should use the standard reasonable accommodation process:

  • The employee needs to explain their disability-related need for the reasonable accommodation they are requesting. They may need to provide a letter from a medical provider to support their request.
  • The employer has an obligation to evaluate each request on a case-by-case basis. They should look at whether the request is required because of a disability. They may explore alternative effective accommodations. They should engage in an interactive process with the employee.
  • The employer can turn down the request if:
    • It is not required because of a disability,
    • The employee does not need it to perform their work, or
    • It would cause undue hardship, such as substantial cost, difficulty, disruption, or fundamental alteration to the operation of the business.

An individual might need the support of a service animal to perform their work tasks, for their commute, or for non-work-specific but necessary support while working, for example a dog that alerts their owner to the onset of a seizure. If multiple accommodations exist that would be effective in meeting the employee's needs, the preference of the individual with a disability should be given primary consideration. However, the employer providing the accommodation has the ultimate discretion to choose between effective accommodations and may choose the accommodation that is easiest to provide.

Reasonable accommodation (RA) requests tend to go more smoothly when the employee has prepared well before making the request. In addition to our RA request tips, you might find it useful to ask yourself:

  • Can you do your job without the service dog? If yes, then your employer may not need to allow you to bring it with you to work.
  • How is your job affected if you don’t have the dog? Think about how you can express this so that you show your need for the dog without talking yourself out of a job. You may need a letter of support from a doctor. 
  • What are likely to be your employer’s concerns and how could you address them? This might include when and where you will give the dog water and toilet it, whether the dog will be disruptive, whether a situation could arise where you would need to leave the dog unattended.
  • What alternative accommodations might your employer suggest? Would any of them effectively meet your needs?

Enforcement and Recourse

If a request for reasonable accommodation is denied, the recourse is for the resident to file a complaint at one of the enforcement agencies: for details see Enforcement and recourse in employment. You can contact MOD to help you analyze the nuances of your unique situation, provide feedback, and help you understand your options before you launch into a complaint.

Assistance animals in housing

Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers have obligations to make reasonable accommodations to allow assistance animals in housing, both in individual units and in common areas. 

Both ESAs and service animals are considered assistance animals, but they are treated differently. Therefore, housing providers should start by finding out what sort of animal is involved.

Please read assistance animals in housing, where we provide detailed guidance on navigating the reasonable accommodation process and answers to common questions.

Acquiring and maintaining an assistance animal

General considerations

Deciding what animal to get (species, breed, age, and individual) will be the most important factor in determining how useful the animal will be to you (as well as how much work and expense it will require). An assistance animal is very different from other treatment options in that it involves a commitment to care for another living animal's wellbeing, potentially for decades.

Although there are organizations that provide valuable expertise and support in choosing and acquiring assistance animals, an individual may get an emotional support animal or service animal in any of the ways it is legal to acquire a pet. So, you could buy an animal from a breeder or adopt one from an approved shelter.

Here are some questions it may be useful to ask yourself:

  • What tasks or assistance do I need the animal to be able to do? Does the animal need to be a certain size? Does it need to have particular skills or a certain temperament?
  • What tasks or support are more optional but that I hope the animal will provide?
  • Are there particular animals/breeds that are best suited to this work/support? Do I know of other people who have assistance animals to do similar work/support who may have advice on what sort of animal may be a good/poor choice?
  • Can I find an animal that already has the skills I need, or will I need it to be trained? If I will need to train a dog, what factors make the training more likely to be successful?
  • How long a commitment am I willing to make? 
  • Is the work caring for the animal realistic for me and my support network:
    • How often will I need to clean a cage/cat litter box or take a dog out for toileting?
    • How much exercise does the animal need and how will I provide that?
    • How will I transport the animal to a vet for regular/emergency vet care?
    • Who will clean/feed/exercise my animal when I am unavailable (e.g. on vacation or in hospital)?
  • How much do I expect the three main areas of cost to be:
    • Acquiring the animal: purchase/adoption costs and equipment
    • Training the animal to behave in a controlled manner and to do specific work, if required
    • Maintaining the animal, including vet care, food, litter, vaccinations, licensing and dog-walking and animal care when I am not available?
  • Do I have income available to cover the monthly costs? How could I handle an emergency vet bill?
  • How long does the animal I'm considering tend to live? What will I do if the animal becomes unable to assist me? Is this animal prone to particular health problems as it ages? What level of vet bills might I be looking at as it gets old?
  • Will certain choices make finding housing harder? While there are disability rights protections, dog breeds considered dangerous are more likely to create difficulties with the landlord's insurance. Untrained or poorly behaved dogs tend to raise more concerns and complaints than cats and smaller animals.

Although animals do not require specialized training to be ESAs, if choosing a dog, most owners find it valuable to train a dog to be obedient to basic commands and socialized to other animals and people so that they can stay easily under control in all the situations the owner might want to bring them into. The owner can do this or they can seek help from a trainer.

Although ESAs and service animals can provide enormously valuable support, consideration of the cost and responsibilities are also part of the decision. Making a realistic budget can help in planning whether an assistance animal is right for you. Some organizations offer discounts for assistance animals, but will consider it unfair on the animal to place it with an owner who is unable to afford the ongoing cost of properly looking after their animal. If you can demonstrate that you understand the ongoing costs of good animal care and are confident you will be able to afford it, this may reassure them on this point. 

There is no official register of service animals or ESAs.

Service animal training

Training is what makes a dog a service dog rather than a pet, and is key to them providing valuable support. Under the ADA, a service animal must be individually trained to perform disability-related tasks for a person with a disability: the dog takes specific actions in response to commands or in response to particular events occurring.

Training by an experienced professional can be very helpful, however it is often expensive, so the ADA allows owners to train their dogs themselves.

A service animal must be kept under control in public places, so socialization, good behavior in busy environments and responsiveness to commands can also be important parts of service animal training.

There are a number of organizations that specialize in training service animals. Some will train an animal you already have. Others will choose an appropriate dog for you as part of the service. Some larger training organizations are charities or non-profits and may subsidize the costs (sometimes by asking the owner to fundraise). There are sometimes long wait lists. Professional training usually requires considerable time commitment and possibly travel by the prospective owner. It makes sense to find a trainer who has specific experience of successfully training service animals to do the tasks you require. They may also have suggestions of other tasks that may be useful for the animal to do to support you.

We cannot make recommendations of service animal training organizations. An internet search for service animal training for particular disabilities or tasks will usually find a list. Community groups can be a source of recommendations and reviews. There are a few umbrella organizations that encourage certain standards in training and/or provide a member directory that allows you to search for trainers based on state and category of disability.

Help with costs

MOD is not aware of state or health insurance funding to help with any of the costs of acquiring or maintaining an assistance animal.

The cost of acquiring and maintaining a service animal can be deducted as medical expense on an itemized tax return or can be paid for from a flexible spending account.

In MA, all dogs must be registered, but service animals are exempt from the registration fee.

If the cost of neutering/spaying your cat/dog is a hardship, you can apply for a Mass Animal Fund Spay/Neuter Voucher through your local Animal Control Officer.

Contact   for Disability rights for users of assistance animals

Last updated: July 13, 2023
Image credits:  Dog (Shutterstock)

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