Assistance dogs, service dogs, psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals – understanding the protections afforded them in California is not a simple matter. Most Californians agree that disabled persons who require trained service dogs to assist them should be allowed to take them into public places. And that is, in fact, a dictate of federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Where California state law provides more protections to people with service dogs than does federal law, it trumps the federal law. Various California statutes protect the rights of people with assistance dogs, service dogs, psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals, giving disabled persons broader protection in housing and the work place.
Federal Service Dog Laws: ADA
Federal laws apply to all states, including California. However, where state and federal laws offer different protections, the one with the broader protections takes precedence. Three federal laws protect the rights of the disabled who use service dogs as support animals. Each adds something specific to the protection.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the grandfather of service dog laws. It defines a service dog as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Sometimes, under the ADA, protections also extend to miniature horses that are trained to provide assistance to disabled people, but it does not apply to emotional support animals. The Department of Justice defines service animals under the ADA as dogs trained to perform identifiable tasks that are specific to a disabled individual’s unique physical, sensory, psychiatric or mental disabilities. Who has to train the dog? It doesn't matter. Dogs can be trained by the owner, medical professionals or friends who know something about dogs.
The ADA regulates access to public places by disabled persons with service dogs. It provides that these people must be given equal access to public places like government buildings, hospitals, shops and hotels. These places that admit the public are legally obligated to allow service dogs, and the provisions of the ADA mandate that they modify their rules to accommodate service dogs.
However, these protections apply only to dogs that satisfy the ADA’s definition of “service animal.” The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is "individually trained" to "perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” The tasks a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. For example, guide dogs that help blind people are good examples of service dogs, but dogs are also regularly trained to help deaf people and people with mobility impairments.
Federal Service Dog Laws: Fair Housing Act
The federal Fair Housing Act is another federal act that protects Californians, as well as people in the other 49 states, who have assistance animals. Unlike the ADA, the Fair Housing Act protects people with assistance animals needed for emotional support as well as service dogs.
The Act requires reasonable accommodation in housing for those who need assistance animals. The federal Fair Housing Act gives a disabled person the right to keep an assistance animal, often defined to include emotional support animals, in a house, apartment or other housing facility that otherwise does not allow pets.
The Fair Housing Act has been interpreted to include animals other than dogs. The housing managers or owners must make reasonable accommodations in their rules to allow people with assistance animals to use the housing like any other tenant.
Federal Service Dog Laws: AAA
The Air Carriers Access Act addresses the rights of disabled persons to travel by air. It prohibits discrimination against disabled persons (defined as anyone having an impairment) in air travel. The law requires – in every state in the country including California – that commercial airlines allow assistance animals to accompany disabled passengers traveling by plane.
This federal law prohibits airlines from requiring proof of service dog status when a physically disabled person is traveling with a service animal. However, for a psychiatric service animal or emotional support animal, the disabled person usually needs a letter from a mental health professional setting out the person's need for an assistance animal.
California Companion Animal Laws
In California, several laws describe the rights of people who require assistance animals. These include the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Disabled Persons Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act. It is sometimes difficult to determine which law applies, and that can depend on the type of animal, how the animal assists the person, and the location.
One big difference between California and federal law is the definition of "disability." The state definition is broader. Under the federal ADA, a impairment, whether physical or mental, rises to the level of a disability only when it "substantially limits" a major life activity. Under state law in California, an impairment doesn't have to substantially limit life activities, but only limit them. That has been interpreted as meaning that an impairment is a disability if it makes the related activity difficult. Applied to mental disabilities, this has been held to include most mental conditions or psychological disorders, including depression and learning disabilities as well as bipolar or other disorders as long as a major life activity is impacted.
California law defines "service dog" much like federal law. The law provides that a service dog is a dog trained to help an individual with a disability in specific ways. For example, the service dog could be trained to pull the owner's wheelchair or to recover items the disabled owner has dropped. First, the definition of service dogs applies only to dogs, so no animal other than a dog can qualify. Second, the dogs must be trained to help their owners in specific ways.
"Psychiatric service dog" is a term you hear frequently in California when people speak about service animals. What is a psychiatric service dog? You can look high and low in California codes for the definition but you won't find one. California law doesn't define "psychiatric service dog," but if a person with a mental disability obtains a a dog individually trained to help her, the animal fits the general definition of a service dog under California law. For example, a psychiatric service dog might be trained to respond to a panic attack with comfort, or getting someone who is depressed up from bed at a certain hour. A person using a psychiatric service dog has the same rights as someone with a physical disability who uses a service dog.
One other important term regarding assistance animals in California is "emotional support animal." The term means a dog or other animal that, by its very presence, assists a person by giving them a sense of well-being and serenity. An emotional support animal in California is not necessarily trained to perform specific acts related to the owner's disability. It need not be a dog, although most emotional support animals are dogs. California laws mandate that both landlords and employers must make accommodations to allow disabled persons to keep these assistance animals with them.
California Assistance Dogs in Public Places
California law echoes federal law guaranteeing disabled people the right to take service dogs into public places. And, state laws define "public places" more broadly than the ADA does. In California, you have the right to take your service dog to anyplace where the public is permitted, like doctors' offices, public transport including streetcars and boats, and concert halls. California law provides the same type of protection for those training service dogs. A trainer without a disability bringing a service dog trainee has the same rights to go to public places as a disabled person with a service animal.
Those who operate facilities to which the public is invited must change their practices if necessary in order to accommodate the animals. The laws in California do not require that persons with service dogs put vests or tags on the dogs or otherwise "mark" them as assistance dogs. Nor are service dogs required to be certified or registered. People in charge of a public place can ask the individual only whether the dog is a service dog and, if so, what work the dog is trained to perform. They cannot ask for written proof or documentation that the dog is a service dog.
One exception to the requirement that places open to the public allow people to enter with service dogs is wild animal parks. If no physical barrier separates the public from the wild animals, these types of parks are exempt.
Note that these protections apply to service dogs, not to emotional support animals. There is no California law that requires an emotional support animal to be allowed in public places. However, special state laws protect emotional support animals in housing and in the workplace.
Read More: How to Apply for a California Assistance Dog Tag
California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act
Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against someone because of a disability. If a disabled person needs an assistance animal, an employer with five or more employees has to make reasonable accommodations for the disability, including allowing the animal in the workplace.
Emotional Support Animal Rental Laws in California
Many of the questions people have about service dogs involve the right to keep emotional support animals in their rented housing units. Both federal law applicable in California and state law requires that a landlord allow a disabled person to keep a service dog in a rental unit even if the policy disallows pets. It is usually considered a reasonable accommodation and therefore must be accepted.
How about emotional support animals? Do landlords have to accept companion animals? The answer is the same. Both the Federal Housing Act and California law require that landlords allow disabled persons to keep emotional support animals in housing units, even if the general rules of the premises are that no animals are permitted. Likewise, a landlord cannot ask tenants with service dogs, psychiatric service dogs or assistance animals to pay a pet deposit. This is true even if other tenants in the building are required to put down pet deposits.
Although a landlord cannot object to allowing service dogs or emotional support dogs into the building, the law does permit exclusion of specific dogs. A request to keep an assistance animal can be legally rejected if the specific animal is a threat the health of others or would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others.
But landlords need to be careful here. They cannot reject a dog because it's big, weighs a lot, or is a particular breed. Nor can the rejection be premised on fear or speculation. The decision that an animal poses a direct threat or would cause substantial physical damage has to be made on objective evidence about the particular animal's actual conduct.
Service Dog Fraud in California
Under California's Penal Code, it is a crime for a person to represent an animal as a service dog or emotional support animal when it is not. A person who does this intentionally can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. The penalties can include jail time and a fine up to $1,000.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.