Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ask the Appeal: Can You Ask Someone For Service Animal "Proof?"

When a person says to you that their dog is a service dog are they required to prove to you that they have a doctor's order for a companion dog?

Two incidents that bring context to my question. Shortly after Diane Whipple was killed the Animal Control and Welfare Commission held a hearing to consider a requirement to muzzle pit bulls and rottweilers. About 350 showed up and about 100 brought their dogs. The room was way overcrowded. A sheriff officer stopped one of the people with a dog and advised him not to enter. That person told him he had a doctor order for a companion dog he could take the dog wherever he wanted. The officer told him he wasn't questioning his rights, he just wanted him to know it was very crowded. The guy didn't make it the length of the room before his dog got into a nasty, growling, snarling, barking fight with another dog. No one was hurt.

Last night I was at a community meeting at a clubhouse when a person with one of those plastic ball throwers in one hand and a leashed golden retriever on the other hand walked to the front of the room. When informed by a person standing next to me that dogs weren't allowed in the clubhouse the person said, "This is my service dog it goes with me wherever I go and whenever I want." Pause. "You're being very rude by questioning me." The person standing next to me replied, "Well it doesn't look like a service dog." At that point I intervened and said, "We didn't know it was a service dog, now we do, what do you want?"

I suspect the answer might lie along the even if I have the right it is better not to argue with someone needs a four legged security blanket when in public.

Linda, a SF Animal Care and Control representative, told me a person can prove his or her pet is a service animal with at least one of three things: the required tag, an affidavit from the city shelter, and/or a doctor's letter. While any one of these should suffice, Linda said a doctor's letter is the only mandated item according to the Americans With Disabilities Act and therefore a service animal owner's best bet.

However, when I called the Department of Justice's ADA information line to double check, a spokeswoman told me that one isn't required to show any information - not even a doctor's note - in most cases.

"Unless a person is trying to get a job or find a place to live," she said, "[s/he] doesn't have to show any tangible proof that the pet is a service animal."

(It's wise to remember that a person's disability might not be evident to the naked eye, so visually evaluating the person with the animal is rarely a good idea.)

Besides, of course, considering how important it is to you to ensure the rules are being followed in any given situation, what should someone (say, a business owner) do if faced with a situation where they think a non-disabled person's trying to pull the pet equivalent of bogarting a blue spot?

"You can ask what kind of training the animal has received," the spokeswoman said, "and then decide for yourself whether you want to treat [the animal] as a service animal or otherwise."

In any case, according to the ADA:

"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 animal's owner does not take effective action to control it (for example, a dog that barks repeatedly during a movie) or (2) the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others."

Think of "Ask the Appeal" as your own personal genie: no Bay-related question is too big or too small. Whether you're concerned with a municipal question, a consumer advocacy issue or simply with consuming alcohol, email us your questions at (or, find answers to past questions here). We'll either do the dirty work and talk to the folks in charge, contact an expert in the field, or - if your question is particularly intriguing or juicy - develop it into a full-blown investigative article.

by Katie Baker

September 9, 2010 9:50 AM


  1. It is amazing how many people out there think that they can demand proof of one's disability or that service animals must be certified to be considered service dogs.

    The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids demanding proof of a disability, and discriminating against the disabled in such a manner opens the offender to a really nasty lawsuit.

    Service dogs are NOT required to wear tags, vests or any other identifying item. One is not required to identify their particular disability (though some people/places will try to do so). If people get in one's face and ask questions, it is recommended that one refers the person the Americans with Disabilities Act (with a handy telephone number to assist them).

  2. "I suspect the answer might lie along the even if I have the right it is better not to argue with someone needs a four legged security blanket when in public."

    This comment in your article shows how little respect you have for the disabled. Service Dogs are not security blankets when in public. They actually work.

  3. Thank you WSD for all your help in educating both the public about the awareness/need for serices animal and the disabled regarding thier rights as recipients of the service(s) these special animals provide.