Service Dog Registration Of America

California Service Dog Laws - A Complete Guide


While all dogs hold a special place in their owner's hearts, service dogs serve an even greater purpose. Many people who use service dogs do not know how they would get on without them. These life-changing animals can significantly improve the quality of life and enhance the independence of many people with disabilities. 

If you are a person with a disability and are interested in getting a service dog in California, or if you wish to learn about these animals that are much more than pets, this guide will help. 

Here, we cover what service dogs are and the California state and federal laws that affect them. These laws determine where the animals can go, how owners must control them, what protections extend to them, and which disabilities qualify for these highly trained canines. Knowing these laws helps to protect the handler and the animal.

Let's get started.

Overview of the Service Dog Laws in California

There are many rules, regulations, and protections surrounding service dogs that can be quite confusing. However, this guide will work to clear up some of the confusion and make the topic of California service dog laws much more straightforward. 

Service Dog Defined

Let us start with the basics. What is a service dog? While we have all probably heard the term time and time again, we may not be familiar with the exact specifications. Specific rules differentiate a service dog from an emotional support dog or a pet

According to California service dog laws, a service dog is a canine individually trained to perform tasks or do work for someone with a disability. 

This definition allows people with many different types of disabilities to benefit from using a service dog. For example, a service dog might be one individually trained to perform tasks such as pull a wheelchair, guide a blind person, alert a deaf person, or remind someone with a mental illness to consume medication. 

Several different people can train service dogs. Professionals often train them. Sometimes, they undergo training with the person with a disability who will use the dog or one of their friends or family members. 

As long as the dog is obedient and performs specific tasks, it does not matter who does the training. However, if the dog trained only for general support, it more likely falls under one of the categories of support animals.

One thing to note is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also has some provisions for miniature horses, and therefore, California does too. 

What About Emotional Support Animals?

One important caveat with defining service dogs is that they must perform a task directly related to the disability that the person has. In other words, dogs that help with general emotional support and serve no other function do not qualify as service animals. 

Often, people confuse service animals with emotional support animals, but these are two completely different classifications. Rules for the latter are much laxer and provide fewer protections. 

People who have emotional support animals gain a sense of safety, well-being, or calm from the animal's presence. Generally, these animals have no training or very little training. The registration process for emotional support dogs is also much more straightforward than for service dogs. 

Where Are Service Dogs Allowed?

Service dogs can go in every public place where people can go. These protections have the backing of federal law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the most comprehensive federal law in the United States, ensuring disabled people's protections. It mandates that businesses open to the public cannot turn service animals away from areas in which the public may enter. 

To illustrate this point, consider a hospital. It would be unlawful for the hospital to bar service dogs from entering waiting rooms, offices, or the cafeteria. However, the hospital may be within its rights to bar a service animal from an operating room or other sterile areas because these places do not allow the public. 

Health codes that prohibit animals on premises do not apply to service dogs if it is a public location. This rule tends to apply to places that sell or prepare food. 

What Are the ADA Rules for Businesses?

If a business is unsure about the task a service dog is individually trained to provide, they cannot bombard the disabled person with questions or demand a demonstration of the task. 

For instance, suppose a disabled person has a service animal for the express purpose of pulling a wheelchair. The business owner cannot ask the disabled person to make the dog pull them for the owner to see. The business also may not ask about the person's disability or request to see medical documentation. 

Businesses can only ask the following two questions:

  • Is this dog required because of a disability?
  • What task or work has the dog trained to do?

Suppose a business asks the person any other questions about their disability or the dog. In that case, the business may face legal ramifications that can include a fine of up to $2,500 or six months in county jail. 

Conversely, if someone pretends to be the owner of a service dog when their dog does not perform any tasks for them, it is a criminal misdemeanor that may include a fine. 

Additionally, owners of public businesses cannot treat people with service dogs differently from their other patrons. People with service animals should not undergo less favorable treatment or isolation from everyone else in the establishment. 

Business owners also cannot charge a fee to allow the dog on the premises. Even if the company typically charges people without disabilities to bring their pets, they cannot charge those with disabilities to bring their service animals. 

Although business owners must serve and provide accommodations, they are not obligated to supervise or care for the service animal. 

For example, suppose the owner were to have to go to their car to grab something and ask a waiter to watch their service animal while they were gone. The waiter would not have to do so. This rule is to protect the business from liability and to keep everyone safe. 

Is Identification Necessary to Go Out in Public?

Service dogs are not under obligation by law to exhibit identification. However, many people choose to have their dogs wear a vest or tag. 

Utilizing identification ensures that the person faces fewer questions. It also clarifies that the animal is not a pet, so passersby should leave the animal to do the task it individually trained to perform. 

Additionally, service dogs do not need to register. However, registration provides the owner with paperwork that they can use. It can help to mitigate any issues that may arise in public from people who are uninformed about California service dog laws. Registering can also ensure the canine trained to perform tasks correctly and prevent any issues down the road. 

Can Emotional Support Dogs Go in Public?

Emotional support dogs are not able to go in many of the places that service dogs can. Owners of emotional support animals may face fees and accommodation changes that would be unlawful to impose on people who have service dogs. In this regard, emotional support animals are more like pets. 

However, emotional support animals still have some protections. For instance, landlords who do not allow pets on their properties may have to make exceptions for emotional support animals. Some rules may require an employer to allow an employee to bring an emotional support dog to work. Additionally, some airlines allow protections for emotional support animals in airports and on airplanes. 

It is crucial not to claim that your emotional support dog is a service animal. It is unlawful and can create an unwarranted stigma against service animals if your untrained emotional support animal causes a public problem. 

Additionally, emotional support animals could endanger service dogs, putting both the dog and its disabled owner at incredible risk. It is best always to tell the truth if your dog is an emotional support dog. 

Service Animals Must Be Under Control

Just because service animals can go anywhere in public does not mean they are free to run amuck. Service dogs must always be under control. 

If possible, these dogs must be on tether, leash, or harness. However, sometimes a person's disability and the task the service animal performs can prevent full control. In these cases, the owner must sufficiently subdue the animal by signal or voice. 

If an owner cannot keep their service dog under control, the animal may lose its service animal status. For everyone's safety, service dogs need to be highly trained to perform their tasks without disturbing or harming others in public. 

Can a Business or Landlord Ask the Disabled Person or Their Dog to Leave?

There are only two reasons someone can ask a person to remove their service dog: either the dog is out of control or is not housebroken. 

Suppose one of these circumstances is the issue, and the dog must leave. In that case, the business must still offer the disabled person the opportunity to acquire goods without their animal. 

A business cannot ask the person to remove their dog because someone else is afraid of the dog or has an allergy. In these cases, both parties need accommodations as best as possible. 

For example, suppose someone in a high school class needs to use a service dog, but someone else has a dog allergy. The administration should move the students to different classes with the same material, if possible. 

How California Protects Service Dogs in Public Areas

California follows the ADA and all federal laws regarding service dogs. The state has also imposed some of its own laws that garner even greater protections for people with disabilities in the state. 

In California state law, public places must change their practices to accommodate a service animal if necessary. These places must also allow someone who is training a service dog to bring the dog in, even if the trainer does not have a disability that requires the dog's use. 

As you read about these California laws, keep in mind that they do not apply to emotional support animals in the same way. 

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing

Many of the rules surrounding service dogs are under the guidance of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. It is the largest civil rights agency in the United States. 

Initially, California enacted civil rights laws that prohibited employment and housing discrimination based on national origin, ancestry, or religion. As time went on, the protected classes expanded to include sex and disability. The government consolidated these various laws under the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing in 1980. 

A person who experiences a violation of their disability rights in California can file a complaint with this department. In some situations, they may have a right to compensation. 

The Disabled Persons Act

The Disabled Persons Act in California state law contains the most explicit information about the protections offered to people with disabilities. 

Essentially, people with disabilities have the same rights as those without disabilities to access public amenities. Additionally, they have the right to use a service dog without paying any extra fees. However, they need to be aware that California law states that the person will be liable for any damage their service animal causes. 

The California law also states that it would be a denial of equal access if a landlord were to not lease or rent housing accommodations to someone with a disability because they use a service dog. 

Support animals have similar protections for housing. Landlords cannot deny access to housing for tenants with support animals, even if it is a no-pet property. 

One caveat explained in the Disabled Persons Act applies to zoos and wildlife parks. Although these facilities may allow the public to get up close to animals without a physical barrier, they are within their rights not to permit service dogs to accompany their owners. 

However, if they bar the service dog, the zoo or wildlife park must provide adequate kennel facilities for the dog. They must also offer transportation and an escort for the person, especially to compensate for the tasks otherwise handled by the dog trained to perform them. All these accommodations must be free of charge. 

What Disabilities Qualify a Person to Use a Service Dog?

Both physical and mental disabilities can qualify someone to use a service dog. 

California's definition of disability is broader than the definition used by the ADA. In the state, a disability is a mental or physical impairment that limits a significant life activity. The ADA uses the phrasing "substantially limits" when speaking about significant life activities. A major life activity generally encompasses social, physical, mental, and work activities. Therefore, California law offers more substantial protection than federal law for people with disabilities.  

Some examples of physical disabilities that allow for the use of a service dog include:

  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Seizures
  • Arthritis

Some examples of qualifying mental disabilities include:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder

The above lists are non-exhaustive, and many more conditions qualify for service dog usage. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does explicitly not attempt to create a full list of qualifying disabilities because each person's situation is unique. This flexibility allows many people to qualify. 

If you do not have one of the conditions stated above but feel that a service dog would help, you should speak to your physician. They will advise you on the next steps. 

It is essential to note that some conditions do not qualify for California's service animal usage. California law does not extend service dog qualifications for conditions such as illegal substance abuse disorders, compulsive gambling, and kleptomania.

Is Qualification Automatic?

Merely having one of the above disabilities does not automatically qualify you to use a service dog. According to California law, you must also speak to a medical professional who must give you documentation that states that a trained dog could support your disability. 


While service dogs do not instantly solve someone's problems, they can significantly improve the quality of life for many people with disabilities. If you think that getting one would help you to get more out of life, you should not let complicated legal systems hold you back from attempting to get one. 

California law provides many protections for people with service dogs and even some protections for emotional support dogs. Acquiring these animals is often worthwhile for many people with disabilities. 

Whether you need help pulling a wheelchair or assistance remembering to take medication, a service animal could change your life. Service dogs are incredible animals that are much more than pets or emotional support animals. They deserve all the protections they get under California service dog laws.