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Good News for People With Service Dogs

You can now train your own service pet — no “certification” required. 

by Claudia Kawczynska
March 31, 2021
Black service dog guides blind owner
hedgehog94/Adobe Stock

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For more than 500,000 Americans, dogs are more than cute companions — they are life-saving animals that make it possible for them to live independently and overcome everyday challenges, from reminding a person with diabetes to test their blood-sugar level to helping someone with obsessive compulsive disorder stop an unhealthy repetitive behavior.

ADA Service Dog Law

In a huge win for people with mental or physical disabilities, a federal appeals court ruled that people with disabilities can train their own service dogs and do not require formal certification to attest to their service dog’s status. The ruling upheld the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (which ensures that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else) and overturned a September 2019 U.S. District Court judgment that service dogs must be formally “certified.”

This ruling is the first appellate court decision in the country to address training and certification requirements for service dogs.

Allowing people to self-certify their pets after training the dogs themselves (subject to reasonable limits) promotes what the court agreed are the goals of the 1990 federal law banning discrimination against the disabled. In the unanimous three-judge ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco held that it was the intent of the ADA to “promote independent living and economic self-sufficiency.”

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The court went on to say that service dog registries lacked a uniform standard for certifying service animals, and that requiring such certification made it more expensive and less accessible for those with disabilities to have a service dog. “A dog can be trained to aid a person with a disability without formal schooling,” Judge Ronald Gould said in the ruling.

The Lawsuit

The precedent-setting lawsuit, C.L. v. Del Amo Hospital, Inc., was filed in March 2018 in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California. In it, the plaintiff alleged that Del Amo Hospital of Torrance, Calif., improperly prevented her from keeping her service dog — Aspen, a 16-lb. Bichon/Poodle — with her during inpatient treatment. C.L. alleged that the defendant, Del Amo Hospital, failed to adhere to federal and state laws that mandate service dogs be permitted to accompany their handlers to all places where the public may go, including hospitals.

The plaintiff, a trained speech-language pathologist, suffers from Complex PTSD and severe anxiety, and a therapist recommended a service dog. In 2013, after learning that a dog trained to supply this assistance could cost up to $15,000, C.L. obtained a pup herself, took training classes and taught the dog to protect her. She told the court that Aspen licks her face to wake her from nightmares, alerts her when others approach her, and stands in front of walls to prevent her from banging her head against them. But when she sought admission to Del Amo’s National Treatment Center Program and brought Aspen with her, the center said that the dog did not qualify as a service dog because the dog wasn’t “formally certified.” In 2018, a federal judge agreed.

Service Animal Self-Certification

The new ruling will be hugely beneficial for people with disabilities. “That this decision can help tens of thousands of people living in fear and isolation benefit from a trained service dog is immensely gratifying,” said Christopher Knauf, director of litigation for the Disability Rights Legal Center, who represented the plaintiff in the case (businesses can still refuse to allow a dog who is not housebroken or not controlled by the owner).

“Today’s decision is an important and welcome development for people who use service animals to help with a psychiatric disability,” said Jennifer Mathis, deputy legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in Washington D.C., a co-counsel in the case. “Too often, misconceptions about the legitimate use of psychiatric service animals have needlessly restricted people’s lives and prevented them from using what is often the most effective intervention for a mental health disability.”

The appeals court returned the case to the trial district judge to reconsider whether Aspen can now accompany C.L. to the hospital. We’ll see what happens next and how this might affect other decisions involving the ADA and service dogs.

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Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bark for 20 years. She also edited the best-selling anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot.