California Laws on Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals in Public Places

California law requires most public places to admit service dogs and psychiatric service dogs but not emotional support animals.

California law allows persons with disabilities to bring trained service dogs and psychiatric service dogs, but not emotional support animals, to all public places. Several different California laws set out the rights of people with disabilities who use animals to assist them. These laws include the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Disabled Persons Act (CDPA), and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). (Federal disability rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), also protect the rights of people who use service dogs and emotional support animals. For more information, see our article on federal law regarding service animals. When federal and state law differ, whichever one offers greater protection will generally apply.)

Which California Laws Protect Assistance Animals and When?

Which California law applies depends on three factors: what kind of animal it is, how the animal helps the disabled individual, and the setting or place involved.

Service Dog Defined

A "service dog," under California law, is a dog trained to help a specific individual with a disability with services such as fetching dropped items, minimal protection work, rescue work, or pulling a wheelchair. There are two important things to note about the California's definition of service dogs. First, it is limited to dogs. (But because the ADA authorizes the use of miniature horses as service animals in some limited circumstances, California does as well.)

Second, it is further limited to dogs that are trained to help individuals with their specific requirements. So, no animal other than a dog can qualify as a service animal, even if that animal is trained to assist a person with a disability. Furthermore, even a dog will not qualify as a service dog if it is not individually trained to help an individual with a disability (in a way that is related to his or her disability).

"Psychiatric" Service Dog Defined

California doesn't have a separate definition for "psychiatric service dog," but a dog that is individually trained to help a person with a mental disability with specific requirements is considered a service dog, and an individual that uses such a dog is entitled to the same rights under the law as someone with a physical disability that uses a service dog.

Examples of work or tasks that a service dog can be trained to perform for someone with a mental disability include:

  • waking someone with clinical depression and coaxing them out of bed at a specified time in the morning
  • responding to an owner's panic attack by initiating contact to comfort the individual, and
  • alerting a person exercising poor judgment due to bipolar disorder that they are driving dangerously.

Emotional Support Animal Defined

An "emotional support animal" is a dog or other animal that is not trained to perform specific acts directly related to an individual’s disability. Instead, the animal's owner derives a sense of well-being, safety, or calm from the animal’s companionship and presence. An emotional support animal does not need to be a dog, but can be. (For more on the basic difference between service dogs and support animals, see Nolo's article on service dogs and support animals.)

How California Protects Service Dogs in Public Areas

California law guarantees people who use trained service dogs full and equal access to public places.

What Places Are Considered Public?

In California, the service dog guarantees apply to an even broader range of public places than the ADA covers, including:

  • any place to which the general public is invited (including restaurants, hotels, theaters, shops, concert halls, and government buildings)
  • medical facilities, such as hospitals, clinics, and physicians' offices, and
  • any public conveyance or mode of transportation (motor vehicles, trains, buses, streetcars, boats), whether private, public, franchised, licensed, or contracted.

Public places must allow persons with disabilities to bring in their service dogs and, if necessary, they must modify their practices and to accommodate the dogs. Public places must also permit an authorized trainer to bring in a service dog, even if the trainer herself doesn't have a disability.

Can the Operator of a Public Place Require Proof That an Animal Is a Service Dog?

A public place can ask only two questions to determine if that individual's dog is a service dog:

  • whether the dog is required because of a disability, and
  • what work the dog is trained to perform.

The public place cannot require a person to "prove" that their dog is a service dog. A service dog is not required to be registered, certified, or identified as a service dog. However, in California, pretending to be an owner of a service dog is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 (and/or up to six months imprisonment).

What About Zoos and Wild Animal Parks?

California has specific rules regarding the use of service dogs at zoos or wild animal parks. Such places are not required to allow service dogs in areas where animals are not separated from the public by a physical barrier. But a zoo or park that doesn't allow service dogs into such areas must provide free, clean, and safe kennel facilities. Under some circumstances, the facility must also provide certain additional accommodations--such as free transportation and sighted escorts--to blind or visually impaired patrons and to individuals who rely on their service dog for mobility.

Does California Protect the Use of Emotional Support Animals?

The protections discussed above do not apply to emotional support animals. California law, like federal law, doesn't require that emotional support animals be allowed in public places.

California does have laws, however, protecting the use of emotional support animals in other settings. To learn more, see Nolo's articles on when California landlords have to allow psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals and how California protects psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals in the workplace. In addition, federal law allows people with disabilities to bring their emotional support animal onto an airplane. (See Nolo's article on federal protections for emotional support animals.)

What Disabilities Qualify a Person to Use a Service Dog or Support Animal?

California law typically offers greater protection than federal law for persons with disabilities. For example, California defines "disability" more broadly than the ADA does. Under the federal ADA, a physical or mental impairment qualifies as a disability only if it "substantially limits" a major life activity. In California, a physical or mental impairment need only limit (not "substantially" limit) a major life activity, which simply means that the impairment must make the achievement of the major life activity difficult.

In California, a mental disability includes any mental or psychological disorder or condition--such as intellectual disability, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, or specific learning disabilities--that limits a major life activity. A major life activity refers to physical, mental, and social activities and working. California does not, however, consider compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or unlawful substance use disorders to be mental disabilities.

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