D.C. Laws on Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

D.C. law and federal law require service dogs to be allowed in housing and all public places.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Under the District of Columbia's disability rights law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities have the right to be accompanied by their service animals in restaurants, hotels, stores, theaters, and other places that are open to the public. Below, we explain which public accommodations are covered, which animals qualify as service animals, and when service animals are allowed in housing.

Which Animals Are Covered in D.C.?

The District of Columbia defines a service animal as an animal that:

  • is specially trained to assist someone with a physical or mental disability, and
  • is relied on by someone with a physical or mental disability for assistance related to that disability.

The definition under D.C. law specifically excludes animals that serve solely as companions or that serve only to deter crime.

Similarly, under the ADA, a service animal is a dog that has been trained to perform disability-related tasks. But in some cases, under the ADA a miniature horse may also qualify as a service animal. Examples of service animals that must be allowed into public accommodations under the ADA include:

  • hearing dogs, which alert their handlers to important sounds, such as alarms, doorbells, and other signals
  • guide dogs, which help those who are blind or visually impaired navigate safely
  • psychiatric service animals, which help their handlers manage mental and emotional disabilities by, for example, interrupting self-harming behaviors, reminding handlers to take medication, checking spaces for intruders, or providing calming pressure during anxiety or panic attacks
  • seizure alert animals, which let their handlers know of impending seizures, and may also guard their handlers during seizure activity, and
  • allergen alert animals, which let their handlers know of foods or other substances that could be dangerous (such as peanuts).

The ADA does not cover what some people call "emotional support animals": animals whose presence provides a sense of safety, companionship, and comfort to those with psychiatric or emotional conditions. Although these animals often have therapeutic benefits, they are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. Pets are also not covered.

What Counts as a Public Accommodation?

Under the laws of Washington, D.C., service animals must be allowed in all hotels and other lodging places; all places of public amusement, resort, or accommodation; all places to which the public is invited, and all common carriers, types of transportation, and public conveyances (including buses, taxis, trains, boats, and so on).

Under the ADA, the definition of public accommodations is also very broad. It includes:

  • hotels and other lodging establishments
  • public transportation terminals, depots, and stations
  • restaurants and other places that serve food and drink
  • sales or rental establishments
  • service establishments
  • any place of public gathering, such as an auditorium or convention center
  • places of entertainment and exhibit, like theaters or sports stadiums
  • gyms, bowling alleys, and other places of exercise or recreation
  • recreational facilities, such as zoos and parks
  • libraries, museums, and other places where items are collected or displayed publicly
  • educational institutions, and
  • social service centers.

Religious entities, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, are not considered public accommodations under the ADA. This is so even if the religious entity offers secular services, such as a day-care center that admits children whether or not they are members of or affiliated with the religious institution. Private clubs (member-controlled nonprofit groups that are highly selective, charge substantial membership fees, and were not created in order to avoid compliance with civil rights laws) are also not covered by the ADA. However, if a private club makes facilities available to nonmembers, it is subject to the ADA's public accommodation rules as to those facilities.

Rules for Your Service Animal

The ADA and Washington, D.C. law prohibit public accommodations from charging a special admission fee or requiring you to pay any other extra cost to have your service animal with you. However, you may have to pay for any damage your animal causes.

The ADA allows a public accommodation to exclude your service animal if it poses a direct threat to health and safety (or example, if your dog is aggressively barking and snapping at other customers, the facility can kick the dog out). Your animal may also be excluded if it is not housebroken, or if it is out of control and you are unable or unwilling to effectively control it. You are still entitled to enter the public accommodation even if your service animal is not allowed in.

Under the ADA, a public accommodation may not ask you questions about your disability or demand to see certification, identification, or other proof of your animal's training or status. If it is not apparent what your service animal does, the establishment may ask you only whether it is a service animal, and what tasks it performs for you. D. C. law also allows an establishment to ask whether your animal is required for your disability and whether your animal is housebroken.

Service Animals in D.C. Housing

The District of Columbia's disability rights law requires landlords to allow full and equal access to housing for people with mental and physical disabilities and their service animals. D.C. law does not allow landlords to charge extra for a service animal, but you must pay for any damage your animal causes. Landlords are allowed to require only (1) that you provide a verification from a physician or other healthcare provider that you meet the District's definition of a person with a mental or physical disability; and (2) that you demonstrate a connection between your disability and the function provided by your service animal. Landlords may not inquire more deeply into the nature or severity of your disability, nor may they require you to describe your disability in determining whether you are eligible for the rental.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing accommodations against those who use service animals. Under the Fair Housing Act you must be allowed full and equal access to all housing facilities, and may not be charged extra for having a service animal (although you may have to pay for damage your animal causes). If your lease or rental agreement includes a "no pets" provision, it does not apply to your service animal.

Pursuant to the federal Fair Housing Act, housing facilities must allow service dogs and emotional support animals, if necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the home. To fall under this provision, you must have a disability and you must have a disability-related need for the animal. In other words, the animal must work, perform tasks or services, or alleviate the emotional effects of your disability in order to qualify. (For more information, see the Department of Housing and Urban Development's guidance on service animals.)

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