Virginia Laws on Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

When Virginia laws allow you to bring a service dog or emotional support animal to public places or housing.

By , J.D.
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Under Virginia's disability rights law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities may bring their service animals to all "public accommodations," including stores, businesses, motels, restaurants, theaters, schools, and more. Public accommodations in Virginia must comply with both state and federal law. Learn below which animals qualify as service animals, which public accommodations must allow them, and rules you may need to follow with your service animal.

Service Animals Defined in Virginia

Virginia's disability rights law requires public places to allow guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs:

  • A guide dog assists someone who is completely or partially blind with navigation and other tasks.
  • A hearing dog is trained to alert its handler, through touch, to sounds that indicate danger and other sounds to which the handler should respond.
  • A service dog is trained to do work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. The work the dog does must be directly related to the person's disability. The definition lists examples of the type of work these dogs might do, which includes retrieving items, alerting the handler to allergens, assisting the handler during a seizure, and interrupting impulsive or destructive behavior.
Virginia's law does not specify if it covers "psychiatric service dogs"--dogs that help their handlers with psychiatric or emotional disabilities by performing such tasks as providing calming pressure during anxiety or panic attacks, interrupting self-harming behaviors, reminding handlers to take medication, or checking spaces for intruders. The ADA, however, does specifically cover psychiatric service dogs.

Under the ADA, a service animal is a dog that has been individually trained to perform disability-related tasks or work for the benefit of a person with a disability. (In some cases, a miniature horse may also qualify as a service animal.) In addition to psychiatric service dogs, examples of service animals that must be allowed into public accommodations under the ADA include:

  • hearing dogs that are trained to alert handlers to important sounds such as alarms and doorbells
  • guide dogs that help those who are blind or visually impaired navigate safely
  • seizure alert animals that let their handlers know of impending seizures and/or guard their handlers during seizure activity, and
  • allergen alert animals that let their handlers know of foods or other substances that could be dangerous (such as peanuts).

Neither the ADA nor Virginia's service animal law includes pets or what some people call "emotional support animals": animals that provide a sense of safety, companionship, and comfort to those with psychiatric or emotional disabilities or conditions. Virginia law specifically states that providing companionship, emotional support, well-being, or comfort does not qualify as performing work or tasks for a person with a disability. Although these animals often provide therapeutic benefits, they are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers. Under the ADA and Virginia law, owners of public accommodations are not required to allow emotional support animals, only service animals.

Which Public Accommodations Must Allow Service Animals

Virginia's service animal law applies to all public places like public buildings, facilities, streets, and sidewalks, and it also applies to restaurants, hotels, other lodging places, places of amusement, and any other place to which the general public is invited. In addition, it applies to all common carriers and public modes of transportation, like buses, trains, and subways. (However, the law also includes a provision allowing local governments to create alternative paratransit or special transportation services for those with disabilities.)

Under the ADA, the definition of public accommodations is very broad. It includes place such as:

  • hotels and other lodging establishments
  • public transportation and 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 a museum, auditorium, convention center, theater, or sports stadium
  • recreational facilities, such as zoos and parks
  • educational institutions, and
  • social service centers, like senior centers, homeless shelters, and food banks.

Rules for Your Service Animal

Virginia law requires that service dogs be identified in particular ways:

  • a guide dog must be in harness
  • a hearing dog must be on a blaze orange leash, and
  • a service dog must be in a backpack, harness, or vest that identifies it as a trained service dog.
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.

The ADA and Virginia 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.

Under the ADA, your service animal can be excluded from a public accommodation 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.

Service Animals in Virginia Housing

Both the federal Fair Housing Act and Virginia law prohibit discrimination in rental housing accommodations against those who use service animals. You must be allowed full and equal access to all housing facilities, and your landlord may not charge you 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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