Virginia Laws on Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

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

By , J.D., UC Berkeley School of Law

Both Virginia's disability rights law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect the right of people with disabilities to bring service animals to public places like the following:

  • stores and other businesses
  • motels
  • restaurants, and
  • theaters.

Public places "accommodations" in Virginia must comply with both state and federal laws regarding service animals. Read on to learn:

  • which animals qualify as service animals in Virginia
  • which public accommodations must allow them, and
  • the rules you'll need to follow when you have your service animal in public.

Virginia Law and the ADA Define Service Animal Differently

What kind of animal counts as a service animal in Virginia varies somewhat depending on whether you're applying state law or federal laws.

How Virginia's Disability Rights Law Defines Service Animals

Virginia's disability rights law requires public places to allow guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs. The law defines these services animals as follows:

  • A guide dog assists someone who's completely or partially blind with navigation and other tasks.
  • A hearing dog is trained to use touch to alert someone with a hearing impairment to sounds the person should respond to, including sounds that indicate danger.
  • A service dog is trained to do work or tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. The work performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability. The definition lists examples of the type of work a service dog might do, which includes:
    • pulling a wheelchair
    • retrieving items
    • alerting the handler to allergens
    • assisting the handler during a seizure, and
    • interrupting impulsive or destructive behavior.

How the ADA Defines Service Animals

Under the ADA, a service animal is a dog that's individually trained to perform disability-related tasks or work for the benefit of a person with a disability. A miniature horse can also qualify as a service animal in some cases under this law. (Virginia's definition of service animals doesn't include miniature horses, only 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
  • allergen alert animals that let their handlers know of the presence of foods or other substances that could be dangerous (such as peanuts), and
  • psychiatric service dogs.

What Are Psychiatric Service Dogs?

Psychiatric service dogs are dogs that help someone with a psychiatric or emotional disability. These service dogs perform tasks like:

  • interrupting self-harming behaviors
  • reminding handlers to take medication
  • providing calming pressure during an anxiety or panic attack, or
  • checking spaces for intruders.

Psychiatric service dogs are covered by the ADA. Virginia doesn't specifically mention psychiatric service dogs in its laws, but the state's definition of a service dog includes dogs that "interrupt impulsive or destructive behavior," which is a task a psychiatric service dog might do for a person with PTSD or severe depression. It's likely that Virginia law also covers service animals that can do specific tasks for people with psychiatric disabilities such as reminding them to take their medication.

Does the Law Protect Emotional Support Animals In Virginia?

What some call "emotional support animals" (ESAs) are animals that provide companionship, comfort, and a sense of safety to those with psychiatric or emotional disabilities or conditions. And although they're protected under the laws of some states, neither the ADA nor Virginia's service animal law protects your right to have your ESA in a public accommodation.

In fact, Virginia's disability law specifically excludes emotional support animals from its definition of a service dog. The law states that providing companionship, emotional support, well-being, or comfort doesn't qualify as performing work or tasks for a person with a disability.

Although ESAs often provide therapeutic benefits, they aren't individually trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers and so don't qualify as service animals under the ADA either. Since state and federal laws don't recognize them as service animals, owners of public accommodations in Virginia aren't required to admit emotional support animals.

Which Public Accommodations In Virginia Must Admit Your Service Animal?

Virginia's service animal law applies to all public places like:

  • public buildings and facilities
  • streets and sidewalks
  • businesses, 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. But the law does include a provision that allows local governments to create alternative paratransit or special transportation services for those with disabilities.

Under the ADA, the definition of public accommodations is extensive. It includes places like:

  • hotels and other lodging establishments
  • public transportation and terminals, depots, and stations
  • restaurants and other places that serve food and drink
  • sales, rental, or service establishments
  • any place the public gathers, such as:
    • museums
    • auditoriums
    • convention centers
    • theaters, or
    • sports stadium
  • recreational facilities, like zoos and golf courses
  • schools, daycares, and other educational institutions, and
  • social service centers, like senior centers and homeless shelters.

There's no state or federal law that requires any public accommodation in Virginia to allow you to have an emotional support animal or pet.

What You Need to Know About Having a Service Animal in Public

Although Virginia bars local governments from imposing a licensing fee for your service dog, the state law does require that service dogs be identified in particular ways:

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

Under the ADA, when you take your service animal to a public accommodation, you can't be questioned about your disability. And accommodation owners, managers, and personnel can't demand to see certification, identification, or other proof of your animal's training or status. If what your service animal does isn't apparent, you can only be asked whether it's a service animal and what tasks it performs for you.

Both 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. But these laws do allow public accommodations to demand payment for any damage your animal causes.

The ADA does allow a public accommodation to exclude your service animal in the following circumstances:

  • if the animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others (for example, a dog that's aggressively barking and snapping at other customers)
  • if your service animal isn't housebroken, or
  • if it's out of control and you're unable or unwilling to control it effectively.

In these situations, you can be asked to remove the animal from the premises.

How State and Federal Housing Laws Treat Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals in Virginia

Both the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Virginia law prohibit discrimination in rental housing accommodations against those who use service animals. Under both state and federal laws, you must be allowed full and equal access to all housing facilities.

What this means is that a "no pets" provision in a lease or rental agreement doesn't apply to your service animal. And your landlord isn't allowed to charge you extra for having a service animal—although you can be required to pay for damage your animal causes.

The FHA offers even more protection, requiring housing facilities to allow both service dogs and emotional support animals if the animal is necessary for someone with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the home. To be protected by this provision, you must have both:

  • a disability, and
  • a disability-related need for the animal.

In other words, your animal must perform tasks or services or alleviate the emotional effects of your disability to qualify for protection under federal housing laws.

Learn more about your rights as a disabled renter.

Updated April 10, 2023

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