Dogs (and rarely, miniature horses) are the only animals recognized federally as service animals. Service dogs must perform disability-specific tasks for people who have medical, physical, psychiatric or mental disabilities.
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The Department of Justice defines service animals as dogs that are trained to perform identifiable tasks specific to an individual’s unique physical, sensory, psychiatric or mental disabilities. Dogs can be trained by the person with the disability, professionals, and friends or family members possessing a clue or some knowledge about dogs. Although service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), similar protections do not apply to psychiatric service or emotional support dogs no matter how soothing, helpful, necessary or lifesaving they are. San Francisco – the city where rules often differ from everywhere else – has not adopted the revised national guidelines, and all species of service and support animals are to be recognized.
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Although service animal identification tags or vests are not mandatory in California, if you use a service dog, you are encouraged to obtain an identification tag verifying that your dog meets certain explicit requirements. Once you fulfill all state and federal regulations, you and your service animal will be protected under state law. Anyone applying for an official identification tag must sign a declaration acknowledging that misrepresenting herself as the owner of a trained service animal is a crime.
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A California resident seeking training, certification, registration and licensing information for a service dog that is not a guide dog for the blind should contact the SPCA in Sacramento or the county animal enforcement department. These agencies approve and register trained service dogs, issue identification tags, and keep paperwork on file and available for public inspection.
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California is one of the states in which a dog that is trained to perform tasks that benefit a person with psychiatric disabilities is considered a “psychiatric service animal.” The work performed by the service animal must be identifiable and related directly to an individual's diagnosed psychiatric disability. The dog’s trainer or handler is required to teach that animal to recognize and respond to the unique needs of the person with the disability.
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People using assistance dogs in California must have their dog on a leash or harness and should have an official identification tag. The state does not limit the dog’s size or breed, but the handler is liable for any damage done by the service animal. No specific legal requirements exist as to how much or what type of work a service dog must provide to benefit the disabled person. However, a dog is just a friend and not a service animal if its mere presence is the only benefit to the individual with a disability.
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Individuals with disabilities may be accompanied by their service animals in any place of public accommodation where people are allowed to go. California’s law has a broader definition of public accommodations, and the state requires “reasonable modifications to be carried out at any place “to which the general public is invited.” Service dogs are allowed legally on all types of public transportation, including buses, planes and trains. You may be asked whether the animal is a service animal, and what it is trained to do.