Service Animals

Transportation providers must allow service animals to accompany individuals with disabilities in vehicles and facilities [49 CFR Part 37, Section 37.167(d)].  This section of the ADA Toolkit is organized in the following subsections:

Definition of a Service Animal

U.S. DOT Definition

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items.” This is the definition with which the drivers of public transit service must comply, and it can be found in Section 37.3 of 49 CFR Part 37- Transportation Services for Individuals with Disabilities (ADA).

As stated in Appendix D to 49 CFR Part 37, one of the most common misunderstandings about service animals is that they are limited to being guide dogs for persons with visual impairments. Dogs are trained to assist people with a wide variety of disabilities, including individuals with hearing and mobility impairments. Other animals are sometimes used as service animals as well, such as miniature horses, monkeys, birds, and potbellied pigs.  Note that some persons with hidden disabilities use service animals, such as those that are trained to alert individuals with seizure disorders to an oncoming seizure or respond to a seizure.

The U.S. DOT definition in Section 37.3 does not include emotional support or “comfort” animals which have not been trained to perform a task for an individual with a disability.  A comfort animal provides comfort or emotional support just by being with the individual.  As noted in Section 2.6 of the FTA ADA Circular, simply providing comfort is something that an animal does passively.  However, a psychiatric support animal that is trained to perform a task for the individual (such as sensing an impending anxiety attack and taking an action to avoid or reduce the attack) would be considered a service animal under the U.S. DOT definition.

Other Federal Definitions

There can be misunderstandings due to different definitions of service animal that apply in other contexts. For example, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) amended its definition of a service animal to include only dogs and miniature horses.  While this definition generally applies in places of public accommodation, it does not apply in public transportation facilities or vehicles, which are subject to the U.S. DOT definition.

Another definition that applies to a different mode of transportation is that of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).  Under the ACAA, the definition of service animal does include animals that provide emotional support (comfort animals), but again, this is not the case for public transit agencies.

Also note that, even if a state legislature enacts a more restrictive definition of service animal, public transit agencies must continue to follow the U.S. DOT definition.


Determining Whether or Not an Animal is a Service Animal

As stated in Section 2.6 of the FTA ADA Circular, transit agency personnel may ask riders two questions about the service animal: (1) is the animal a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the animal been trained to perform?  However, transit agencies cannot require special ID cards or other documentation that the animal is a service animal, or ask about the person’s disability. A case study provided later in this section of the toolkit shares an approach developed by Lane Transit District to reduce potential confusion and conflicts in determining a service animal’s status.


Other Considerations about Accommodating Service Animals

Transit agencies are not required to transport service animals that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of drivers or other riders, are seriously disruptive, or are otherwise not under the rider’s control.  The FTA Circular mentions biting as an example of a behavior that constitutes direct threat.  A transit agency may also wish to prohibit aggressive behavior toward people or other animals.  Repeated barking could be an example of not being under the rider’s control.  However, the FTA Circular notes that a dog that barks occasionally would likely not be considered out of the rider’s control. 

Control over the animal can be verbal and does not necessarily involve a leash or harness. In some cases, a service animal may be trained to provide assistance without a leash or harness.

Drivers are not required to take the leash or harness of a service animal.  As a customer service, a driver could choose to provide this assistance when requested (for example, by a rider using a wheelchair who also uses a service animal), but FTA has stated that such a request may be denied because caring for a service animal is the responsibility of the passenger or a personal care attendant (PCA) (Example 15 in Appendix E to 49 CFR Part 37 as well as the FTA ADA Circular). 

More than one service animal may accompany a rider on a single trip. Different service animals may provide different services to a rider during trips or at the rider’s destination. 

Transit agencies cannot deny service to a person accompanied by a service animal on the basis of another individual’s allergies.

Note that the U.S. DOT ADA regulations do not prohibit a transit agency from establishing a local policy to accommodate comfort animals (defined earlier in this section) or even pets.

For additional discussion and guidance on these and other considerations, see Section 2.6 of the FTA ADA Circular.


Lane Transit District’s “Paw Print Endorsement” Approach

To minimize potential confusion about the status of an animal during boarding, Lane Transit District (LTD) in Oregon developed an approach that allows riders to answer questions about their service animal with an LTD staff member and receive a “paw print endorsement” on their rider card.  LTD issues rider cards that can indicate a variety of different statuses, such as fixed route riders who qualify for half fare on the basis of disability. To qualify for the paw print endorsement, the rider responds to staff inquiries about the status of their service animal.  Once a rider has this endorsement, the rider can display the card to the driver and board without needing to answer questions about their service animal at the time of boarding.

LTD does not require the paw print endorsement for service animals—it is voluntary (see note following the case study). Importantly, riders without an endorsement can still board with a service animal if they appropriately answer the two questions asked by the driver—no one is to be denied service because they lack the paw print endorsement, but this means having to answer these questions each time they board: (1) is the animal a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the animal been trained to perform? 

An important element of the paw print endorsement process is that riders are educated on the behavioral standard that LTD holds to animals on the transit system as part of obtaining the endorsement.  Behaviors that fall into the category of seriously disruptive, represent a direct threat to the health or safety of drivers or other riders, or are otherwise not under the rider’s control are not allowed, whether or not the rider card has the endorsement.

The paw print endorsement approach was piloted by LTD in 2018, and participants reported that boarding the bus with a paw print on the rider card was faster and resulted in fewer conflicts.  More information about LTD’s Service Animal Policy is on the LTD website and in an archived webinar hosted in September 2019 by the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA).

Note:  One potential drawback to this approach is that, without periodic reminders or refresher training, drivers accustomed to the paw print endorsement may presume that it is a requirement to accommodating a service animal.  Transit agencies considering following this example must ensure drivers do not require the endorsement.  Again, transit agencies cannot require special ID cards or other documentation that the animal is a service animal.


Additional Resources on Service Animals

The National Aging and Disability Resource Center (NADTC) has many resources available that provide information about service animals and interacting with passengers who travel with service animals.   Note that these resources have not been approved or endorsed by FTA.  They are listed here as technical assistance resources.

Resources specifically about service animals include:

Other resources address service animals as one of many topics.  For a complete list of relevant NADTC resources, please see this Resource Library results list.  Again, these resources have not been approved or endorsed by FTA.


Section Sources

Updated June 2, 2020