Service Dog Letters - When Do You Need One?

Service Dog Letters: When Do You Need One?

You might have heard that you need a letter from your doctor in order to qualify to have a service dog, but that’s not true, at least not in the U.S.  While there are some situations where a letter is necessary or helpful, simply having a service dog isn’t one of them. If you have a disability, you qualify, whether or not it’s formally documented.

There are three scenarios where you will need documentation:

  • Flying with a psychiatric service dog or emotional support animal (ESA)
  • Requesting an accommodation to allow your SD or ESA in “no pets” housing
  • Requesting a reasonable accommodation to bring your SD to work

Let’s take a look at each one.

Letter for Flying with a Psychiatric Service Dog

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is the U.S. law that covers assistance animals on airplanes. It permits service animals and emotional support animals to travel in the airplane cabin with you. While some people with service dogs, such as a blind person with a guide dog, can simply show up at the gate and board, individuals with psychiatric service dogs and ESAs often must jump through an extra hoop; they must provide proof that they qualify to travel with a service animal.

Airlines don’t have to ask for the proof, but frequently they do, especially for psychiatric service dogs and ESAs. A letter from a medical professional will do the trick, as long as it states the following four things:

  1. The person writing the letter is a mental health professional and that you are under their care.
  2. You have a mental or emotional disability that’s listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)
  3. You need the service animal or ESA as an accommodation during air travel or at your destination
  4. The formal title and signature of the person signing the letter, including date issued, number, and jurisdiction of the letter writer’s license.

The letter doesn’t have to give a specific diagnosis, but it must mention that your disability is listed in the DSM.

Housing Accommodation Letter

If you need to live in “no pets” housing with your service dog or ESA, you’ll most likely be asked to provide proof that you need such an accommodation. This isn’t an ADA thing, it comes from the Fair Housing Act (FHA), or in some settings, Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In either case, you may be required to submit a letter or fill out a form documenting your disability and need for the dog. The letter should include:

  1. The person writing the letter is a mental health professional and that you are under their care.
  2. That you meet the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (if you meet one you likely meet all three).
  3. That your disability causes you functional limitations (list them).
  4. That the dog is necessary in order to mitigate your disability.

Requesting an accommodation and submitting a letter like this needs to be done before you move in, not after.

Work Accommodation Letter

The third situation that commonly requires a letter is bringing your service dog to work. Title I of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers employment, and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) makes and enforces the relevant regulations.

An employer isn’t legally required to permit your service dog at work, however, they are required to consider it unless doing so would result in undue hardship to the employer. If you need your service dog at work, you must ask for it. A letter is a good starting point, although your employer can ask for additional documentation. The letter should include:

  1. That you are writing to ask for a reasonable accommodation under the American’s with Disabilities Act (or Rehabilitation Act of 19783 if you are a federal employee).
  2. That you have a disability that impedes your ability to perform certain job functions (list them).
  3. That you are requesting that your service dog be allowed to accompany you at work because the dog enables you to perform job functions and is necessary for your well-being.

It’s a good idea to attach a letter from a medical professional that includes verification of your disability and functional limitations and your need for a service dog.

Conclusion

These are the three main scenarios where you will likely (and can legally be) asked for a letter providing documentation of your disability and need for a service dog. While it might feel like an invasion of privacy to have to share personal information like this, in some situations it’s unavoidable. Often you can get by in letters without mentioning a specific diagnosis but listing the related limitations you have instead.

In all such letters, be polite, succinct, and accurate, and you’ll drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll achieve your goal of flying, living, or working with your service dog at your side.

Service Dog Society
The Service Dog Society is dedicated to the education, training and support of service dog handlers, their friends and family, service dog trainers and programs, puppy raisers, businesses, the general public, and anybody else who has questions about these marvelous helpers.Our goal is to provide as much information as possible, in a centralized location and in an easy-to-follow format. We know first hand how overwhelming the process of getting and/or training a service dog can be, for everyone involved! Our hope is to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty that is a part of the process.