George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Man’s Best Friend: A Quick Guide to Service Dogs for Veterans and Servicemembers with PTSD

Written By Spring 2021 M-VETS Student Advisor Samantha E. Lewis.


Hound, puppy, pooch, doggie, man’s best friend… dogs sure do carry many names. Other than being cute and fluffy companions, dogs can potentially serve many other important purposes, and the research on what they can do for those with mental health conditions is ever evolving. There are cadaver dogs, drug sniffing dogs, therapy dogs, bomb sniffing dogs, and, of course, service dogs. Service dogs can be trained to perform a wide variety of tasks, from assisting a blind person in navigating a street to sniffing out and alerting to an irregular heartbeat. Service Dogs for Servicemembers and those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) can be a life changing and lifesaving resource. Despite the many benefits of a PTSD service dog, many Veterans who would benefit the most are unfortunately left confused by the obstacles created by competing regulations, as well as misconceptions about who needs a service dog and even the purposes they serve. This quick guide blog post will do a general overview of United States federal and Virginia state regulations, as well as explore resources for assistance in financing and obtaining a service dog.

Understanding the Difference Between a Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal

            Although this quick guide will focus specifically on service animals, it is important to first clarify the difference in types of working animals, as part of the reason some Veterans may be hesitant to get a service dog could be the common misconceptions concerning the differences between a legally sanctioned, working service dog and something such as an emotional support animal. According to the American Kennel Club (“AKC”) “[s]ervice dogs, working dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals all fulfill important roles in their aid to humans, but the terms are not interchangeable. Each recognition is specifically defined, both in terms of the jobs undertaken and the legal rights offered.”[1]

Keeping in mind that it is important to pay close attention to state and federal laws when it comes to service dogs and other animals, the differences can generally be summarized by the below chart:

Service Animal Emotional Support Animal Therapy Animal
Definition Trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities Provide emotional well-being support for people with disabilities Trained to provide comfort to individuals in specific environments
Applicable Federal Law ADA ACAA and FHA Only state and local laws apply
Type of Animal Dog or miniature horse Any animal (with some exclusions) Any animal
Certified or Registered? Yes Yes Yes
Must Have Documentation Identifying the Disability? Yes Yes No
Live in No-Pet Housing? Yes Yes No
Travel in the Cabin of an Airplane/Train/etc.? Yes Yes No
Be in Public Places? Yes Yes No
Must be Identified by Leash or Vest? Yes Not Always Required No

Service Animal? Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? Therapy Animal?

What is the Law?

            This is where it gets tricky. Both the United States federal government and the Virginia state government have certain regulations surrounding the use of service dogs, and those looking to obtain a service dog need to ensure they are complying with both.

Federal Law

            The use of service dogs by people with disabilities is regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”).[2] The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.[3] The ADA requires state and local government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations that provide goods or services to the public to make “reasonable modifications in their policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to accommodate people with disabilities.[4] The service animal rules fall under this general principle. Accordingly, entities that have a “no pets” policy generally must modify the policy to allow service animals into their facilities.”[5] According to the ADA, the term “disability” “means with respect to an individual…a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual…”[6] Furthermore, “major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”[7]

In reference to use of service dogs, Titles II and III of the ADA are most relevant. Title II of the ADA prohibits disability discrimination by all public entities at the local level. For example, Title II covers places such as the school district, municipal, city, or county, and at state level, and covers access to all programs and services offered by such entities.[8] Title II of the ADA also applies to public transportation provided by public entities through regulations by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and to all state and local public housing, housing assistance, and housing referrals.[9]

Title III of the ADA applies to private businesses and makes it such that no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to “the full and equal enjoyment” of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases, or operates a place of public accommodation.[10] Public accommodations include most places of lodging (such as hotels), recreation, transportation, education, and dining, along with stores, care providers, and places of public displays.[11]

According to the ADA, a “service animal” is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, and the tasks the dog is trained to do must be directly related to the person’s disability.[12] It is important to note that the ADA differentiates between service dogs and emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals, and explains that “[i]f the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”[13] Finally, although the ADA does not require that a service dog be professionally trained in order to qualify as a service animal, it is important to note that the dog must already be trained before it can be taken into public places.[14]

Virginia Law

In addition to the ADA, most, if not all, states have additional laws aimed at protecting those with disabilities. In Virginia the use of service dogs falls under the Disability Rights Law codified at Va. Code §§ 51.5-40 through 51.5-46; the Disability Rights Law is quite similar to the ADA, as many of the same regulations apply. According to the Disability Rights Law, just as with the ADA, people with disabilities may bring their service animals to all “public accommodations,” including stores, businesses, motels, restaurants, theaters, schools, and more, and public accommodations in Virginia must comply with both state and federal law.[15]

Under the Disability Rights Law, public places have to give access to guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs.[16] It defines “service dog” as “a dog trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a mobility-impaired or otherwise disabled person.”[17] Like the ADA, the Disability Rights Law states that “[t]he work or tasks performed by a service dog shall be directly related to the individual’s disability or disorder,”[18] and further states that “[e]xamples of work or tasks include providing nonviolent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting an individual to the presence of allergens, retrieving items, carrying items, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability, and preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.”[19] Virginia code also makes it a Class 4 misdemeanor to fraudulently hold out a dog as a service dog when such dog is not, in fact, a trained service dog.[20]

How Can a Service Dog Help My PTSD?

Military personnel who are exposed to combat violence are strongly at risk for developing PTSD, and, today, it is estimated that approximately 23% of Veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are impacted by PTSD.[21] The main treatments for Veterans with PTSD are counseling (i.e. “talk” therapy), medications, or both.[22] Although there are a number of treatment options for PTSD, unfortunately PTSD in Veterans is particularly difficult to treat. “Additionally, few treatments incorporate the family members and/or spouses, who often suffer from their own psychological distress, secondary trauma, and caregiver burden.”[23] In addition to increased treatment dropout rates and other obstacles, Veterans can face unique barriers to accessing and obtaining adequate treatment.[24] These barriers can include the fact that they have to have either an honorable or general discharge to access Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) medical benefits, long waiting lists at VA medical centers, and the social stigma associated with mental illness within the military community.[25]

Although it may not be the magic “cure” to PTSD, a service dog may provide that extra support a Veteran needs to help, at the very least, manage their PTSD symptoms every day. A PTSD service dog is classified as a “psychiatric service dog,” and is specially and specifically trained to give their Veteran a greater sense of confidence, safety, and independence on a day-to-day basis.[26] What a PTSD service dog does and how it will help a Veteran is deeply personal, varying from person to person. For example, “a PTSD service dog may be trained to assist the veteran by “watching” their back in public, serving as a physical barrier between the veteran and approaching strangers, waking them up from nightmares, and serving as a physical brace for balance.”[27] In addition, research suggests that the most vital function of a PTSD service dog is interrupting anxiety episodes.[28] PTSD service dogs can be specifically trained to detect a Veteran’s physical signs of anxiety and distress, and are able to alert to and actually interrupt anxiety and panic attacks during the day as well as nightmares at night.[29]

How Do I Get a PTSD Service Dog? How Much Does it Cost? And Is There Anyone That Can Help Me?      

            PTSD service dogs can serve as amazing tools for Veterans in helping to manage symptoms of PTSD. Unfortunately, getting a PTSD service dog is not always a cheap endeavor as service dogs require extensive training. “That training, in addition to veterinary care, staff and dog trainers, registration and more, runs the average cost of a service dog between $20,000 and $60,000.”[30] This cost alone can, and will, deter a Veteran from getting a PTSD service dog regardless of the clear benefits.

The VA currently provides training for service dogs for certain kinds of conditions, and is an excellent way to support veterans with many kinds of conditions. “From diabetes and mobility issues to object retrieval, VA service dog training provides a reliable and proven way to support people without ever hiring a nurse.”[31] Unfortunately, and although perhaps it should be, VA Service Dog training is not currently available for people dealing with other issues, like PTSD.[32]

Thankfully, with increased awareness of the prevalence of PTSD in Veterans has come an increase in the number of organizations that offer help. Although the VA will not pay for a dog or training for their patients suffering from mental disorders, there are a number of organizations that are willing to help Veterans by partially or completely covering the cost of a service animal.

Just some of these organizations include:

    • K9s for Warriors: K9s for Warriors is the nation’s largest provider of Service Dogs for disabled American Veterans. On their website, they say their “program is unique, comprehensive, and proven thanks to research by Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. We provide each warrior with a service canine, equipment, training, certification, seminars, legal instruction, vet care, housing, home cooked meals, unconditional love and listening, and a life-time of wrap-around services. In essence, we don’t just give each of our warriors a service dog, we give them the K9s Family.”
    • America’s VetDogs: Established in 2003, America’s VetDogs says that their mission is to “[t]o help those who have served our country honorably live with dignity and independence. The service dog programs of America’s VetDogs were created to provide enhanced mobility and renewed independence to United States veterans, active-duty service members, and first responders with disabilities, allowing them to once again live with pride and self-reliance. Not only does a service dog provide support with daily activities, it provides the motivation to tackle every day challenges.”
    • Patriot Paws: According to their website, “[t]he mission of Patriot PAWS is to train and provide service dogs of the highest quality at no cost to disabled American veterans and others with mobile disabilities in order to help restore their physical and emotional independence.”
    • Companions for Heroes: According to their website, their vision is “[t]o help every American Hero and save every shelter or rescue animal from euthanasia,” and their mission is “[t]o champion public awareness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and challenges confronting our country’s heroes and rally support for shelter animal adoption by connecting heroes and companions.”            In addition to working with a specialized organization to obtain a PTSD service dog, it may be worthwhile to speak with a Disabilities Attorney to help you navigate the federal and state laws surrounding service animals.
  • Conclusion

            A PTSD service dog can be a lifesaving tool for those Veterans suffering from PTSD. Unfortunately, Veterans may face many challenges when trying to get a service dog. PTSD service dogs can be costly, and the laws surrounding the use of service dogs are tricky and sometimes unclear. Add in the common misconceptions in the differences between legally sanctioned service dogs and other types of emotional support dogs, and it is easy to get overwhelmed. Thankfully, with increased awareness of the prevalence of PTSD in Veterans, especially in the time following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has come an increase in the number of organizations that offer help and a renewed discussion of how pivotal PTSD service dogs can be. It is of the utmost importance to keep these discussions going and awareness increasing so that even more Veterans can find a service dog.




This blog post is not intended to provide specific legal advice, but instead as general commentary regarding legal matters. You should consult with an attorney regarding your legal issues, as the advice you may receive will depend upon your facts and the laws of your jurisdiction.


[1] Service Dogs, Working Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs: What’s the Difference?,

[2] See generally 42 U.S.C § 12101 et seq.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA,

[6] 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A).

[7] 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A).

[8] 42 U.S.C. § 12131(1).

[9] 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131 and 12161.

[10] 42 U.S.C § 12182.

[11] 42 U.S.C. § 12182.

[12] U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA,

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Va. Code § 55.1-44.

[16] Va. Code § 51.5-40.1.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Va. Code § 51.5-44.1.

[21] Service Dogs & PTSD,

[22] PTSD Treatment Options,

[23] Service Dogs & PTSD,

[24] Miriam Reisman, PTSD Treatment for Veterans: What’s Working, What’s New, and What’s Next,

[25] Id.

[26] Service Dogs & PTSD,

[27] Id.

[28] Disrupting Anxiety: The Most Vital Task For PTSD Service Dogs,,veterans%20with%20PTSD%2C%20research%20finds.

[29] Defining the PTSD Service Dog Intervention: Perceived Importance, Usage, and Symptom Specificity of Psychiatric Service Dogs for Military Veterans,,interrupt%20nightmares%20during%20the%20night.

[30] Life-changing companions: How to afford a service dog,,dog%20between%20%2420%2C000%20and%20%2460%2C000.

[31] Top 11 Organizations That Help With VA Service Dog Training for Veterans,

[32] Id.