Appeal Court Rules that “Certification” of a Service Dog Is Not Required by Law

People can self-teach service dogs
By Claudia Kawczynska, March 2021, Updated June 2021

Hestia, a Japanese Chin, a working service dog.

In a huge win for people with mental or physical disabilities, on March 30, 2021, a federal appeals court ruled that persons with disabilities can train their own service dogs and do not require formal certification to attest to their service dog’s status. The ruling upheld the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Allowing people to self-certify their pets after training the dogs themselves (subject to reasonable limits) promotes what the court agreed are the goals of the 1990 federal law banning discrimination against the disabled. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco held that it was the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act to “promote independent living and economic self-sufficiency,” Judge Ronald Gould said in the unanimous three-judge ruling, which overturned a September 2019 U.S. District Court judgment that service dogs must be formally “certified.” 

This ruling is the first appellate court decision in the country to address training and certification requirements for service dogs.

The court went on to say that service dog registries lacked a uniform standard for certifying service animals, and that requiring such certification made it more expensive and less accessible for those with disabilities to have a service dog. “A dog can be trained to aid a person with a disability without formal schooling,” Gould said in the ruling.


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The precedent-setting lawsuit, C.L. v. Del Amo Hospital, Inc., was filed in March 2018 in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California. In it, the plaintiff alleged that Del Amo Hospital of Torrance, Calif., improperly prevented her from keeping her service dog—Aspen, a 16-lb. Bichon/Poodle—with her during inpatient treatment. C.L. alleged that the defendant, Del Amo Hospital, failed to adhere to federal and state laws that mandate service dogs be permitted to accompany their handlers to all places where the public may go, including hospitals.

The plaintiff, a trained speech-language pathologist, suffers from Complex PTSD and severe anxiety, and a therapist recommended a service dog. In 2013, after learning that a dog trained to supply this assistance could cost up to $15,000, C.L. obtained a pup herself, took training classes and taught the dog to protect her. She told the court that Aspen licks her face to wake her from nightmares, alerts her when others approach her, and stands in front of walls to prevent her from banging her head against them. But when she sought admission to Del Amo’s National Treatment Center Program and brought Aspen with her, the center said that the dog did not qualify as a service dog because the dog wasn’t “formally certified.” In 2018, a federal judge agreed. 

Christopher Knauf, director of litigation for the Disability Rights Legal Center who represented the plaintiff in this case, said that this ruling will aid people with disabilities. “People have the right to train their own service dogs. They have to train them properly, but they can do it themselves,” he said, adding, “That this decision can help tens of thousands of people living in fear and isolation benefit from a trained service dog is immensely gratifying.” (Businesses can still refuse to allow a dog who is not housebroken or not controlled by the owner.)

“Today’s decision is an important and welcome development for people who use service animals to help with a psychiatric disability. Too often, misconceptions about the legitimate use of psychiatric service animals have needlessly restricted people’s lives and prevented them from using what is often the most effective intervention for a mental health disability,” says Jennifer Mathis, deputy legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in Washington D.C., a co-counsel in the case. 

The appeals court returned the case to the trial district judge to reconsider whether Aspen can now accompany C.L. to the hospital. We’ll see what happens next and how this might affect other decisions involving the ADA and service dogs.


Photograph courtesy of Veronica Morris, PhD.