Service dogs are not pets. They are a legally recognized tool specifically trained to help their owner overcome a disability.

And they are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows them to accompany their owner in any place of public accommodation, including any business.

“A lot of times, business owners or housing providers are not necessarily aware of the requirements relating to service animals,” said Sean Ociepka, a staff attorney with the Disability Rights Center in Augusta. “A lot of people just aren’t educated about what the law says and how it protects people with disabilities who need service animals.”

Service animals don’t have to be registered to be afforded the protection, he said, though dogs are often outfitted in a blue service dog vest to avoid confrontation and misunderstanding.

The Department of Justice recently excluded therapy animals from its definition of service animals that are guaranteed protection under the ADA, though Maine law still includes them as does rules under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. A therapy animal is one that has been determined necessary by a health care practitioner to mitigate the affects of a health condition or disability, Ociepka said.

By contrast, a service dog has been individually trained to perform a task for a person with a disability.

“Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses and organizations that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice: ” This federal law applies to all businesses open to the public, including restaurants, hotels, taxis and shuttles, grocery and department stores, hospitals and medical offices, theaters, health clubs, parks, and zoos.”

Pat Ryan, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, says complaints involving service animals or therapy animals are the second largest category of complaint when it comes to housing discrimination claims. The most common housing complaint involves significant modifications to an apartment or other types of accommodation for a disability.

There is no central database of service dogs, so it’s unclear how many exist nationally or in Maine. A spokeswoman for the Maine Animal Welfare Program said it receives paperwork from individual towns that indicate whether the license fee was waived because an animal is a service dog, but the program does not maintain that record electronically or keep a tally.

Portland, the state’s largest city and main hub for social services, has 26 service dogs licensed.

For information about the Maine Human Rights Commission guidelines, go to:

http://www.state.me.us/mhrc/guidance/serviceanimals.html.

Information about federal law can be found at: http://www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm.