A Place for Mom
Assisted Living
Memory Care
Independent Living
Veteran Resources

Make the best senior care decision

Assisted Living and Service Dogs for Elderly Adults

By Melissa LeeFebruary 15, 2022
Share this article:

Your loved one’s service dog can be as essential to their health and wellness as a glucometer or a rescue inhaler. If someone you’re close to has reached a stage in life where they want or need to live in a senior living community, you may be wondering how this will affect their access to their service dog.

Federal laws and regulations recognize this need and provide specific protections for people with disabilities and their service dogs. Learn about how your loved one’s service dog can accompany them in senior living and what responsibilities your loved one may have as a service dog handler in assisted living.

Types of service dogs for senior citizens

Service animals are defined as, “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title II and Title III, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. These dogs must provide a task that is directly connected to the person’s disability.

It’s important to recognize that service dogs are not pets but are instead working dogs. They have a job, and they function as a medical device meant to help mitigate their handler’s disability.

Service dogs serve in a variety of unique roles to address such disabilities. As indicated by Jacquie Brennan of the ADA National Network, these are some types of service dogs that meet the definition of a service animal under the ADA:

  • Guide dog. This service dog helps people with significant vision loss or blindness navigate their environments.
  • Seizure response dog. For those with a seizure disorder, this service dog may alert its handler to an impending seizure, stand guard over the handler’s body, and seek help for its handler.
  • Hearing or signal dog. This type of service dog assists those with severe hearing loss or deafness by alerting when it hears important noises, such as a doorbell or fire alarm.
  • SSigDOG (sensory signal dog or social signal dog). For those with autism, an SSigDOG alerts its handler when they are making repetitive movements or start stimming. Stimming, a form of self-stimulation in response to overstimulation, may present as unwanted vocalizations or repetitive movement of an object that can interfere with daily living.
  • Psychiatric service dog. This type of service dog is tasked with detecting the onset of psychiatric episodes and supporting its handler through an episode. As a service animal, it may turn on lights, remind handlers to take medication, perform safety checks, and keep handlers safe when they are disoriented.

While these are just a few examples, there are many types of service dogs. The use of dogs to address mental disabilities is gaining in popularity. The Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members for Veterans Therapy Act — known as the PAWS Act — started the first pilot program of using service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This marks the first time the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has paid for service dogs for veterans with PTSD, according to Veterans Authority.

As detailed by 4 Paws for Ability, dogs trained to assist those with Alzheimer’s make their handler aware of present concerns most commonly through daily routines. Service dogs for the elderly with dementia offer walking support, provide stability when a handler loses their balance, and redirect behaviors with snuggles and puppy kisses. These animals also encourage social interaction between their handler and others along with encouraging physical movement for the handler.

How therapy dogs and emotional support dogs differ from service dogs

Therapy dogs and the elderly may seem like a familiar sight in elder care environments. However, therapy dogs in care homesassisted living communities, and similar settings are typically not covered by the ADA. These animals provide a variety of services to many different people, instead of helping an individual with a specific task for an identified disability.

Animals that solely provide emotional support — often referred to as emotional support dogs, or ESDs — do not qualify as service dogs and do not receive protections under the ADA, as per the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2011 ADA Title II guidance.

With information from Lisa Dunn of The Farmer’s Dog Digest, the following chart shows the major differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, and ESDs:

Working Dog QuestionsService DogTherapy DogESD
Who does it help?One individualUsually more than one individualOne individual
Does it help a person with a disability?YesYes and No*Yes
Is it covered by the ADA?YesNoNo
Is it covered by the Fair Housing Act (FHA)?YesNoYes

*For example, a therapy dog may support multiple children with autism — an identified disability — in a public school’s special education classroom, while therapy dogs in nursing homes provide kisses and warm snuggles to any resident, regardless of disability status, who chooses to participate.

Service dogs in senior living

Senior living communities generally fall under both the ADA and the FHA. Almost all senior housing meets the FHA’s definition of a dwelling under the law, according to the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana. It’s important to note that if a senior living community does not fall under the FHA’s definition of a dwelling, it may still fall under the ADA’s protections.

As a federal law, the FHA protects people from disability discrimination when it comes to housing transactions in the United States. The FHA applies to both service dogs and emotional support dogs, as detailed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As with the ADA, the FHA does not cover dogs that are pets.

The FHA requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities when it comes to access and enjoyment of housing. This means that a person with a disability may be able to have a service dog or ESD in a community that has a strict, no-pet policy, or they may be exempt from paying a monthly pet fee. Keep in mind that housing providers under the FHA may legally request documentation of your loved one’s disability and how their service dog or ESD offers disability-related support.

Under rare circumstances when reasonable accommodations cannot be made, a housing provider may be able to reject a service dog or ESD. In some cases, the ADA would apply in situations where a service dog has been rejected under the FHA.

Talk with a Senior Living Advisor

Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.

Handler responsibilities in senior living

Just as the ADA works to ensure that public spaces accommodate service animals, this law also sets expectations of the service dog’s behavior and handler’s responsibilities. Service animals are required to always be under the control of the handler, according to the ADA National Network. This does not mean that your loved one’s service dog must be leashed or harnessed at all times in a senior living community. Some dogs perform tasks that require them to be off leash, or their handler may be physically unable to hold their service dog’s leash or harness. In these cases, voice commands can be used as a form of control.

As the handler, your loved one must be able to care for and supervise their service dog in senior living. It’s important to note that the service dog must be housebroken, vaccinated, and generally well behaved, as stated in the ADA. Behavior such as repeated barking and growling at other residents, running away from its handler, or jumping at staff members could result in a request that the dog be removed from a senior living community. This would be legal under the ADA as the dog would be disrupting the normal business conducted within the community.

Service dogs make a difference for seniors

With an estimated 500,000 service dogs in the U.S. by the Bureau of Global Public Affairs’ calculations, it is clear that service dogs enable many handlers to live more independently and help them navigate daily life. Because of this proven track record for improving quality of life in their owners, federal laws protect service dogs for elderly adults in almost all senior living communities.

If you’re trying to find a community for your loved one and their service dog, connect with a Senior Living Advisor at A Place for Mom today. They can help you find options in your desired area that may be a good fit for your loved one’s unique needs.


4 Paws for Ability. (2022). Alzheimer’s assistance dog.

Americans with disabilities act of 1990, as amended.

Brennan, J. & Nguyen, V. (2014). Service animals and emotional support animals: where are they allowed and under what conditions? ADA National Network.

Canine Partners for Life. (2022). Benefits of service dogs.

Dunn, L. (2021, September 29). The difference between service, therapy, and emotional support dogs. The Farmer’s Dog Digest.

Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana. Independent living and fair housing.

Karetnick, J. (2019, September 24). Service dogs 101 – everything you need to know. The American Kennel Club.

Trainer, Mark. (2016, September 30). Service dogs save lives. ShareAmerica: Bureau of Global Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Assistance animals.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2011, May 26). Fact sheet: highlights of the Final Rule to Amend the Department of Justice’s Regulation Implementing Title II of the ADA.

U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. (2020, February 24). ADA Requirements: Service Animals.

Veterans Authority. (2021, August 26). President Joe Biden signed the PAWS Act that would allow VA to train service dogs.


This article is only meant to provide general information to you regarding the topics within it. It is not meant to substitute as legal advice. It does not establish an attorney-client relationship between you and A Place for Mom.

Melissa Lee

Related Articles