Regarding what constitutes a Service Dog and what rights it has, confusion abounds. There are many vocations for animals, and only some of them involve helping people with disabilities. Let’s just stick to those, for now.
It’s important to understand that the only legally agreed-upon titles are Service Animal, Psychiatric Service Animal, and Emotional Support Animal. I’m only going to talk about those in this article, but I promise another one breaking down all the different types of each will follow.
Please note that these explanations are not reflective of my opinions of how things should be broken down, but I know that change can’t be made until we really understand what the current situation is. So don’t get mad at me for the rules, please.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “Service Animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” There are some key phrases here, and they help us distinguish between real and false Service Animals.
The first is individually trained. These dogs aren’t mass produced, nor are they left to their own devices to figure their jobs out.
The second is for people with disabilities. An individually trained dog, no matter how well trained, is only working when it’s paired with a person who is disabled.
Any type of Service Animal has full public access under the ADA; that is, they are allowed to go anywhere that the public is, and can only be excluded on the basis of bad behavior and poor handling. This includes restaurants, stores, medical facilities, public transit, workplaces, city, county, state, and national parks and facilities, and more. In the case of doubt, business owners can ask if the dog is a Service Dog and what tasks it performs for the individual.
Under The Fair Housing Act, Service Animals are considered a reasonable accommodation and are allowed in most living spaces that prohibit pets or have restrictions, and all pet deposits and pet rent must be waived. Handlers may be charged fees for damage caused by the animal, just like any other damage to the living space.
The Air Carriers Act is very specific that Service Animals must be accommodated in the cabin without any documentation from a medical provider. Advance notice is not required unless an individual leg of the flight is longer than eight hours; in all cases, flight staff must take “verbal credible assurance of a person with a qualifying disability” as proof that the dog is a legitimate Service Dog, and the person can’t be asked to disclose information about his or her disability.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional Support Animals are exactly what they sound like — they provide emotional comfort and support to their owners. There is no minimum training requirement, and though some provisions are made in The Fair Housing Act and The Air Carriers Act, they do not have the same public access rights as Service Animals; rather, there is no coverage for them at all under the ADA, so they are not allowed in public places without an invitation from the administration of the establishment.
Under The Fair Housing Act, a person who uses an Emotional Support Animal can be required to provide medical documentation stating that the animal is necessary for his or her emotional health and that he or she has a mental illness that’s acknowledged in the DSM-IV. When documentation is provided, policies prohibiting pets or requiring fees associated with animals are waived.
The Air Carriers Act states that airlines can require people traveling with Emotional Support Animals to give up to 48 hours’ advance notice of travel. They can also as for a doctor’s note stating that the passenger requires the animal for travel or at the destination.
One of the main differences between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals is that Emotional Support Animals can be almost any species, and the airline staff or property owners can use discretion on the basis of safety when deciding whether to accommodate them, whereas Service Animals are usually dogs, and only in rare cases miniature horses, and they cannot be denied access on the basis of breed.
Psychiatric Service Animals
Psychiatric Service Animals, like Service Animals, are trained to mitigate the effects of a disability, but specifically a psychiatric disability, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They can be trained to interrupt repetitive or harmful behavior, alert that it’s time for medications, and lots more.
I’m including them in this article because there’s some gray area; while they implicitly qualify under the ADA as Service Animals, they’re not specifically named. A psychiatric disability is as much a disability as a physical one, the ADA acknowledges that. The Air Carriers Act, however, differentiates them from Service Animals, puts them in the same category as Emotional Support Animals, and requires documentation and advance notice for them. Because the laws don’t interact with each other, there’s all kinds of room for confusion like this.
It’s easy to see why this is such a confusing subject, isn’t it? And I haven’t even started to break down all the different kinds of Service and Emotional Support Animals. This is kind of the way it goes, though, when it comes to laws that protect the access of people with disabilities – different industries and types of establishments are covered by different federal laws, so it’s easy to get things mixed up, and it’s no wonder law enforcement doesn’t often know what to do in the face of a problem. Another time, I’ll also go over the ways that state laws can vary, but you can basically always count on the federal laws to be the minimum operating standard.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you find an error in my information or if you have questions. Otherwise, I hope you find this useful, and that you’ll share it, especially with friends and families who have Service Animals or run businesses that cater to the public.
*I’m not claiming to offer legal advice here; only a general guide. If you have a legal issue or need legal guidance, you should get in touch with a lawyer who specializes in Disability Law.