Therapy animals are everywhere these days—literally! Flexible federal laws governing who and what constitutes a service animal means that Americans have added their own interpretations, sometimes in the way the law intended and other times in ways that leave people scratching their heads wondering what exactly the rules are. Here’s the breakdown of what you need to know when it comes to service animal laws.
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Are service dogs allowed everywhere?
Technically yes, if the animal is actually a “service dog.” Under federal laws, there is an important distinction between service animals and emotional support animals. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals (not just dogs) are allowed in all public spaces.
In this context, a service animal is an animal that has specifically been trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, whether it be physical and mental. As long as the animal is leashed (unless a leash would interfere with its tasks), under control, and house broken, the ADA requires businesses and other public places to allow the service animal, even if other laws wouldn’t usually permit it, such as in restaurants.
Emotional Support Animals
In contrast, federal laws do not require that emotional support animals be allowed everywhere. While there are a handful of federal laws that mention emotional support dogs, the two most often discussed are the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. The definition of an emotional support animal is more broad than a service animal. These animals can help with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other emotional support needs for any person, not just someone with a disability.
Resource: Emotional Support Animal Guidelines
Under these laws, airlines and landlords must make reasonable accommodations for emotional support animals. This means that these animals are allowed in the main cabin of a plane, and must be permitted even in housing that doesn’t allow pets, but the animals do not have to be allowed into all public places.
Both emotional support and service animals are also different from therapy dogs. These are dogs or other animals trained to help in therapeutic settings. These animals are not covered by the laws discussed here.
Complicating the issue is the fact that there is no actual register or database where service animals and emotional support animals are registered. While there are many websites that will sell certifications that can serve as the needed documentation, there is no governing body that oversees this process and this flexibility has allowed the laws to be interpreted in some unique ways.
What animals can be service animals?
When it comes to service animals, under the ADA it’s almost literally a dog and pony show. In other words, the law only applies to dogs who have been trained to perform tasks on behalf of a person with a disability. In recent years, revised ADA regulations have also allowed for mini-horses to fit the definition of a service animal, as long as the other requirements are met and the facility can accommodate a mini-horse without compromising any safety requirements for the area.
Resource: Service Dog Guidelines
What animals can be emotional support animals?
On the other paw, emotional support animals can be any kind of animal as long as it offers emotional support. In fact, the Department of Transportation regulations even include the words “cats, monkeys, etc.” It is these more open-ended laws that allow for people to bring all manner of animals onto a plane.
It is important to note that no matter what federal law says, these laws may not be the same internationally. Additionally, some states such as Louisiana have their own laws about service animals and emotional support dogs. Most cities and municipalities also require licenses for dogs and sometimes other animals. To summarize, even if your animal is permitted under federal law, you should still check state and local laws to make sure everything is allowed.
Can you deny a service dog?
While a business is allowed to deny service animals in certain circumstances, a better question to ask is “Can you ask for proof of service animal?” This is where businesses often have their hands tied.
Even if a business owner suspects that an animal is not a “service dog” under the ADA and is instead an emotional support animal, therapy dog, or just a pet, the only things a person can ask under the ADA is:
- Whether the dog is required due to a disability and,
- What tasks the dog has been trained to perform.
Owners of these animals are not required to provide proof and the law doesn’t really discuss the rights of businesses if these questions are not answered sufficiently.
Service dogs and emotional support animals can be a huge benefit to those that need them, or a big inconvenience to businesses and the people around the animal. If you believe that your rights under these laws have been infringed, or that an animal’s owner is taking advantage of these flexible laws, your best bet is to contact an attorney for more in-depth information.