Therapy animals are everywhere these days—literally! Flexible federal laws governing what qualifies as a service animal have allowed Americans to develop unique interpretations. Sometimes, they do so in ways the law intended. However, other times, they interpret the law in ways that leave people scratching their heads, wondering what exactly the rules are.
Are you considering if you need a service dog? Perhaps you’re a business with customers entering with a service dog? Or maybe you suffered injuries because of a poorly behaved service or support animal? No matter your circumstances, here’s a breakdown of what you need to know when it comes to service animal laws.
<Related blog: Car Safety for Animals>
Are Service Dogs Allowed Everywhere?
Technically yes, if the animal is actually a “service dog.” Federal law draws an important distinction between service animals and emotional support animals. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are allowed in most public spaces—even if the area has a “no pets” policy.
A service animal is specifically trained to perform tasks for a person with a physical and mental disability. If the animal is on a leash (unless a leash would interfere with its tasks), under control, and housebroken, the ADA requires businesses and other public places to allow the service animal with very few exceptions—even if other laws wouldn’t usually permit their presence, such as in a restaurant.
Most service dogs trained to aid those with disabilities undergo intense, expensive training and are very well-behaved. They are “working dogs” in the truest sense of the phrase. They usually do not cause issues or concerns. But, of course, there are exceptions.
Emotional Support Animals
In contrast, federal laws do not require that emotional support animals be allowed everywhere. While several federal laws 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 much broader than a service animal. These animals offer comfort to their owners and can help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other conditions.
<Resource: Emotional Support Animal Guidelines>
Under fair housing and aviation law, landlords must make reasonable accommodations for assistance animals, which include both service and emotional support animals. For example, airlines must allow an emotional support animal in the plane’s main cabin. Landlords also must permit them even in housing that otherwise doesn’t allow pets.
Both emotional support and service animals differ from therapy animals—dogs or other animals trained to help in therapeutic settings. The laws described here do not cover these animals. They are often pets with a high level of training, but the qualifications differ depending on where they provide therapy. In some cases, they may have no specialized training.
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What Animals Can Be Service Animals?
When it comes to service animals, the ADA is almost literally a dog and pony show.
For many years, the law only applied to dogs trained to perform tasks on behalf of a person with a disability. However, in recent years, revised ADA regulations have allowed for miniature horses to fit the definition of a service animal if:
- It meets other ADA requirements
- The facility can accommodate a miniature horse without compromising any safety requirements for the area.
While there is the possibility of future amendments, as of January 2022, only canines and miniature horses can be trained and recognized legally as service animals in the United States. As a result, the ADA does not recognize claims that a cat, bird, or other species is a service animal, and they do not have to be treated as such.
<Resource: Service Dog Guidelines>
What Animals Can Be Emotional Support Animals?
On the other paw, emotional support animals can be any animal that offers emotional support to the handler. Department of Transportation regulations even include cats and capuchin monkeys. These more open-ended laws allow people to bring all manner of animals onto a plane.
Complicating the issue is that there is no actual register or database for service animals and emotional support animals. While many websites sell certifications that can serve as documentation, no governing body oversees this process. This flexibility has allowed the laws to be interpreted in some unique ways.
Some people may claim to have an emotional need met by their pet simply so they can travel alongside their furry friend. Others may purchase meaningless documentation or create a fake certificate that allows them to take their untrained dog into areas where they usually could not go. Unfortunately, these tactics create concerns for other patrons, business owners, and those who legitimately need the help of a service or support dog.
Are Laws for Service and Emotional Support Animals the Same Everywhere?
It is essential to note that no matter what U.S. law says, these laws may not be the same internationally. For example, some countries do not allow service dogs in restaurants or grocery stores, and some do not recognize emotional support animals in any way.
Additionally, some states, such as Louisiana, enacted laws regarding service animals and emotional support dogs. Many cities and municipalities require licenses for dogs—and sometimes other animals. In addition, certain locales may not allow you to own specific breeds, regardless of their status as an emotional support animal.
To summarize, even if federal law permits your service animal, you should still check state and local laws to ensure everything is allowed and done correctly.
<Resource: Louisiana-specific service animal requirements>
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Can You Deny a Service Dog?
While a business can deny service animals in particular circumstances, a better question to ask is, “Can you ask for proof the dog is a service animal?” Unfortunately, here 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 regulations and is instead an emotional support animal, therapy dog, or just a pet, the ADA only allows you to ask:
- Whether the dog is required due to a disability
- What tasks the dog has been trained to perform
While the handler should answer you, the owners of these animals do not have to provide proof. In addition, the law doesn’t discuss the rights of businesses if handlers or owners don’t answer these questions sufficiently.
Your Rights If a Service Animal Misbehaves and Injures You
Service dogs and emotional support animals can provide a considerable benefit to those who need them—or a big inconvenience to businesses and passersby, primarily if the animal acts up or lacks sufficient training.
If you believe that an animal owner took advantage of federal and state law and infringed upon your rights as a business owner, your best bet is to contact an attorney for more in-depth information.
You also have rights if you suffer injuries in a dog bite or attack incident, regardless of the animal’s status as a service, emotional support, or therapy animal. In addition, you may have a claim against the owner, handler, or another party for failing to control their animal and follow all local laws and regulations.
Speak to a Morris Bart, LLC, Lawyer for Free
If you suffered an injury in an animal attack, you might have an insurance claim or personal injury case against the party handling the dog or other animal. You can speak with an attorney from the Morris Bart law firm today for free.
Call (800) 537-8185 now for your complimentary consultation.
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