Service Animals

As more people are using service and emotional support animals, it is getting trickier for business owners to know how to handle them. Service animals must generally be accommodated in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go, while emotional support dogs don’t have to be. So what is the difference?

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, such as a guide dog for a blind person or calming someone with PTSD during an attack. Disabilities covers physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or task must be directly related to the person’s disability. Service dogs are not required to wear a “Service Dog” vest or harness and conversely, wearing one does not make a pet into a service animal.

There are two questions you can ask about a service animal:

  1. Is the service dog required for a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to do?

But don’t ask if it is obvious: a seeing eye dog does not need an explanation. You can’t ask about the person’s disability or require documentation or a demonstration from the dog. Discomfort with dogs or allergies to them are not valid reasons to refuse a service animal. If you get reasonable answers to both questions, you must generally allow the animal.

There are two reasons that you can ask a person with a disability to remove the animal: if it is out of control and the handler does not control it effectively, or if it is not housebroken. If the animal is removed, the person must be helped to obtain goods or services without the animal.

An emotional support animal is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit to someone with a mental or psychiatric disability. Emotional support animals are generally but not always dogs and cats. Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service dogs under ADA. It doesn’t matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support; a doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal for public accommodations – but it may affect reasonable accommodations at work.

Allowing a service animal will generally count as a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability. In this case, the employer may ask for medical documentation that the animal is needed. According to Disability Rights Montana, “To be reasonable, the accommodation of using a service animal in employment must not pose an undue burden on the employer or require the employer to fundamentally alter the employment situation. It cannot pose a risk to the health or safety of the person with a disability or to other persons or to property. For this reason, a service animal may be ejected if it is aggressive, disruptive, or causes damage.” But again, allergies and fear are not reasons to reject the accommodation. Things get tricky if another employee has a severe allergy, since they both have to be accommodated. This is the time to talk to a good employment lawyer!