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Emotional Support Pets and Service Pets – What the Law Says About Each

By David F. Kramer


The working dog. The mention of this term conjures up images of farm dogs hard at work on the homestead, whether herding cattle, keeping a flock of sheep safe from predators, or even just resting by the collective campfire at the end of the day.


While there are still dogs that perform these duties, the business acumen of the working dog has changed in modern times. Dogs are uniquely useful in helping humans whose activities are limited by physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. These pets generally fall into three distinct categories: service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals—and each of these working pets are allowed different rights and responsibilities by federal law. This article will explore the legal idiosyncrasies of both service and emotional support animals.


What is a Service Animal?


Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as an animal (most often a dog) that has been individually trained to work or perform one or more tasks for an individual with a disability. The task must be related to this particular disability.


While we most often associate service dogs with larger breeds like German Shepherds or Labs, there is no restriction on the size or breed of a service animal, provided it can competently do its assigned task.


“Doing work” or “performing tasks” is defined as the animal taking a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. These tasks can be both physically or mentally needed. For example, not only do guide and hearing dogs help the blind and deaf, but other service animals might inform diabetics when their blood sugar reaches dangerous levels, detect when their owners are having a seizure, or even simply remind them to take their prescribed medications.


While dogs and other service animals must be trained to be considered legitimate, there is no government imposed standard of training. Owners of service animals are free to train them themselves, although technically, a service animal is not certified until it has “finished” its training. However, what is considered “trained” is a pretty nebulous term, and a handful of states also certify dogs as service animals as they are still being trained.


The Laws That Govern Service Animals


Service animals, like pets, must be vaccinated, and kept under control by their handlers at all times.


The laws governing where service animals are permitted are handled by three government entities: the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) when it comes to definition and purpose; Housing and Urban Development (HUD) when it comes to living situations; and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when it comes to airline travel.


While the definition and usage of service animals is covered under federal law, specific laws pertaining to them differ from state to state. These local laws generally come under a state’s code and are broken down into about 10 categories.  


Application: most states include laws pertaining to guide, hearing, and service animals, but a few apply only to guide and hearing animals.


Accessibility: defining public and private locations where service animals are permitted, as well as places they aren’t due to health, religious or other reasons.


Interference: outlining the legal actions that can be taken against people who interfere with a service animal (these are generally misdemeanors).


Housing: the rights of disabled persons to live with service animals (these generally pertain to not having to pay any additional monies to a landlord or group).


Licensing and Fees: unlike pets, many states waive licensing and related fees for service animals.


Identification: whether a service animal needs to identify with a vest or special signage.


Misrepresentation: penalties against someone who tries to falsely identify themselves as disabled.


Trainers: all of the privileges entitled to the owner of a service animal are also entitled to trainers.


“White Cane Laws”: these are motor vehicle laws that many states have enacted that offer special care and precautions towards the blind and disabled.


Injury to Dog/Penalties: criminal penalties, fines, and potential jail sentences for people who would injure or kill a service animal. As mentioned above, interference is a misdemeanor crime, but injury or death of an animal could be increased to a felony under some states’ laws.


The ADA is fairly liberal when it comes to declaring your animal a service dog. In fact, under the Act there is no mandatory registration required. In many ways, it’s like the criminal justice system; an animal is presumed to be a service animal until proven otherwise. Landlords, business owners, and even the general public will find trying to limit a service animal’s access to a location or situation to be a difficult fight.


Service animals are generally permitted to accompany their handlers wherever they go, such as restaurants (including food prep areas for cafeterias, shelters and eateries with a self-service line), hotels, and public or private businesses and facilities. 


Are Some Breeds Excluded from Being Service Animals?


Interestingly, the ADA even extends service animal specifications for breeds of dog that people might consider dangerous, including ones that have been banned in some areas. If a municipality has banned pitbulls, for example, a pitbull that is declared a service animal is still technically permitted, but a protracted legal challenge could very well end up in the banning of such an animal in the name of public safety.


Next: What is an Emotional Support Animal?