The ADA and Service Animals

SUMMARY: What’s a service animal? The answer depends on the situation, and this FAQ article explains the basics.

The term service animal is often misunderstood or misused. Service animal has a very specific definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that applies only in specific areas and cases. However, people sometimes imagine that a service animal is any type of animal that somehow helps a person with a disability. Here are a few questions and their answers to help clear up what a service animal means under the ADA.

What is a service animal?

A service animal is defined in the US Department of Justice (DOJ) regulations for Titles II (Section 35.104) and III (Section 36.104) of the ADA as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

The dog can be any breed. No other types of animals, though, can be considered service animals under the ADA with the single possible exception of a miniature horse. This definition of a service animal applies when a person is accessing a public place covered by these regulations. Examples are a restaurant, doctor’s office or hospital, public library, county office, or grocery store—or any place that is a public entity or public accommodation.

What does individually trained mean?

Individually trained in the DOJ’s definition of a service animal means that the dog is trained to do a specific task for a specific person with a disability. This training could be done by an organization, or a person with a disability can train their own dog to be a service dog. There is no certification or licensing process for the training. The training is assumed to be done in good faith.

What is work or a task?

In the DOJ’s definition of a service animal, a task is a specific action or step that a service animal does to assist its handler with a disability. Service dogs do a wide range of work to assist people with a variety of disabilities. A dog may help a person with severe arthritis to pick up or carry objects. Another dog may assist someone with an anxiety disorder by jumping on to its owner to interrupt a panic attack. A service animal may alert its handler of an oncoming seizure so the handler can get to a safe place or take medication. And another service animal might serve as a balance or support dog for a handler with a disability that impacts balance. This is just a small sample of the types of tasks a service animal might perform.

[ Read: The ADA and Service Animal Handlers ]

Is an emotional support animal or therapy dog a service animal?

While providing emotional support, wellbeing, or comfort is an invaluable benefit of a dog, by itself these activities are not recognized as a task by the DOJ. A task is a specific action that the service animal does. For this reason, emotional support, therapy, or comfort animals are not service animals under the ADA. Remember, however, that there are psychiatric service animals. As mentioned in the previous answer, a dog may serve a handler with anxiety disorder by taking action when it senses the onset of anxiety. Another dog may assist its handler with post-traumatic stress disorder by guiding the handler away from a crowded environment or loud noise, such as a siren, that might be causing the handler distress.

What does service animal mean in other parts of the ADA?

It is important to know that the US Department of Transportation (DOT) uses a different definition of service animal in relation to Title II. This applies to transportation controlled or operated by a state and/or local government, such as city buses, light rail, and commuter trains. In these circumstances, a service animal is defined by the DOT as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability…” So where these regulations from the DOT apply, a service animal does not necessarily have to be a dog.

In reference to employment covered by the ADA, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) does not define a service animal. However, a service animal is considered to be a reasonable accommodation, so an employee must request to have their service animal in the workplace.

And while the ADA rarely applies to housing, a different federal law, the Fair Housing Act (FHA), does. In housing under the FHA, the term assistance animal is used instead of service animal. This law—which is enforced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development—takes a broader meaning for assistance animal. The animal may be a different species than a dog and must meet a disability-related need. The FHA regulations do not require the animal to perform a specific task or to be trained.

With these different but related terms and definitions, it can be confusing at times to sort out what a service animal is. Generally, “service animal” will need to fit the definition from the Department of Justice regulations. However, you must always look at the situation to know which law applies. Then you can know what service animal means.

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