What Do You Need to Know About Service Animals – Tricky Questions, Controversy, and Tips
The role of animals as our physical and mental aid has raised a lot of questions in society.
What does it mean for an animal to be deemed medical equipment; are their tasks really effective and beneficial for people with physical and/or mental illnesses; how can you make sure that a dog is an actual service dog…?
Both service animal handlers and the public are still experiencing difficulties when interacting with each other.
Why is that so? There are many reasons for that, the most significant of which are related to a lack of education, and unified service dog regulations on a country/provincial/local level, as well as the increased number of individuals who tend to abuse the law for their benefit.
Considering the immense importance of service animals for the well-being of many disabled people worldwide, we would like to provide valuable information in regard to the nature of service animals and how to be prepared for any controversial situations, involving them, that may occur.
What Are Service Animals?
Service animals are dogs in particular, who have been individually trained to perform tasks directly related to a physical or mental disability. Through the tasks / work these dogs do, they help a disabled person better cope with their disability.
Can Other Animals Also Become Service Animals?
No, unless you are based in one of the U.S. states that also recognize miniature horses as service animals. Miniature horses can also be accepted as service animals due to the regulations in certain U.S. states and not due to federal ones.
At the time of writing, we are not aware of any country that accepts as service dogs animals different from dogs.
If you have a cat, rabbit, bird, hamster…or any other type of animal specie that brings you comfort, please note that your pet can still play the role of your Emotional Support Animal, but not that of your Service Animal.
How to Prove That My Dog Is a Service Animal and Not an Emotional Support Animal?
The “eternal war” between companion animals and service animals is likely to come to an end with the clear determination of their differences.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) bring comfort to their owners and mitigate the symptoms of their mental disabilities thanks to their presence and companionship. ESAs do not perform specific tasks though, that are directly related to a disability, hence they are not deemed service animals.
Service animals, as already explained above, are dogs, that do specific work directly related to a disability.
If the legitimacy of your service animal is being questioned, you should be able to clarify what the dog does to help you deal with your disability. This does not mean that you will need to reveal personal details about your disability, but you have to be able to explain what the tasks performed for your benefit are.
“My dog provides me with comfort and emotional support”; “My dog helps me a lot in my daily life”; “My dog performs physical/psychiatric tasks for me”, are answers considered too vague to be accepted by business owners/employees while in public.
If your service dog has been trained to give you a kiss, paw at you, nose-nudge you, alert you to oncoming episodes (regardless of the nature of these episodes- anxiety, seizure, epilepsy, diabetic episodes…etc.), retrieve items for you, open/close doors, detect a specific scent, interrupt specific behavior…etc., you should be able to explain these tasks.
Dogs, who have been trained to pull a wheelchair or help a person with visual and balance issues, are typically not questioned, as their job is easily recognizable.
Tasks, related to “hidden disabilities”, that are not so obvious, may need to be explained.
You may want to learn more about the differences between the various types of assistance animals, such as service dogs, emotional support animals and therapy animals.
Employees Require Documentation to Allow My Service Dog on the Premise-What to Do?
Here comes up the question-Are employees allowed to require service dog handlers to provide any documentation as proof of the legitimacy of their service animals?
Service dogs in the US and the UK are not legally required to have documentation as proof of training or licensing. Moreover, there is no official service dog registry.
If a website claims that you can register your service dog with them and he/she will be automatically granted public access rights, be cautious! You may need to reconsider registering your dog with such a website.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a federal civil rights law protecting disabled individuals states:
“A. No. Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry”.
You can read more about the ADA service dog regulations here.
The guidance for businesses created by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in compliance with the Equality Act 2010 states:
“Some, but not all assistance dog users, will carry an ID book giving information about the assistance dog and the training organization together with other useful information.
Again, this is not a legal requirement and assistance dog users should not be refused service simply because they do not possess an ID book. Assistance dogs can also be owner trained and the owner selects their own dog to fit their own requirements”.
You can read more about the Equality and Human Rights Commission whose regulations apply in the UK here.
According to the Assistance Dogs UK:
“Disabled people who train their own assistance dogs, or those who have an assistance dog trained by non-ADUK members, have the same rights as those that have an assistance dog trained by one of our members”.
More information about Assistance Dogs UK can be found on the page linked here.
If you are based in a different country, we highly recommend that you check the local laws and if there is documentation that you may need to show for your service animal (called “assistance animal” in the UK).
How Can You Identify a Dog as a Service Dog in the US and the UK if Documentation May Not Be Required?
Legitimate service dogs need to go through proper training, whether with a professional trainer/organization or the owner themselves. This training must include basic obedience, public manners, and specialized service dog tasks directly related to a disability.
Having said that, dogs who just wander, excessively sniff around, jump on passersby/guests/clients (if in a public place), bark (unless it is a specific service dog task), seek attention, and food, get overly excited, or aggressive, are not “real” service dogs.
Also, a dog who is misbehaving might still be in the process of training and have not mastered all the needed tasks yet.
However, a service animal, even when in training, must behave appropriately when in public and not disrupt passersby or any animals that might be there.
The physical appearance of a service dog should also be taken into consideration. Due to the immense importance of their job, service animals need proper care-they need to appear healthy, well-groomed, and taken care of.
The owner’s behavior should be taken into account as well- reliable service dog owners know how to handle their dogs and keep them under control at all times.
Since service dogs typically develop a strong bond with their owners/handlers, the latter need to treat them with respect and care. Owners who do not keep their dogs under control, let them misbehave, or just yell at them are not likely to be actual service dog owners.
As mentioned above, service dog handlers need to be able to explain what their dogs do for them to help them deal with their disability. Employees may ask:
- Is this a service dog due to a disability;
- What tasks he/she has been trained to perform?
As explained, too vague and unclear answers, or the inability to provide such at all, are a big red flag for the legitimacy of the service dog team.
A Service Dog Seems Intimidating (Due to His/Her Breed or Size)- What to Do?
This is a bit of a tricky question, and we will tell you why. As a general rule, service dogs are not restricted in regard to their breed, size, or any physical feature. However, the laws in some countries have banned certain dog breeds in general.
For example, this is the case with the UK. According to the information provided on the website of the UK government, the following dog breeds are banned: Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro.
Does it mean that it is impossible for you to have an assistance animal who is a representative of one of those breeds? No, it is not!
There is a certain procedure that dog owners must follow in order to put their dog on the so-called “Index of Exempt Dogs”, in case he/she is a representative of one of the breeds listed above.
Owners need to contact the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs and follow a certain procedure.
In the US, on the other hand, there are no breed restrictions in regard to service animals.
In order to avoid any issues that may occur due to your paw friend’s breed, you should get informed about the laws in our country or region.
My Service Dog Does Not Wear a Vest – Can He/She Be Excluded?
This also depends on the regulations in your country. If you are based in the US or the UK- then the answer is “No”. Service dogs/assistance animals in those countries are not required by law to wear any identification or training gear.
If employees attempt to exclude your dog from the facility, you may want to let them know what the regulations and your rights as a service dog team are.
However, we would recommend that you:
- Put some sort of identification on your dog, although this is not legally required. That way you will notify the public what the status of your dog is, namely that he/she is a service dog/assistance animal, and not a pet. Hence, the dog is currently on-duty and should not be distracted;
- Try to remain calm and explain what the rights and responsibilities of service dog teams are, without revealing any detailed information about your disability. Information about a person’s disability may not be required.
I Do Not Have a Disability- May I Have a Service Dog?
No, you cannot. Only people who are diagnosed with a physical and/or mental disability are eligible for a service dog. A person’s disability must impede a major life activity, which is why a service animal is needed.
According to the ADA: “An individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.”
Do I Need a Medical Letter for my Service Animal?
Employees are not allowed to ask for such documentation. The tricky part here is that due to the increased number of fake service dogs, sometimes the legitimacy of real service dogs may be doubted.
This is especially valid for situations when a disabled person would like to live with their service animal in a building that runs a “no-pets” policy. In such cases, a medical letter can come in handy.
We would like to note that these types of letters do not include personal information in regard to the individual’s disability, but a statement by a licensed health provider that he/she is aware of the individual’s disability and that a service animal may be needed.
My Dog Is Still a Puppy- Can He/She Accompany Me as a Service Dog?
The laws in most countries require dogs to have reached at least the age of 6 months old to be recognized as service dogs.
You should not forget, that a service animal needs to go through the very basics first prior to moving to advanced service dog training, and this requires time. Public access manners are also part of the requirements for a dog to become a service animal.
Can I Take My Service Dog Everywhere?
Despite being considered medical equipment and not pets, service dogs do not have unlimited access rights. As a general rule, service dogs must be provided access to all places open for use to the public.
There are certain situations, when service animals may be denied access to a public place. The ADA states:
“In most settings, the presence of a service animal will not result in a fundamental alteration. However, there are some exceptions.
For example, at a boarding school, service animals could be restricted from a specific area of a dormitory reserved specifically for students with allergies to dog dander.
At a zoo, service animals can be restricted from areas where the animals on display are the natural prey or natural predators of dogs, where the presence of a dog would be disruptive, causing the displayed animals to behave aggressively or become agitated. They cannot be restricted from other areas of the zoo”.
“Religious institutions and organizations are specifically exempt from the ADA. However, there may be State laws that apply to religious organizations”.
“The ADA does not override public health rules that prohibit dogs in swimming pools. However, service animals must be allowed on the pool deck and in other areas where the public is allowed to go”.
For more information about the ADA rules, click here.
How Many Service Animals Can I Have?
There is no specific limitation on the number of service animals that a disabled person can have. However, in case you have multiple dogs, you may be asked to explain why you need more than one dog. You should be able to clarify what tasks each dog performs for you.
Please keep in mind, that this is especially valid when flying with a service animal.
Airlines typically limit the maximum number of dogs onboard to two dogs per person.
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