What the Americans with Disabilities Act Says About Service Animals

March 16, 2015

What does a dog, cat, horse, bird and fish have in common?

These animals and many others share the ability to provide assistance, support, comfort and companionship to humans.  Dogs are the most commonly used animal for therapeutic purposes; however, cats, horses, birds and even fish have been used in this capacity.  There are many benefits to pet ownership that have been well documented including the health benefits of reduced stress, reduced blood pressure, improved physical fitness, improved emotional well-being to name a few.  Many individuals with disabilities have also experienced the benefits of having an animal to assist with specific tasks and/or to provide companionship and support. 

The use of animals for therapeutic purposes dates back to France in the 1750’s when dogs were trained to guide the blind.  In the United States, the first guide dogs were trained during and after WWI to guide soldiers who lost their vision as a result of the war.  "Buddy" was the first seeing-eye dog for his owner Frank Morris.  

Can all types of animals be considered a service animal?  According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), "a service animal is any dog individually trained to do work or to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability."  If the dog meets this definition, it is considered a service animal under the ADA regardless of whether it has been licensed or certified by a state or local government.  The definition goes on to say that other species of animals, wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered to be service animals.  It is important to also note that animals that provide comfort or companionship for their disabled owners, but that are not trained to perform any specific tasks are not considered service animals under federal law.  However, animals that provide emotional support for their owners are not considered service animals under federal law.

Why is this distinction important?  Service dogs can go anywhere their owners go.  By law, service dogs cannot be refused entry to any location, building, transportation that their owners have a right to be in.  In other words, "No Pets Allowed" does not apply to service dogs.  Emotional support animals provide affection, comfort, and companionship but are not necessarily trained to perform any specific task.   Therefore, these animals are not considered a service animal under the ADA guidelines, and as a result are not allowed into establishments where pets are not allowed.  If an establishment has questions about whether or not a dog (remember no other animal species is considered a service animal under ADA guidelines) is a service animal, they have the right to ask the owner what specific work or tasks the animal performs to assist the owner. 

Abusing the ADA guidelines for service dogs?  We have all seen it before where a small toy poodle is tucked into a shoulder bag or an unruly dog is sniffing at every passerby’s shoes in the grocery store aisles.  There has been a recent increase in pets being misrepresented as service dogs and taken into grocery stores, shopping malls, and even restaurants.  The owners merely utter the words, "service dog" and then carry on.  This behavior casts undeserved suspicion on those individuals with disabilities who legitimately rely on their dogs for assistance. 

What about animals that provide emotional support?  Although animals that provide emotional support are not considered service animals by the ADA, emotional support animals are covered under the Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988 and the Amended Air Carrier Access Act of 2003.  What this means is that an individual with a disability is allowed to have an emotional support animal, not just a dog, in their place of dwelling and on their flight, as long as there is supporting documentation from a licensed mental health professional stating that the owner has a psychiatric disability and that an emotional support animal is prescribed.

Psychiatric Service Dogs: What tasks do they do?  Many of us are familiar with what service dogs can do for owners who are physically disabled.  The dogs can turn on and off lights, can open doors, can retrieve items, can dial 911, can assist with balance, can alert the owner of an oncoming seizure, and so on.  But many of us may not be as familiar with how a service dog can be trained to do specific tasks to help those with a psychiatric disability:

  • Provide a buffer/shield for the owner in crowded areas by creating a physical boundary.
  • Orient the owner during a panic/anxiety attack.
  • Stand behind the owner to increase feelings of safety, reduce hyper-vigilence, and decrease the owner being startled by another person coming up behind them.
  • Wake the owner up from nightmares.
  • Bring the owner back into the “here and now” if owner starts to drift off (ruminative thoughts, dissociative thoughts).
  • Remind or alert owner to take medication.
  • Interrupt obsessive behaviors.
  • Provide deep pressure therapy.

What are some of the benefits of Psychiatric Service Dogs? 

  • Provide relief from feelings of isolation.
  • Increase sense of well-being.
  • Increase sense of security.
  • Provide a reason for getting up every morning.
  • Increase self-efficacy and self-esteem.
  • Provide a safe and secure relationship.
  • Provide motivation to exercise and get outdoors.
  • Facilitates social interactions. 
  • Decrease depression and anxiety.

Animal ownership, whether for therapeutic purposes or not, can be extremely beneficial and mutually satisfying for both the owner and the animal.  Animals can assist individuals with not only physical disabilities, but with psychiatric disabilities as well.