Businesses from airlines to restaurants to taxis are finding themselves in hot water due to their lack of understanding the rules governing service and emotional support animals.
It's important that organizations – and especially, small businesses – know when and how to accommodate people with service animals to ensure that everyone has the safest and most pleasant experience with your company as possible.
According to the Department of Justice, service animals are classified, as a dog – and vary rarely, a miniature horse – that has been "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The work task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability." A service dog can be trained to assist an owner with a disability with any number of task from helping someone who is blind navigate walking streets to picking up items for someone with acute arthritis to activating a life-alert button for someone who has epilepsy.
Service animals are not required to wear any type of vest or carry certification, so they may not always be easy to identify by just looking at them. Businesses can ask if a dog is a service animal and what work task they have been trained to perform, if it is not obvious. However, they are not allowed to demand any verification for the dog or inquire about their handler's disability.
Service dogs are also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and can accompany their handler to any public place – including office buildings, coffee shops and airplanes, provided they are under control and not a threat to others. Under the ADA, businesses must make "reasonable modifications" of their policies to accommodate trained service dogs. Companies can be fined for violating the rights of people with service animals.
A good way for businesses to think about service animals is as an extension of their owners. The dogs are trained to help their handlers with tasks they may be unable to perform alone. As such, businesses are not allowed to subject service dogs to any fees or restrictions that might apply to regular pets – such as cleaning or transportation fees. Hotels must also allow service dogs and their owners to stay in any room, not just "pet-only" rooms. Essentially, if a human is allowed somewhere, service animals are likely allowed there, too.
Emotional Support Animals
The rules become a bit more challenging around emotional support animals – also known as therapy animals. Emotional support and service animals are not one in the same. The role of an emotional support animal is to provide comfort to its owner and it is not trained to do any specific task. Any animal from a dog to cat or a bird or guinea pig can be considered an emotional support animal and are not covered under the ADA. These animals are considered effective in helping those who suffer from anxiety, depression or even PTSD.
To qualify, owners must receive an approval letter from a mental health professional that the animal provides a therapeutic benefit, and be able to provide that letter if a business requests it. Emotional support animals are allowed in the cabins of airlines at no extra charge and in any rental that falls under the Fair Housing Act, but that is the extent of what federal law requires.
Local laws vary for therapy animals, so it is best to check on the rules in your area before establishing your company policy. For instance, California has more extensive legislation protecting emotional support animals, but New York City isn't so generous. For instance, in New York employers and landlords must make reasonable accommodations for support animals if you have proper documentation, but they can reject the animal if it poses a threat to the health or safety of others, or if the animal poses a danger of substantial property damage.
California creates three types of support animals with separate rules. The definition of a service dog and an emotional support animal are the same. But a psychiatric service dog is a dog trained to help a person with a mental disability. The tasks it is trained to do is waking someone with clinical depression and making them get out of bed, responding to a panic attack, or alerting an owner to erratic behavior if someone has a bipolar disorder. The protections for this level match those of a regular service dog.
If you do ever encounter a service dog or emotional support animal that is out of control – barking loudly, misbehaving or endangering the safety of other customers – it is perfectly acceptable to ask its owner to bring the animal under control. It is also acceptable to ask them to remove the animal if they are unable to control it. Just as you wouldn't be expected to allow a human to behave erratically in your place of business, you are not expected to allow a service dog or therapy animal to act that way, either.