Service Animals and Small Business: What You Need to Know

1Businesses 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.

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.


Emerging Laws for Landlords: Emotional Support Animals

1The intelligence, intuition and emotional connection displayed by trained service animals is remarkable. Service animals have been known to predict impending seizures, perform complex household tasks, protect their companions from oncoming traffic and even provide a calming influence for sufferers of autism or post-traumatic stress disorder. Registered service animals, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, are limited to canines and miniatures horses, and are required to endure months of rigorous training to qualify for a service role.

In contrast, emotional support animals, or ESAs, may be untrained members of almost any animal species who are said to provide some therapeutic benefit to their human companions. Applications for ESA certifications are up 279 percent since 2011, reflecting a huge increase in this trend. But how, exactly, does an ESA differ from a registered service animal? And, for a landlord faced with a prospective renter demanding tenant rights to fair housing, what reasonable requirements are necessary under the ADA and the Fair Housing Act?

Service animal vs. emotional support animal

The overarching difference between a service animal and an ESA is training. A service animal must undergo a lengthy preparation and evaluation process, while an ESA does not require a single day of doggy school. In fact, an ESA need not even be a dog.

Service animals

According to the ADA, service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The emphasis here is on the word “trained.” A service animal is generally required to complete a complex and diversified training program, typically beginning in puppyhood and lasting at least two years.

Upon completion of this training, the animal must also be certified by the state regulatory agency. Then the animal is granted “public access,” meaning “state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.”

Gray area: Assistance animals

The Federal Housing Administration maintains a somewhat more inclusive definition of service animals and refers instead to “assistance animals.” As a landlord, you should understand this definition because penalties for refusing access to a real assistance animal can be extreme. In general, you must make reasonable accommodations for an assistance animal even if your property maintains a no-pets policy.

Unlike the definition set forth in the ADA, an assistance animal does not have to be trained for a particular set of tasks as long as the animal “works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”

Emotional support animals

An emotional support animal, as traditionally regarded within the service animal community, is an animal without specialized training that serves as a companion for those suffering from the effects of certain mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression. The term is not recognized by the ADA and is only vaguely mentioned in some interpretations of the Fair Housing Act.

However, the “emotional support” referred to in the ADA-approved definition above pertains to mental health assistance provided by the animal to an owner suffering from the emotional side effects of an underlying recognized disability, including PTSD or autism. To obtain certification as an ESA, which is a wildly unregulated frontier, an owner need not suffer from an underlying disability as long as he experiences regular bouts of anxiety or emotional instability.

Landlord’s responsibilities and obligations

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued several interpretive statements regarding a landlord’s duties with regard to renters seeking accommodation for an assistance animal. First, you may not ask for documentation if the disability is obvious or apparent. If the disability is not obvious, you can ask only these two questions:

  • Does the applicant have a disability as defined by the ADA?
  • Does the applicant have a disability-related need for an assistance animal?

If the answer to either of the above questions is “no,” you are within your rights to deny the request for a waiver of your no-pets policy. In making that decision, you can request medical documentation from a licensed doctor indicating that the applicant does, in fact, suffer from a disability, though you cannot ask to review the applicant’s medical records.

For emotional support animals, you only need to make a reasonable accommodation if the support is needed to relieve the effects of a pre-existing disability; again, you can request documentation. Emotional support animals that only serve to make the owner more comfortable, alleviate stress or lessen anxiety symptoms may be excluded if the owner is not actually suffering from a documented disability.

On the other hand, you must accommodate a support animal, even if untrained, that provides stability for a renter with a documented mental or psychiatric disability.

You also may not impose weight or size restrictions on an assistance animal, provided the animal can be kept on the property without lowering the property value or creating undue financial hardship.