Which of these is not like the others? Service animals, comfort animals, pets, and the ADA

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by Day Al-Mohamed and Bruna E. Pedrini

Travelers with disabilities in the United States spend more than $13.6 billion annually and seek high-quality hospitality experiences. Among these travelers, more than 20,000 use service animals. It is therefore important to understand what qualifies as a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and what does not. Four key questions help clarify these situations.

WHAT IS A SERVICE ANIMAL?

The ADA is very specific. Under the ADA, a “service animal” is only a dog (or miniature horse) that:

  1. Is individually trained.
  2. Works or performs tasks for individuals with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities.

Service animals help with “visible” disabilities such as blindness or mobility impairments but it also includes animals that alert when blood glucose levels rise or someone is about to have a seizure.

“Service animal” is the only relevant term under the ADA. The ADA does not recognize comfort animals, therapy animals, or companion animals. An animal whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, or companionship is not a “service animal” under the ADA.

HOW WILL I KNOW?

First, remember that service animals are not pets subject to a pet policy and can be ANY breed of dog. Second, the ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.

If it is not apparent what the animal does, you may legally ask only two questions:

  1. Is the animal a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

You cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, identification for the animal, or ask that the animal demonstrate the work/task. If the person answers with specifics, you must assume the animal is a service animal.

WHERE CAN THE SERVICE ANIMAL GO?

Persons with service animals may not be limited to “pet-friendly” rooms. Service animals go anywhere the handler can go and should never be left alone. If someone has an allergy or is afraid of animals, try to find a compromise, but if someone must relocate, always move the non-disabled individual.

CAN A SERVICE ANIMAL BE REMOVED?

A service animal must be under the control of the handler at all times. Typically, the animal will be on a leash or harness, but control can also mean verbal control. If the service animal is not housebroken, is out of control, or is growling and showing aggressive behavior, then the person with a disability may be asked to remove their service animal. The person with the disability must be allowed to stay without the dog or miniature horse. Before excluding a service animal, document the animal’s behavior immediately and completely.

Legitimate service animals perform critical tasks for persons with disabilities. These animals receive extensive training and are well-behaved, clean, nondisruptive, and under the handler’s control at all times. Staying informed helps to limit fake service animals and support and welcome your guests with service animals. Good information is good for business!

Day Al-Mohamed is a multi-skilled disability policy executive with more than 15 years of experience working directly with public and private industries, as well as with national-level policymakers. She provides technical assistance and support on a variety of legislative and regulatory issues. She currently works for the U.S. Department of Labor to develop innovative strategies for enhancing workplace safety and health. She can be reached at Day@DayInWashington.com.

Bruna E. Pedrini is of counsel to Fennemore Craig and practices in the areas of accessibility and anti-discrimination law. Bruna counsels and trains businesses and government entities to comply with the ADA, state, and local accessibility requirements, and defends Title III and Title II lawsuits. She previously served as Chief Counsel for Civil Rights for two Arizona Attorneys General and as a visiting professor at the ASU College of Law. She can be reached at bpedrini@fclaw.com.

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