The Civil Rights Justice Center frequently receives questions from persons with disabilities who wish to bring their dog with them into businesses, public areas, or private housing. Many people, especially owners and employees of businesses, do not understand the laws relating to service dogs, emotional support dogs, “therapy dogs,” and comfort animals. A lack of understanding can create serious legal problems for business owners or landlords, as well as harmful discrimination against persons with disabilities.
There are distinct categories of dogs that are not “pets” and fall within the reach of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), or other federal, state, or local laws:
Service dogs are the only animal covered by the ADA. Emotional support dogs, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not covered by the ADA. Service dogs must be permitted to enter into places of public accommodation with their handlers. This means that businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, government offices, and any other place that is open to the public must permit people with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs. There is no special badge, license, certification, or harness that a service dog must wear under the ADA, nor does a service dog have to be registered with any agency.
Places of public accommodation can ask certain questions to determine whether the dog is a service dog protected by the ADA. Employees can ask the disabled person if their dog is a pet. If the person responds in the affirmative, the dog can be excluded from the premises. The employee can also ask what tasks the animal is trained to do for the disabled person. Unless the person states that the dog is trained to perform specific tasks and briefly explains those tasks, the dog can be excluded. But, the employee cannot ask questions about the person’s disability, cannot demand to see a license or certification, and cannot require the dog to wear a vest or harness. However, a service dog who is aggressive, disruptive, or who urinates inside a building can be excluded.
Guide dogs for visually impaired persons are the most common and visible type of service dogs. However, a service dog can be trained to perform a wide range of tasks for people with all kinds of disabilities. Some examples are PTSD dogs who remind their handler to take medication or alert the handler to self-harming behaviors; dogs for hearing-impaired persons who alert the handler to doorbells, telephones, or the sound of approaching cars; and dogs for persons with mobility impairments who can retrieve objects or pull wheelchairs.
Emotional support animals, comfort animals, or “assistance animals” are not covered by the ADA, but are covered by the FHA. An emotional support or comfort animal does not need special training. A person with a disability who demonstrates a disability-related need for the animal must be permitted to have that animal in their housing. A pet fee may not be charged, because emotional support animals are not “pets” under the FHA. However, businesses and public places other than the person’s housing do not have to permit an emotional support or comfort animal to accompany the disabled person (although they may have a policy allowing them).
Therapy dogs are dogs trained to provide comfort or affection to people in hospitals and similar places. Therapy dogs are not protected by either the ADA or FHA (unless the therapy dog is a service animal or emotional support animal for its handler). It is up to individual businesses, hospitals, or housing providers whether to permit therapy dogs on the premises.