SHERIFF'S CORNER: Answering questions about service animals

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Courtesy photo

I was asked recently by a resident if her husband was allowed to take an emotional support dog inside a store.

Over my many years of service, this question, or related questions, have come up several times. What are the requirements of a service animal? Is there a difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal? Are there any restrictions? What can a business owner ask from someone who has a service animal? 

In this week's edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I cover the laws and questions pertaining to service animals. 

So, let's first start with how this was first allowed. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public entities and places of public accommodation such as state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations cannot discriminate against persons with disabilities in their programs, services, or activities. Generally, this means that they must allow service animals to accompany persons with disabilities into areas and locations where the public is allowed to go.

The key phrase is "where the public is allowed to go." Private clubs, churches and other areas that are not open to the general public may be exempt.

The ADA also applies to housing programs administered by state and local governments, such as public housing authorities, and by places of public accommodation, such as public and private universities. In addition, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to virtually all types of housing, both public and privately-owned, including housing covered by the ADA.

Other important notes relating to areas open to service animals:

  • Staff cannot deny service for reasons such as allergies or fear of dogs.
  • Staff cannot charge handlers extra fees because of a service animal.
  • Hotels must provide handlers the ability to reserve any room, not just rooms deemed "pet-friendly".
  • Staff are not responsible for supervising a service animal.

SERVICE ANIMAL VS. SUPPORT ANIMAL

So, what is a service animal?

A service animal, defined by Title II and Title III of the ADAA, service animal means any dog (of any breed) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.

It is important to note that Under Title II and III of the ADA, service animals are limited to dogs. However, entities must make reasonable modifications in policies to allow individuals with disabilities to use miniature horses if they have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for individuals with disabilities.

Examples of animals that fit the ADA’s definition of service animal because they have been specifically trained to perform a task for the person with a disability:

• Guide Dog or Seeing Eye Dog is a carefully trained dog that serves as a travel tool for persons who have severe visual impairments or are blind.

• Hearing or Signal Dog is a dog that has been trained to alert a person who has a significant hearing loss or is deaf when a sound occurs, such as a knock on the door.

• Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.

• SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) is a dog trained to assist a person with autism. The dog alerts the handler to distracting repetitive movements common among those with autism, allowing the person to stop the movement (e.g., hand flapping).

• Seizure Response Dog is a dog trained to assist a person with a seizure disorder. How the dog serves the person depends on the person’s needs. The dog may stand guard over the person during a seizure or the dog may go for help. A few dogs have learned to predict a seizure and warn the person in advance to sit down or move to a safe place.

So, what is a companion, emotional support or therapy animal?

These animals are not trained to perform a specific task but may provide other therapeutic benefits. Unlike service animals, emotional support, companion and therapy animals can include different species other than dogs or miniature horses.

While emotional support animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan, they are not considered "service animals" under the ADA. These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.

Only trained service animals are required to be admitted into public places, or other qualified places, covered by the ADA.

So, how do we certify or establish valid or qualified training of "service animals"?

While there are professional training organizations for training service animals, people with disabilities have the right to train a service animal themselves and are not required to use a professional trainer or training program. Persons with disabilities are responsible for ensuring that their animal is sufficiently trained and under control. Animals that do not meet these requirements may be removed or reported for service animal fraud. In addition, poorly trained animals may be unreliable to their handler as a medical aide.

So, how do you know if it is a valid service animal?

When a person with a service animal enters a public facility or place of public accommodation, the person cannot be asked about the nature or extent of his disability. Only two questions may be asked:

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

These questions should not be asked, however, if the animal’s service tasks are obvious. For example, the questions may not be asked if the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision, pulling a person’s wheelchair or providing assistance with stability or balance to an individual with an observable mobility disability.

As it may be a good idea, The ADA does not require any specific identification, color, or vest for trained service animals.

OTHER QUESTIONS

Is there a time when a "service animal" can be removed?

A service animal may be removed for either of the following reasons:

  1. The animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it.
  2. It is not housebroken.

A service animal must be well-behaved in entities covered by the ADA. They must not be allowed to wander away from their handler, jump up on others, obstruct busy walkways, etc. Under control also means that a service dog should not be allowed to bark repeatedly in a lecture hall, theater, library, or other quiet place. However, a service dog that barks just once, or barks because someone has provoked it, would generally not be considered out of control.

Service animals must also be harnessed, leashed, or tethered with two exceptions:

  1. These devices would interfere with the service animal’s work or task.
  2. The handler’s disability prevents the use of these devices.

In these instances, the handler must still maintain control of their animal through vocal commands, hand signals, or by some other effective means.

You mentioned earlier that a miniature horse may be used as a service animal?

You heard me correct, however The ADA provides four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in a facility:

  1. Whether the miniature horse is housebroken.
  2. Whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control.
  3. Whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size and weight; and,
  4. Whether the miniature horse’s presence will compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for the safe operation of a facility.o 

I always say a good rule of thumb is that if a service animal or emotional support animal is not bothering anyone or causing a disruption, it may be best to leave well alone and let people go about their business. 

(*Please note: This is only a general overview of service animals. This is not an all inclusive summary of the law.)

— This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. Topics covered are for educational and informational purposes only. As needed, excerpts from other articles are used for reference and/or content. If you have any questions on any specific topic, you may always email me your questions to rmartin@co.lake.mi.us.