Facts and Information about Assistance Animals by the Service Dog Committee of the International Association of Canine Professionals

This article was originally published in the Canine Professional Journal, a publication of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP). It first appeared in Fall, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission from the Editor. It explains the difference between Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Animals for the layperson.

This information is important because of the increased visibility in public of animals used for the purposes above. Sadly, some people without disabilities (or who may have disabilities but have not been prescribed a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal) are using this increased visibility and awareness to “cheat the system” because they want to have their personal pets with them in places where they are typically forbidden. So they try to pass off animals as either Service, Emotional Support, or Therapy animals when in fact they are just personal pets with no training. This often causes problems for people who truly require a Service or Emotional Support animal and find themselves discriminated against in businesses. It may seem like a harmless practice, but it definitely is not harmless. Responsible pet owners understand the potential harm and realize that their personal need to have their pets with them should never cause a hardship for someone else–especially someone with a legitimate reason for owning a specialty animal.

Some states are making this practice a crime, which is a good start. But having awareness that it happens will help, as will knowing more about legitimate Service, ESAs, or Therapy animals and how to behave when you encounter them. ~Mailey

The IACP acknowledges that, at this time, the United States is the only country that we are aware of who is recognizing Emotional Support Animals (ESAs). Therefore, the rules and regulations contained in this document are those of the United States.

Service Animals are defined as dogs (and sometimes miniature horses) individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. The work or task a service dog does must be directly related to the person’s disability and must be trained and not inherent. Service Animals may accompany persons with disabilities into places the general public normally goes, even if they have a “No Pets” policy. These areas include state and local government buildings, businesses open to the public, public transportation, and non-profit organizations open to the public. The law allowing access for a person with a disability with a Service Dog is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Under Title II and III of the ADA, service animals are limited to dogs and miniature horses. Entities must make reasonable modifications in policies to allow individuals with disabilities to use miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the handler. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.

Emotional Support Animals, comfort animals, and Therapy Animals are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. It does not matter if a person has a letter from a doctor stating the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not give an ESA, or therapy dogs, public access rights.

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is not a personal pet. Access for the ESA to be permitted into housing with a person with a disability is defined under the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) code: It is a companion animal that a medical professional has determined provides a therapeutic benefit for an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The animal may or may not be specifically trained to perform tasks for a person who has a disability. Capuchin Monkeys which aid persons with quadriplegia are examples of animals that meet the ESA definition and perform tasks, but are not permitted public access. Unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal is not granted access with its handler to places of public accommodation.

The role of an ESA may include improving one or more identified symptoms or effects of the persons’ disability. Emotional support animals are not species limited. In order to be prescribed an ESA, the person seeking such an animal must have a verifiable disability and the animal’s presence mitigates the symptoms of that disability. A person without a doctor-verified disability who wants an animal to be defined as an ESA for companionship does not qualify to have such animal defined as an ESA. An animal does not need specific training to become an emotional support animal and is not required to perform any tasks.

In the U.S., federal protection against housing discrimination is afforded to mentally disabled persons under two federal statutes: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988. These statutes, and the corresponding case law, create the general rule that a landlord cannot discriminate against disabled persons in housing, and if a “reasonable accommodation” will enable a disabled person to equally enjoy and use the rental unit, the landlord must provide the accommodation. Persons with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation, such as a waiver of a “no pets policy,” for any assistance animal, including an emotional support animal, under both the FHAA and Section 504. While the FHA does apply to most housing types including those for sale or rent (apartments, condominiums and single-family homes) there are some major exclusions such as buildings with 4 or fewer units where the landlord lives in one of the units. It also excludes private owners that do not own more than 3 single family homes, do not utilize real estate agents or brokers and do not engage in anti-discriminatory advertising practices.

Neither the FHA, nor section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, requires an ESA to be individually trained or certified. There are no specific breed restrictions relative to canine ESA’s but if the housing provider determines that there is a “direct threat” that relies on objective evidence about a specific animal’s conduct then there are grounds for the housing provider to not allow that pet. Additionally, if a housing provider’s insurance carrier would cancel, substantially increase the costs of the insurance policy or adversely change the policy terms because of the presence of a certain breed of dog or a certain animal, it would be found that this imposes an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider. This type of claim must be substantiated by the insurance carrier directly and different but comparable insurance coverage must be considered by the landlord.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA) establishes a procedure for modifying pet policies on aircraft to permit a person with a disability to travel with a prescribed emotional support animal, so long as they have appropriate documentation and the animal is not a danger to others or does not interfere with others (through unwanted attention, excessive noise, blocking aisles, inappropriate toileting, etc.). The DOT also allows access for ESA’s on certain types of transit such as trains and buses.

Regarding airline policies affecting persons flying with their personal animal/pets, most airlines charge fees and require the animal to be in a soft sided carrier that can fit under the seat. If a crated animal cannot be placed under the seat, the animal will then have to fly with the checked luggage. Air Carriers have different policies regarding transporting “Live Animals” in the luggage compartment and owners should check with the airline that they are flying regarding traveling with their pet. On the other hand, with an ESA, they are not required to be crated, nor are people charged for flying with their ESA.

Most airlines have written policies defined based on the ACAA that passengers flying with an emotional support animal must follow. While an airline is allowed to require a passenger traveling with an emotional support animal to provide written documentation that the animal is an emotional support animal, no such documentation is required for a service animal.

Regardless of whether the animal is an ESA or the dog is a service dog, standards of appropriate behavior apply to these animals. Any airline can deny access to a service dog or an ESA if the animal is behaving inappropriately such as roaming the cabin, showing signs of aggression to passengers or other animals, etc. If the aircraft is already airborne when the service animal behaves inappropriately, then the owner of the animal will be subject to decisions made by the air carrier in accordance with the ACAA SD regulations. It is important to remember that the goal of any airline is to ensure safe passage of its patrons. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the owner that their service animal is well behaved and has appropriate, reliable manners throughout all phases of air travel.

Lastly, a therapy animal is defined as a pet which in partnership with its handler has passed a series of behavior and/or aptitude tests to qualify to do interactions with its handler in settings approved by the administration/owners of those settings. These settings may be hospitals, nursing homes, universities and other educational facilities, prisons, etc. These animals are also not limited to the canine species and they and their handlers do not have public access under any federal or state laws.