Service animals

This service dog has been trained to press a button to open an electric door for his wheelchair-using owner.

Service animals are animals that have been trained to perform tasks that assist disabled people. Service animals may also be referred to as assistance animals, assist animals, or helper animals depending on the country and the animal’s function.

Dogs are the most common service animals, assisting people in many different ways since at least 1927.[1] Other animals such as pigs, birds, and horses have also been documented. The service animal is not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to wear a vest, ID tag or a specific harness.[2]

In places of public accommodation in the United States, only dogs (and in some cases miniature horses) are legally considered service animals.[3] It is legal in certain states to have service “animals”. For instance, in Montana all animals are allowed at state level. Many cats, birds, and even a wolf are working to help mitigate people’s disabilities in Montana. It is also legal to train your own service animal in the United States. There is a broader definition for assistance animals under the US Fair Housing Act as well as a broader definition for service animals under the US Air Carrier Access Act.[3] In the United States, prior to a revision of the Americans with Disabilities Act going into effect March 15, 2011[4] types of animals other than service dogs and miniature horses were protected at least on the Federal level; individual states could expand coverage.

Despite regulations or rules that deny access to animals in restaurants and other public places, in many countries, guide dogs, other types of assistance dogs, and in cases miniature horses,[4]are protected by law, and therefore may accompany their handlers in most places that are open to the public. Laws and regulations vary worldwide:

  • In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits any business, government agency, or other organization that provides access to the general public from barring guide dogs. However, religious organizations are not required to provide such access. Current federal regulations define “service animal” for ADA purposes to exclude all species of animals other than domestic dogs and miniature horses.[6] Other laws, though, still provide broader definitions in other areas. For instance, the Department of Transportation’s regulations enacting the Air Carrier Access Act permit “dogs and other service animals” to accompany passengers on commercial airlines.[7] The Fair Housing Act also requires housing providers to permit service animals (including comfort and emotional support animals) without species restrictions in housing.[8]
    • Revised ADA Requirements: “Beginning on March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under titles II and III of the ADA. A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Generally, title II and title III entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.In addition to the provisions about service dogs, the Department’s revised ADA regulations have a new, separate provision about miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. (Miniature horses generally range in height from 24 inches to 34 inches measured to the shoulders and generally weigh between 70 and 100 pounds.) Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable. The regulations set out four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in their facility. The assessment factors are (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 not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.”,[9]
  • In most South American countries and Mexico, guide dog access depends solely upon the goodwill of the owner or manager. In more tourist-heavy areas, guide dogs are generally welcomed without problems. In Brazil, however, a 2006 federal decree[10] requires allowance of guide dogs in all public and open to public places. The Brasília Metro has developed a program which trains guide dogs to ride it.
  • In Europe, the situation varies by location. Some countries have laws that govern the entire country and sometimes the decision is left up to the respective regions.
  • In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects all assistance dog handlers. Current laws may not ensure that assistance dog users can always have their service animals present in all situations. Each state and territory has its own laws, which mainly pertain to guide dogs. Queensland has introduced the Guide Hearing and Assistance Dog Act 2009[11] that covers all certified assistance dogs.
  • In Canada, guide dogs along with other service animals are allowed anywhere that the general public is allowed, as long as the owner is in control of them. Fines for denying a service animal access can be up to $3000 in Alberta, Canada.[12]
  • In South Korea, it is illegal to deny access to guide dogs in any areas that are open to the public. Violators are fined for no more than 2 million won.

Service animals can be of many species and come in many sizes. Dogs, cats, dolphins, miniature horses, monkeys, ducks, ferrets, and parrots have all been trained to perform specific duties of a service animal, though the type of animal that may be registered as a “service animal” may vary depending on legal definitions. The people that can qualify for a service animal can have a range of physical and/or mental disabilities.

A guide animal is an animal specifically trained to assist visually impaired persons to navigate in public. These animals may be trained to open doors, recognize traffic signals, guide their owners safely across public streets, and navigate through crowds of people. A mobility animal may perform similar services for a person with physical disabilities, as well as assisting with balance or falling issues. Hearing animals are trained to assist hearing-impaired or deaf persons. These animals may be trained to respond to doorbells or a ringing phone or to tug their owners toward a person who is speaking to them. Psychiatric animals can be trained to provide deep-pressure therapy by lying on top of a person who may be suffering from PTSD flashbacks, overstimulation, or acute anxiety. Similarly, autism dogs have been recently introduced to recognize and respond to the needs of people with autism spectrum disorder; some persons with ASD state that they are more comfortable interacting with animals than with human caregivers due to issues regarding eye contact, touch, and socialization. Medical emergency animals can assist in medical emergency and perform such services as clearing an area in the event of a grand mal seizure, fetching medication or other necessary items, alerting others in the event of a medical episode; some may even be trained to call emergency services through use of a telephone with specially designed oversized buttons.

The animals also provide important companionship and emotional support for owners who might otherwise be isolated due to disability. It is important to note, however, that providing “important companionship and emotional support for owners” is not a task that would qualify an animal as a service animal. In the US, it is illegal to bring an animal to non-pet friendly places simply because it provides companionship or emotional support. Additionally, saying your animal is a service animal for such reasons is illegal. The owners in turn often derive a sense of accomplishment and importance from attending to the needs of their animals.