Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On service animals, therapy animals, and taking your dog with you to the store: an essay

I have a friend of a friend of a friend who, earlier this year, decided that she wanted a hedgehog.

Specifically, she wanted a "service hedgehog." See, she had been at the mall and there had been a guy there walking around carrying a hedgehog. She asked about it, and he explained he was "allowed" to, because it was a "service hedgehog."

There's at least three things wrong with this scenario. First, we live in the state of California, where hedgehogs are illegal (with rare exceptions; you must own a special permit to own one and justify why you have one).

Second, there is also no such thing as a "service hedgehog." I suppose you could have a "therapy hedgehog," but even if you did, it probably wouldn't be allowed in the mall or the state of California.

Finally, hedgehogs are notoriously grumpy animals. If you needed emotional support of any kind, a hedgehog would be one of the last animals I would recommend.

I had to explain all this in excruciating detail to the friend-of-the-friend, who really, really wanted a hedgehog. Her central argument was "But they're so cute!" It's hard to argue with that, because it's true. They're really cute.

Fortunately I managed to explain to her why she couldn't have a service hedgehog. I don't know whether the guy with the "service hedgehog" was lying or if he'd been completely misinformed by someone else, but this is not the first time I've heard someone misuse or misunderstand the concept of service animals and the legality of taking them into public spaces.

And so, if you've heard of this, considered it for your pet, or want more information, here's the scoop.

Disclaimer: I researched this only for my own interest (and to talk the friend-of-the-friend down from getting a hedgehog), and I am not a lawyer. These rules apply only to the United States, and some states may have other laws and amendments, so be sure to do your own research before you start taking Toto with you to Target.

Let's start with definitions. What's the difference between a SERVICE animal, and an ASSISTANCE animal?

A service animal is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a dog (or other animal, but generally a dog) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.  Under the ADA, service animals MUST be dogs or miniature horses.  No other animal qualifies as a service animal.  Furthermore, the work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person's disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

For an animal to be covered by ADA law, there must be a clear correlation between the disability and the animal; if you're blind you can't demand to be allowed gerbils in your dorm.  Your service animal must perform a specific, trained task that has a clear correlation to your disability.

What's more, a service animal cannot have service "transferred." Beware of scams that claim to have licensed "service animals" that you can buy and take anywhere. If you're not blind, you can't just go out and get a seeing-eye dog to take to Steak n' Shake with you, no matter how delicious their new Mint Oreo Cookies n' Cream Shake™ looks. Also, beware of sites like this that let you "register" your animal. This site and others like it are NOT government-supported and do NOT make your dog into a legal service animal. There is no such thing as an online registration process that magically makes your dog into a service dog, only sites that help you convincingly fake it. Misrepresenting your animal as a "service dog" is a federal offense. Laws very by state, but misrepresenting a dog as a service animal generally carries a penalty of a fine and/or jail time. In my state of California, the fine is $1,000 and/or 6 months in jail.

How do you train a service dog? There are no official federal licensing rules, with the exception of the Guide Dogs for the Blind. They are classified differently from service dogs and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Consumer Affairs. Training of guide dogs is done by instructors who are licensed through the state.

For other service dogs, most training is done through private organisations that have vetting processes for the disabled to obtain a trained animal.

But what about "assistance" or "therapy" dogs? An assistance animal (such as a therapy animal or an emotional support animal) (also called an "ESA") does not perform a specific task but provides general comfort or support. (Although there's some debate, federally, seizure dogs are indeed currently covered by the ADA for doing a specific task, called an "alert.)

The difference between a therapy dog and an ESA is that therapy animals help other people, while emotional support animals help their handler."  Both can be called "assistance" dogs. However, neither is a "service" animal.

Assistance animals (ESAs) are covered under the Fair Housing Act. Therapy dogs are not covered under this law. Property managers/landlords are NOT required to make a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act for either assistance or service animals in these special cases:
  • Buildings with 4 or less units where the landlord occupies one of the units.
  • Single family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker.
  • Hotels and motels are not considered dwellings under the FHA, but are considered places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So if you're blind, your dog is allowed at the Embassy Suites, but if you're depressed and have an emotional support dog, the dog doesn't need to be allowed.
  • Private Clubs.
Public universities are required to comply with the Fair Housing Act, which includes allowing emotional support animals into college dormitories and residence halls. Private universities may or may not be required to comply, however. They are not allowed to charge you for keeping the animal but may request a refundable deposit in case the animal does any damage.

Laws allow a property manager to accept a letter from the tenant's licensed mental health professional (LMHP) for an ESA, and may require a verification form to be completed by a physician or LMHP, confirming the tenant's physical/emotional/psychiatric disability. You are not legally required to say what your disability or emotional problem is; you only need the letter stating that you have a disability and need the animal. Landlords may not ask you "why" you need the animal or what the animal does; this violates HIPAA privacy law.

Note that in order for verification to be accepted, it must come from a LICENSED mental health professional; a general practitioner of medicine, a non-licensed counselor, or a social worker wouldn't count.

Although your landlord cannot refuse your animal on the general basis of weight, species, or training, they CAN charge you for any damages the animal does to the property, and they CAN evict you if the animal is destructive, unruly, or causing undue disturbance or distress on the property. Please note that the law says "reasonable accommodations" must be made, so while your landlord might be forced to allow a pitbull even if he has a "no pitbull" rule, he does NOT have to allow a tiger, or to install a pool for your duck. "Reasonable accommodation" means the landlord must allow the animal but doesn't necessarily have to make extreme accommodations; for example, installing a doggy door or otherwise altering the property for the animal. It also means the burden of caring for the animal and keeping it from destroying property falls on you, the owner of the animal.

Note that under BOTH laws, private institutions and residences are not covered. A condominium, which would be a "private residence," does not have to allow your dog in.

Under the ADA, service dogs are NOT required to wear the vests we so often see them with. Your dog doesn't need a vest or a special harness or tags. It doesn't even need a lead! It DOES need a license and a rabies vaccine, just like any other dog, though. The reason for the vests are a handy way of displaying the service license to avoid unwanted attention or questions, and also a handy way of preventing other people from trying to pet the dog. (Most vests will say "DO NOT TOUCH; WORKING DOG" on them.) But strictly speaking, you cannot be turned away from a business if you have a service dog that isn't wearing his vest. A service dog is a service dog regardless of whether or not he's wearing a vest. What's more, business owners cannot legally ask you for your service dog's ID or license. If you say it's a service dog, they must allow it (provided that it is not shitting on the floor, jumping on anyone, barking, or otherwise causing mayhem). Business owners are allowed to ask what what specific task the dog is trained to do, however.

How about service puppies, or service dogs in training? NOT covered by the ADA (varies by state; clauses in Texas and Arizona allow service dogs in training to go into stores). "In training" doesn't fall under the ADA because they aren't performing a specific task, and the handler isn't themselves disabled (usually).

Disabled people are allowed to train their own service dog, but while the dog is in training, it is not considered a true service dog.

A lot of people ask why dogs aren't allowed to go with them into every business. You've all probably heard the "health issue" argument. But there's more to it than that. Even a well-trained dog that doesn't shit on the floor might cause allergic reactions in other patrons. The owner of the business also has to worry about liability/biting issues, and whether the dog might destroy something. Finally, just because YOU are comfortable with your pet doesn't mean other people will be. Some people are genuinely frightened of dogs and unfamiliar with them. Even a friendly dog might seen scary to someone who doesn't like dogs. Not allowing a dog into a business is the business owner's attempt to protect the property, merchandise, and other patrons from allergies, feces, vomit, biting, nuisance, or general unruliness.

"But my dog would never bite anyone!"

Maybe not, but the business owner doesn't know that! And let's be honest: we all have blind spots when it comes to our own pets. We love our pets, and many owners fail to see their dog's bad behaviour.

So why are service/therapy dogs different? Most service or even therapy dogs have undergone extensive training.  For therapy dogs or hospital visitation dogs, there are organizations like Pet Partners or TDI that have obedience tests that far exceed the standards set by pet organizations like the AKC.  Hospitals set their own standards; here's Cedars-Sinai's page as one example.

Service animals must demonstrate that a dog remains under the trainer or owner's control even when distracted. Part of the reason service dogs are allowed in public spaces is because of a "guarantee" of good behaviour. A service dog should, in public, keep its nose to itself, and should not whine, pace, or be distracted. A business owner can ask a person with a service animal to leave if the service animal goes berserk.

Before dragging your dog out in public, ask yourself:
  • How housetrained is it? Can it/does it let you know when it has to go?
  • Does your dog ever jump up when excited, either on people or furniture? Does your dog ever bark?
  • If you dropped the lead, would your dog run away? What if there was another dog, or the temptation of food?
  • Is your dog easily startled? When startled, does your dog become difficult to control?
  • Are there "triggers" your dog has, such as loud noises, squirrels, or people wearing hats?
  • How readily does your dog obey your commands? Does your dog sit, wait, lay down, and come when called EVERY TIME, even when distracted?
Here's an interesting article in the New Yorker about a journalist who went about town with various animals to see how it worked. The short answer is, if your animal is well-behaved, a lot of people won't question the animal's presence, and most people are unfamiliar with the legal difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal.

If reading over this information has caused you some internal debate about dragging your pet around town, never fear! There are pet-friendly businesses that do allow dogs, even if they are just pets and not licensed service animals. Here's some places that have been previously lauded as dog-friendly:
  • Home Depot, Lowe's, and other hardware stores.
  • Petco, PetSmart, or other pet stores.
  • Pottery Barn, Michaels, and Jo-Ann Fabrics.
  • Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
  • Some Targets. (Note: many will require your dog to ride in the cart.)
  • Barnes and Nobles, as well as many other book stores. (Cafes often excluded!)
  • Macy's, Gap, Bloomingdale's, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Footlocker, Bebe, Nordstrom, Old Navy, TJ Maxx, Homegoods,and Marshalls are all stores that, while officially refusing dogs, are known to allow some dogs.  It varies by store and by the policies of the individual store manager.
  • Some Goodwills.
  • Some shopping malls.
  • College campuses.
  • Some CVS and Walgreen's locations (double-check; in Los Angeles, you are often asked to carry the dog.)
Keep in mind, although these stores are GENERALLY dog-friendly, they allow or disallow pets at their discretion. Each franchise can make its own rules, and various states and localities have their own laws. If you're not sure, call and ask.

If you want more information about this issue, I highly recommend this article, which says pretty much everything I just did and more. Please check the legality of getting or using a service or assistance dog before you do, out of respect for both the law and the truly disabled. Misrepresenting service dogs can cause discrimination problems for the disabled.

The purpose of this post was to help educate those who find these laws complicated and want to learn more.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Yes, that's the purpose of this post: to explain the law so people don't do stupid things. You can't get a service dog unless you are disabled and require a service in the first place; a lot of people seem confused about "service animal" vs. "emotional support animal," so I did the research and explained it in this post.


  2. Poodle Dog Breed Information, Pictures, Characteristics & Facts, Poodle Guide: Toy, Miniature, Standard, Teacup, Shedding, Sizes of Poodles, Poodle Colors, Types of Poodle Coats, Poodle Mixes, nutrition and care, health
    Elegant. Proud. Clever. The Poodle is an impressive dog, as the many best-in-show winners from this dog breed can attest. But behind the blue ribbons, impressive hairdos, and regal attitude, you’ll find an affectionate family dog with an ancient history and many talents.

    Even though these are purebred dogs, you may find them in the care of shelters or rescue groups. Remember to adopt! Don’t shop if you want to bring a dog home.

    Poodles are regarded as one of the most intelligent breeds in the world. They’re highly trainable and well suited for just about any task you put them to — and you will want to give them tasks to do. Bored Poodles can get destructive if they aren’t physically and mentally stimulated. But active owners who can meet their dog’s needs will find a loving, smart, trainable, and loyal family companion.
    Poodle Dog Breed Information, Pictures, Characteristics & Facts, Poodle Guide: Toy, Miniature, Standard, Teacup, Shedding, Sizes of Poodles, Poodle Colors, Types of Poodle Coats, Poodle Mixes, nutrition and care, health