Service Animals

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended, has substantially modified the definition and characteristics of service animals by regulation of September 15, 2010, which became effective March 15, 2011.

Definition: Service animal means any dog 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. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purpose of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability.

Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks (guide dogs); alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds (hearing dogs); providing non-violent protection or rescue work; pulling a wheelchair; assisting an individual during a seizure; alerting individuals to the presence of allergens; retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone; providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability  to individuals with mobility disabilities; and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors (support dogs).

The crime deterrent effect of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purpose of this definition.

Specific requirements: (1) A service animal shall be under the control of its handler. A service animal shall have a harness, leash, or other tether, unless either the handler is unable because of a disability to use a harness, leash, or other tether, or the use of a harness, leash, or other tether would interfere with the service animal’s safe, effective performance of work or tasks, in which case the service animal must be otherwise under the handler’s control (i.e., voice control, signals, or other effective means). (2) The service animal must be housebroken.

Inquiries Concerning a Service Animal: A public entity may not ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability, but may make two inquiries to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal. A public entity may ask (1) if the animal is required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. A public entity may not require documentation such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. Generally, a public entity may not make these inquiries about a service animal when it is readily apparent that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability (i.e., 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).

Exception to Dogs as a Service Animal: The Miniature Horse: A miniature horse is not included in the definition of service animal, which is limited to dogs. However, public accommodations must make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. The public accommodation may take into account a series of assessment factors in determining whether to allow a miniature horse into a specific facility. These include the type, size, and weight of the miniature horse, whether the handler has sufficient control of the miniature horse, whether the miniature horse is housebroken, and whether the miniature horse’s presence in a specific facility compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation. Ponies and full-size horses are not included in the exception.

Because miniature horses can vary in size and can be larger and less flexible than dogs, public entities may exclude this type of service animal if the presence of a miniature horse results in a fundamental alteration to the nature of the service provided.

Miniature horses can provide service for more than 25 years while dogs can provide service, on average, for approximately seven years, and, because of their strength, miniature horses can provide services that dogs cannot provide. Accordingly, use of miniature horses reduces the cost involved to retire, replace, and train replacement service animals. The miniature horse is not one specific breed, but may be one of several breeds, with distinct characteristics that produce animals suited to service animal work. They generally range in height from 24 inches to 34 inches measured to the shoulders, and generally weigh between 70 and 100 pounds. These characteristics are similar to large breed dogs such a Labrador Retrievers, Great Danes, and Mastiffs. Similar to dogs, miniature horses can be trained through behavioral reinforcement to be “housebroken.” Miniature horses are particularly effective for individuals of large stature.

Clarifications: (1) A service animal must be individually trained to do something that qualifies as work or as a task. It is the fact that the animal is trained to respond to an individual’s needs that distinguishes an animal as a service animal, as opposed to a pet or a companion animal, which do not qualify for coverage as a service animal. The process must have two steps: recognition and response. For example, if a service animal senses that a person is about to have a psychiatric episode and is trained to respond, for example, by nudging, barking, or removing the individual to a safe location until the episode subsides, then the animal has indeed performed a task or done work on behalf of the individual with a disability, as opposed to merely sensing an event.

(2) Wild animals, whether born or bred in captivity or in the wild, are no longer eligible as service animals, such as capuchin monkeys, because of their potential for disease transmission and unpredictable aggressive behavior.

(3) Animals whose sole function is to provide emotional support, comfort, therapy, companionship, therapeutic benefits, or to promote emotional well-being are not service animals.

Breeds: Golden and Labrador Retrievers, and crosses between the two, and German Shepherds are the most popular service dogs because of their temperament, intelligence, versatility, and size. Dogs trained as service animals must be willing workers, large enough to comfortably work in harness but small enough to fit under restaurant tables or under the seat in front of the partner where carry-on luggage is usually placed. Many source organizations breed their own dogs. Over 50% of service dogs are Golden Retrievers which have temperaments and abilities suitable to training and working.

Training Service Dogs: Training a dog as a service animal generally involves three distinct phases.

  • Phase 1: Early in the dog’s life, at about 8 weeks of age, the dog is placed in the home of a volunteer puppy raiser where it is taught basic obedience, socialization, and given lots of love. An important part of the puppy-raising program involves exposure of the young dog to settings and situations that are similar to what it will experience during its working life. Children make excellent volunteer puppy raisers. They receive careful training on how to start the dog on its working career.
  • Phase 2: At about 18 months of age, the dogs are brought back to a formal training facility for an average of 6-12 months of intensive training where they learn specialized skills, commands, and tasks. During this training, the trainer will take the dog to places such as malls, grocery stores, movie theaters, and restaurants to accustom it to being in public.
  • Phase 3: After the dog has been trained, it is matched with its new master, and they participate together in team training for approximately two weeks. During that time, they learn to work together, become independent as a team, and start a bonding process that normally lasts for the rest of the dog’s working life. While the average working life of a service dog is seven years, some have worked to the age of 12 or 13. After retirement, they generally revert to ”pet” status.

The organizations that train service dogs continuously and carefully screen them throughout the training period for good temperament, good health, and safety of both the individual and the dog.

Costs: It can cost thousands of dollars (one source organization says $7,000.00; another says $12,000.00) to train a service animal, but the cost to the individual with a disability varies greatly. Many source organizations are funded by private donations and/or charitable entities, and the cost to the individual is frequently nominal. The various Web sites on our resource list contain specific information on costs.

Resources: Keep in mind that not all of the information presented in our list of resources is completely accurate or reliable until such time as the Web site updates their information to be in accord with the new definition of service animal. For example, some of the listed web sites include service dogs for children with autism that fall short of the requirement that the dog be individually trained to do work or perform a task to meet the needs of a specific disability. Good references/resources are:

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