What’s the Doggone Law?

“Is that a service dog?” It’s one of the first questions business owners and employees ask when an animal walks into a public setting, like a store or restaurant. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion about what makes a dog a service dog. Many people confuse service animals with therapy dogs or emotional support animals. The problem is that these terms—which are important separate legal distinctions—are nearly interchangeable to anyone without a service animal or legal background.

​Service dogs (and, in limited cases, service miniature horses) are animals trained to do work or specific tasks for people with disabilities and are limited to these two species under Title III of the ADA. These tasks can be alerting to flares in medical conditions, sniffing out allergens in food, mobility aid, guidance, and much, much more. They do not, however, include the animal being a comforting presence to their handler. This means that a service animal has to actively perform a trained behavior for it to be considered a task. 

Service animals and their handlers have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), the Fair Housing Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, the Ohio Revised Code, and the Ohio Administrative Code, all of which provide varying standards for the use of service animals. In some states, helper monkeys are also called service animals and are permitted to live and travel with their owner. Ohio does not recognize monkeys as service animals, but some species of monkeys are permitted to be household pets. 

​Therapy dogs are an entirely different type of animal. (Pun intended.) Unlike service animals, they are not trained in specific tasks and are usually only allowed in areas where the establishment has given consent to enter. Therapy dogs are often seen in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and offices. They are generally trained and certified to approach people for the sake of a person’s comfort. Another big distinction between service dogs and therapy animals is that a service dog works for one person, its handler, whereas a therapy dog works with a group of people. 

In order to become a therapy dog, the animal must be at least one year old, be well-mannered and well-behaved, and pass a test. Therapy dogs are pets and can be any size or breed. There are no rights for therapy dogs that allow them to accompany their owners into a business establishment. Since hotels, motels and campgrounds are businesses, therapy dogs must follow the policies for household pets when entering those areas.

​That leaves us with emotional support animals (ESAs). Unlike service animals and therapy dogs, ESAs are not given public access protection under federal law and do not require any specific types of training. These animals are not trained to provide specific tasks and are not limited by species. An ESA is essentially a pet that lifts someone’s mood and, while this is important, it does not give rise to the same legal protections service dogs enjoy. Some cities may allow public access to ESAs, although most treat them as ordinary housepets. In order to call your pet an ESA, you must have a letter written by a mental health professional licensed in your state, which includes language that makes it clear you suffer from an emotional disability (as defined by the ADA) and that the ESA is a vital part of your wellbeing. The letter is valid for a period of one year and then must be renewed. (An important note: sometimes the decision of what type of animal to buy or what legal access someone is afforded is a matter of finances. Some people who want or need a service animal may have no choice but to acquire an ESA.)

Under the Fair Housing Act, a person may be able to legally live in rented housing with their emotional support animal, even if there is a “no pets” policy. There are exceptions, such as if an animal is poorly behaved or destructive, if it’s unreasonable to house the animal due to size, or if accommodating the ESA imposes an undue financial or administrative burden to the landlord. ESAs may also be able to accompany their owners on public transportation, specifically airplanes. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), ESAs are permitted to sit in the cabin and fly with their owners so long as their presence does not create a safety concern to other passengers. We recommend that you contact the airline 48 hours before your flight to ensure that there is enough space for your ESA and that you have all of the proper documentation in order. 

While it may be easy to purchase a patch or vest for your furry friend, think twice about claiming your pet is a service animal or emotional support animal. That’s not only fraudulent, but it’s also an expressly illegal act in most states, carrying the possibility of a fine and even jail time. If you feel you’ve been discriminated against due to your service animal, contact the Equality Ohio’s Legal Clinic today!

Rex, right, service dog; Gunner, left, therapy-dog-in-training at the Legal Clinic in Akron
Gunner with Equality Ohio legal consultant and Chair of TransOhio, James, at Pride.
Rex with Equality Ohio intern, Raph