Woman sitting with dog on hill

Sorting out the differences: Service animal versus emotional support animal

Business owners and managers take measures to ensure that employees and customers are safe. They want everyone to have the best experience possible in their work environment.

So what should an employer do when customers, or employees, bring animals into the workplace? Which animals must you allow on your premises, by law?

Test Your Service Animal IQ

(See answers below)

  1. What animal besides dogs could be an official service animal?
  2. Are the rules for service animals the same as those for emotional comfort animals?
  3. Are service animals allowed where food is served?
  4. Does a service animal have to be on a leash?

If you aren’t sure about the answers to any of those questions (most of us aren’t), keep reading!

Are emotional support dogs covered by the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines the term “service animal” and offers guides to businesses. The ADA defines service animals as dogs (or occasionally miniature horses) that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”

A service dog might remind a person to take specific medications. It might be trained to see a medical episode such as a seizure. An animal may guide someone with impaired vision safely through a parking lot. A dog could alert a person who is hearing impaired when someone is approaching them from behind.

Service animals must be trained to perform tasks specifically related to the disability of the individual handler. But requirements go beyond training. The handler must keep their animal under control (or brought back under control quickly), the animal must be housebroken and generally should be leashed.

Know the law or face stiff fines

Violating ADA regulations and denying a legitimate service animal can mean significant fines, so it’s good to know how the law works.

A business cannot require proof of training, for example. Handlers may train their own service animals, though business owners are not required to allow an animal “in training” into their business. (Check local state rules for specific guidelines on this)

Your business can generally ask handlers only these two questions:

  1. Is this animal required because of a disability?
  2. What specific tasks is this animal trained to perform?

It’s important to remember that a working service animal is not considered a pet, so business policies or guidelines relating to pets don’t apply. For instance, a hotel can’t limit a customer with a service animal to specific “pet friendly” rooms or charge a “pet fee.”

Service animals must be allowed in most hospitals and dining facilities. (“Wherever the public is normally allowed to go” is the general rule.)

What if someone reports an allergy? The business must accommodate this and might separate dog and allergy sufferer in different parts of a room or in different rooms within a facility, for example.
There are more specific rules for public housing and air travel, so those won’t apply to most other businesses. Remember to pay attention to local laws, as well.

Emotional support animal labels are increasing

If you think there’s been an increase in emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals, you’re correct.

A study done at the University of California at Davis shows a ten-fold increase in using these types of dogs in California between 2000 and 2012. Do pets provide emotional support to people who struggle with mental illness? Absolutely! However, according to Psychology Today: “In the United States, there is no federally recognized certification process for emotional support animals.”

Businesses aren’t required to allow emotional support animals unless state or local laws required it.

Some pet owners seek out and present official-looking papers to legitimize their support animals, but the ADA doesn’t require businesses to allow them. That’s the case no matter a note from a doctor, a vest on the handler or dog denoting “emotional support animal” or how much the person may rely on the animal emotionally.

A business may choose to allow these animals as long as it doesn’t violate other laws such as health codes.

Answers to “Test Your Service Animal IQ”

  1. What animal besides dogs could be an official service animal? – Miniature horses
  2. Are the rules for service animals the same as those for emotional comfort animals? – No
  3. Are service animals allowed where food is served? – Yes
  4. Does a service animal have to be on a leash? – Generally, yes

You should now have a better idea of how to deal with animals your customers or employees bring to your facility. The HR professionals at BCN Services are here to help if you have additional questions about service animals or other ADA requirements. Contact us anytime.

Trisha Crigger, HR Generalist