What Is a “Service Animal” Anyway?

By: Melanie M. Dunajeski, Drewry Simmons Vornehm, LLP

Most people are familiar with the use of Guide Dogs for the Blind, but are less familiar with other animals that are increasingly being used to assist people with disabilities, such as diabetic alert dogs and seizure sensitive dogs, that can alert their person to the onset of episodes.  Laws prohibit discrimination based on disability: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, ADAA) prohibits discrimination in state and local government services (Title II), public accommodations and commercial facilities (Title III), and in employment (Title I). The use of a “service animal” as an accommodation to permit a disabled person to function in public places and on the job under all three of these titles was tested in numerous cases, including cases where animals other than dogs were proffered as service animals, including monkeys, ferrets, and miniature horses. Miniature horses, with their intelligence, 40-50 year life span and small but sturdy frames, have been brought forward as a possible solution for the shorter lifespan of service dogs.

In 2011 the Department of Justice implemented revisions to the regulations enforcing the ADA to define the term “service animal” for purposes of Title II and Title III (but NOT the employment related Title I), to mean only “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability”. A new and separate revision was adopted for miniature horses that included a “reasonableness” standard”. Under the regulations for Title II and III, the dog must be harnessed, leashed or tethered, and the individual must also maintain control of the animal through voice, signal or other effective commands. Emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are generally NOT considered “service animals” for the purposes of Title I, but there is a distinction between this type of animal and a psychiatric service animal.

Regardless of whether an employee seeks to bring a dog or some other service animal into the workplace to help them resolve or cope with a disability, an employer is entitled to review the use of that animal considering the employee’s disability.  An employer is entitled to request documentation to establish the existence of the disability and of the need for the service animal if the employee’s disability is not obvious or the reason for the use of the animal not clear. That documentation can include how the animal would help the employee and how it would behave in the workplace.  The employee’s request for accommodation must be reasonable, and the solution must allow the employee to perform the essential functions of their job.  As with any other accommodation provided by an employer, it cannot represent an undue burden or a direct threat in the workplace.  The request to allow a service animal may also trigger competing concerns, such as the presence of an allergic co-worker in the workplace.  The employee’s request to allow a service animal in the workplace is a request for an accommodation, and the employer should respond by engaging in the interactive process with that employee.