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A service dog guides an individual with a white cane.

Service animals have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.

The Massachusetts Office on Disability (MOD) fields a high volume of inquiries and requests for training on the subject of service animals. Our previous blog post about service animals and emotional support animals continues to be our most-viewed post. MOD staff provide technical assistance to businesses, agencies, local governments, and other organizations that are making efforts to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities to be accompanied by service animals.  As part of our blog series on animals that assist persons with disabilities, this post offers a sampling of some of the most frequently asked questions we receive on this topic.

Do public places have to allow emotional support animals?

Maybe. Emotional support animals do not meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of service animals, “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” nor are they covered by the even more limiting Massachusetts law governing service animals, which mentions only dogs that “guide” persons who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, or who have physical disabilities. However, there is a caveat.  Places that are open to the public and covered under these laws still have an obligation to consider modifying their policies when necessary to ensure equal access to a person with a disability. In some cases, this could mean an obligation to modify a “Service Animals Only” policy to allow for an emotional support animal. MOD encourages covered entities to use such situations as opportunities to educate patrons about which animals meet the definition of service animal and to modify their policies on a case-by-case basis. Emotional support animals are not automatically entitled to access public places the way service animals are. It is important to note that individual states other than Massachusetts may have laws that do recognize emotional support animals as service animals.

How can I tell if a dog is a service animal or just a pet? 

Service animals are not required to wear any identifying items like vests or badges, nor is a service animal handler required to present certification or proof that a dog is a service animal. Service animals may look just like ordinary dogs (or miniature horses). If a staff person can’t tell, he or she is allowed to ask the handler two questions only:

1. Is this a service animal required because of a disability? and

2. What service is the dog trained to perform?

What if someone lies and answers the questions affirmatively even though the dog is just a pet?

Under current federal law, staff must take the handler at his or her word, regardless of suspicions. Various individual states have taken steps to make misrepresenting a pet as a service animal illegal, but the power to enforce such state laws may be limited absent a change to the ADA.  MOD reminds covered entities that all service animals must be under control, house broken, and may not pose a threat to health or safety when in public.  This means that, in the worst case scenario, public places may end up admitting a well-behaved “fake” service animal once in a while.

Trained service animals are an important component of independence for many persons with disabilities who benefit from their assistance.  Through training and education, MOD strives to foster an environment where individuals who use service animals are treated with respect, and covered entities are confident in their ability to apply the relevant laws correctly. Find more information on rights and training on MOD’s website.

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