Service Animals: The 3 Essential Definitions to Ease Confusion

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Yes, I know I said something that seems a bit oxy-moronic! (I think I just made a new word) How will 3 different definitions of the same thing help anyone’s state of confusion?! Bare are with me; this actually makes sense.

The world of service animals, for some reason, seems to be a confusing one when it comes to understanding information. Quite often terms are mixed up or confused, or assumptions are made about what an animal actually is, or actually does, and where they are allowed, or not allowed to be.

On the other hand, I think this highlights how amazing and versatile dogs are at being working dogs, and helping us humans with our day to day experiences. There are so many types of dogs and types of services that dogs provide to us, we can’t keep track of it all! Thank goodness for Dogs.

This is actually very simply. Here are 3 definitions of Service Dogs/Animals and which one will apply to you will depend on if you’re looking for information about public access, rights to housing situations, or flying with your dog. (Flying dogs!)

There are 3 main definitions of ‘Service Animal’ that you should know about

1. Service Animal as defined by the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) governs the rules around Service Dogs and their humans. It is concerned with the issues around disabled people being permitted to bring their service dog into public places.  People with a service dog are allowed to go almost all the places that the general public is normally allowed. (There are some exceptions, such as religious organizations).

So, if you’re looking to find out if your dog is permitted into public areas with you, such as food courts or restaurants, hotels/motels, theatres, grocery stores, or any other public places, then check out this definition here:

Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Emotional Support Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Comfort Dogs or Companion Animals under the ADA

The ADA defines Service Dog as something totally different from emotional support animals, therapy animals, comfort animals, and companion animals. These are not considered Service Dogs. Therefore, they do not have the same rights as service dogs under the ADA.

Q3. Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?

No.  These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person.  Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.  You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.

I suppose what this means is that Service Dogs, with their human, are allowed into almost all public places that the general public is invited. The same can not necessarily be said for people with these other types of dogs. So, a person with an emotional support animal may be excluded from a restaurant, for example, while a person with a service dog will be allowed. Of course individual establishments may vary, but service dogs as defined by the ADA are the only type of dogs covered by this law.

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2. Service Animal as defined by the FHA (Fair Housing Act)

When you want to start thinking about whether your dog is allowed with you into a housing situation, then you can basically forget the ADA rules and switch to the FHA rules. There is good news; the definition of service animal is not as strict! Check out the definition here:

An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.

For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, neither the Fair Housing Act nor Section 504 requires an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified. While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.

A provider is entitled to obtain information that is necessary to evaluate if a requested reasonable accommodation may be necessary because of a disability. If a person’s disability is obvious, or otherwise known to the provider, and if the need for the requested accommodation is also readily apparent or known, then the provider may not request any additional information. 

If the disability and/or the disability-related reason for the requested accommodation is not known or obvious, the requesting individual, medical professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency, or a reliable third party who is in a position to know about the individual’s disability may also provide verification of a disability. In most cases, an individual’s medical records or detailed information about the nature of a person’s disability is not necessary for this inquiry.

Basically, you’ll need some kind of doctor’s note (or another professional) to verify your need for the dog to the landlord or other housing provider; but you’ll likely be able to keep your dog whether it is a custom-trained service dog, non-trained emotional support dog, or another type of therapy or assistance dog.

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3. Service Animal as defined by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

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When you’d like to take an air plane ride with your animal, you can now forget the ADA and FHA because there is yet a 3rd set of rules and definitions for Service Dogs.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) a service animal is any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.  Documentation may be required of passengers needing to travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal.

What kind of documentation can be required of persons travelling with emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals?

  • Airlines may require documentation that is not older than one year from the date of your scheduled initial flight that states:
    • You have a mental or emotional disability that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM);
    • You need your emotional support or psychiatric support animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination;
    • The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his/her professional care; and
    • The licensed health care professional’s;
      • Date and type of professional license; and
      • Jurisdiction or state in which their license was issued.

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Sam Nelson

Sam is an experienced writer, advocate for people with disabilities and mental health, dog lover, artist, philosopher, and generally complicated human being.

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