Peacocks on planes. Guide dogs in diners. Therapy horses at hospitals.
Animals that assist people in public have been making news lately ‚ÄĒ and making airlines, federal regulators and lawmakers take notice. But behind all the hubbub about critters flying free in coach is ample confusion about what roles these animals serve, where they‚Äôre allowed and what the laws say.
Here‚Äôs a primer on some common misconceptions.
Service animals have jobs. They‚Äôre trained to work or do tasks for people with disabilities, such as alerting deaf people to doorbells, guiding blind people down a sidewalk, pulling a wheelchair or protecting people who have seizures. This category includes psychiatric service animals, which might turn on lights for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Under federal law, service animals are not pets ‚ÄĒ they‚Äôre working animals.
Emotional support animals, which are sometimes called ‚Äúcomfort animals,‚ÄĚ provide their owners with companionship, a calming presence or a sense of security. But they are not necessarily trained in basic obedience or to perform tasks related to a person‚Äôs disability.
Therapy animals typically have more training than emotional support animals, but they‚Äôre trained to interact with lots of people, not to help an individual. They‚Äôre often deployed as calming, furry stress-relievers in such places as hospitals, airports and college campuses during finals. They‚Äôre also sometimes used in ‚Äúanimal-assisted therapy‚ÄĚ to help improve cognitive functioning in nursing home residents or build rapport between therapists and children. But their access to these places depends on prior agreements, not rights under federal law.
Nay. The Americans With Disabilities Act defines service animals as dogs. But it also says miniature horses can meet the test. A small number of miniature horses have been trained to guide blind people, pull wheelchairs or provide balance support. Some are the size of large dogs, and they‚Äôre a better match for people who are allergic to or uncomfortable around dogs. The Air Carrier Access Act, which applies to air travel, is more liberal. Regulations say ‚Äúany animal‚ÄĚ can be a service animal, but it allows carriers to nix spiders, snakes and other unusual species.
Not at all. Service animals enjoy broad access to public places, transportation and housing, even where pets aren‚Äôt allowed. The animals must be under their handler‚Äôs control, and they usually must be harnessed or leashed.
Emotional support animals, however, are not covered by the ADA, so no restaurant, subway or store is obligated to let them in. Some exceptions: Federal regulations allow ESAs on planes, but they permit airlines to ask handlers for a letter from a mental-health provider and to reject unusual species. Federal housing law also requires landlords or dorms to let people live with emotional support animals.
No, airlines can‚Äôt require this. Carriers cannot even ask about a passenger‚Äôs disability. They can ask only whether the animal is a service animal and what tasks or work it performs.
There‚Äôs one exception. Airlines can require people with psychiatric service animals to show documentation from a mental-health professional. That‚Äôs because the federal air travel law, unlike the ADA, views psychiatric service animals as akin to emotional support animals. Some service-dog organizations and lawmakers say this is unfair, and they want the regulations changed.
Far from it. There‚Äôs no national certification or registry for service animals. Some legitimate training programs offer certificates or ID tags, and plenty of shady websites will ‚Äúregister‚ÄĚ a service or support animal for a fee. But these have zero legal significance.
And while many service dogs undergo months of training, it‚Äôs not required. Professional training is expensive and lengthy, making it a barrier for some people. So handlers may train their own dogs (or mini horses). What‚Äôs important is that the animal is trained to do tasks that help a person with a disability.
False. It‚Äôs true that many service dogs wear vests or harnesses. It‚Äôs one way these trained animals know they‚Äôre on the clock, so to speak.
But anyone can purchase a service animal vest ‚ÄĒ not to mention tags and collars and leashes ‚ÄĒ online. People with trained service animals say actions, not attire, distinguish the real ones from pets. The former are well-behaved, focused on their handlers and respond to commands or specific situations.
You could try to challenge this. Service or emotional support animals are supposed to sit on the floor in front of the handler or on the person‚Äôs lap, and they‚Äôre not allowed to block aisles or passage.
Federal regulations also allow carriers to turn away animals that are too large or heavy or that present a direct health or safety risk. But airline employees decide these things on a case-by-case basis.
Several airlines have expanded documentation requirements and limited permissible species. A bill in Congress would bar emotional support animals from plane cabins and would make it illegal to misrepresent a pet as a service animal. It would also require the Department of Transportation to create a ‚Äústandard of service animal behavior training.‚ÄĚ
DOT, meanwhile, is reviewing its Air Carrier Access Act regulations. For now, it says it is focused on making sure airlines allow ‚Äúcommonly used‚ÄĚ service animals ‚ÄĒ dogs, cats and miniature horses. But new rules are expected.