Confusion over what constitutes a service animal can sometimes lead to standoffs between dog owners and business owners over whether an animal is allowed inside, but the Americans with Disabilities Act does provide some clarity.
“As with everything made for people with disabilities, there are going to be people who take advantage of it,” said Darrin Umbarger, CEO of Clearview Mediation Disability Resource Center in Pendleton.
But Umbarger said for many people a service animal is a legitimate necessity that helps mitigate their disability. Dogs can be trained to help people with visual impairments navigate or to alert people with hearing impairments that someone is knocking on their door or a timer is going off. They can also assist people during a seizure, perform tasks such as turning on lights for individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, help a handler with autism stop repetitive motions like hand-flapping or alert a diabetic owner that their blood sugar is getting too high or low.
“There are so many different things a service animal can be trained to do,” Umbarger said.
What is a service animal?
A service animal, under the legal definition provided by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, is a dog or miniature horse trained to perform specific tasks to assist an individual with their disability, such as a dog that helps someone with a visual impairment or limited mobility navigate.
Rabbits, cats, pigs and other animals are not legally considered service animals and can be barred from establishments. Oregon law automatically bars all pets (but not service animals) from restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses where food is present.
Emotional support, therapy or comfort animals that provide emotional support simply by being present are considered pets, not service animals, under the law.
“These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice website. “Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA ... If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”
The ADA does not require registration or certification for service dogs. Websites and companies that offer “registration” for a fee do not have any legal bearing on a service animal’s validity.
Where are service animals allowed?
Service animals are not considered pets under the law and cannot be barred by a “no pets allowed” rule in restaurants, housing, public transportation or other areas. Employers, schools and other entities are expected to make reasonable accommodations for use of the service animal.
The ADA allows only two questions to be asked in determining whether an animal can enter the space: Whether the animal is legally considered a service animal under the ADA, and what tasks the service animal has been trained to perform to help mitigate a disability. Staff cannot ask about the nature of the handler’s disability, charge a fee for the service animal or ask for documentation.
A service animal can be asked to leave if the animal makes a mess on the floor, is running around out of the handler’s control or jumps on or bites another patron. It can also be barred from certain non-public parts of a building, such as the kitchen in a restaurant or the operating room of a hospital.
What is the proper etiquette when interacting with someone who has a service animal?
Guidelines by the Northwest ADA Center recommend that everyone treat service dogs as working animals, not pets, and not touch the animal without permission. People should not feed the animal, talk to the animal instead of the handler, or ask the owner about the nature of their disability.