Feds release new service animal guidance

Couple walking, one person using a cane and holding a golden labrador service dog
New Service Animal Guidance

Responding to years of confusion from disability advocates and business entities, the Department of Justice has released a new technical document [PDF], providing answers to 37 common questions regarding the rights of people who use service animals under federal discrimination law.

“The Department of Justice continues to receive many questions about how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to service animals,” the document states. “The ADA requires State and local government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations (covered entities) that provide goods or services to the public to make ‘reasonable modifications’ in their policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to accommodate people with disabilities. The service animal rules fall under this general principle.”

The guidance covers an array of topics, ranging from service animal qualifications, to the obligations of stores, restaurants, hotels and other covered entities. The guidance applies only to service animals in places of public accommodation and government services and only describes what the ADA requires. There are often different rules that apply to other settings like employment or housing and more protective laws that apply in specific states or cities.

DOJ’s guidance clarifies that for public business and government services covered by the ADA, the animal must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” Contrarily, as clarified by the DOJ’s 2011 regulations, the ADA does not apply to animals that merely apply emotional support, comfort animals. The rules apply almost exclusively to dogs, although there are rules for certain miniature horses as well.

When determining whether they must accommodate a service animal, covered entities may not require documentation, require the animal to perform a test, or inquire into the nature of the person’s disability. Indeed, employees at covered entities may only ask if the service is animal required because of the disability and which tasks the animal has been trained to perform.

There is no requirement that the animal be registered or certified as a service animal.

As defenses to the general presumption that covered entities must allow service animals, the covered entity must demonstrate that accommodating the service animal would fundamentally alter its services, or pose a direct safety threat. At all times within the covered entity, the service animal must be under the handler’s control.

The US Department of Justice has provided a webpage with further information on the ADA regulations on service animals.