Melissa J. Nixon, DVM
A service animal may also be called an assistance animal, a guide animal, or a signal animal.
Most service animals are dogs, although some miniature horses, monkeys, birds, and cats have been trained and utilized as service animals.
A service animal is any animal individually trained to perform specific tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.
Service animals and their partners are given special rights under federal law in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Note: In 2010, the ADA redefined "service animal" to refer to dogs and, subject to certain limitations, miniature horses. Other species are no longer covered as service animals.
Rights are also extended to trainers of service animals and in some cases to a second person who has trained along with the service animal and their disabled partner to assist in handling the animal.
Service animals are not pets; they are working animals and are trained to perform specific tasks. They may guide a blind partner around obstacles, signal to a deaf partner that someone has called their name, turn on lights, pick up dropped objects, stabilize the gait of a partner with a movement disorder, pull a wheelchair, signal that a partner is about to seizure, signal to a diabetic that blood sugar is out of range, guide someone with post traumatic stress disorder away from a stressful scene, do specific behaviors to assist someone in a panic attack, help an autistic child break a repetitive behavior cycle, aid a patient with Parkinson's Disease to get unstuck, and many other tasks.
Therapy dogs are not service dogs and do not receive any rights under federal or state laws. Therapy animals are utilized by an owner in assisting other people, usually in hospital or counseling situations; they are NOT specifically trained to assist a specific individual with a specific disability.
Emotional support animals are NOT service animals. Psychiatric assistance animals trained to do specific tasks for an individual with a psychiatric disability ARE service animals.
A disabled person's pet is not a service animal. A pet is not trained to perform specific tasks to assist the disabled person while a service animal is trained to perform specific tasks to assist.
Service animals should never be petted, distracted, harassed, or fed by anyone other than their partner while in harness or at ease unless the partner gives specific permission to feed or pet.
State laws may offer additional protection over federal law. In California, there are stiff penalties for interfering with a service dog and its partner (a "team"), denying access, harming a service dog, owning an animal that harms a service animal, or impersonating a trainer or partner.
Organizations and businesses that serve the public are required to allow disabled people to bring their service animals into all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed. This includes restaurants, hotels, taxis, buses, stores, hospitals, theaters, and Red Cross Shelters.
The partner can be asked if an animal is a service animal and what tasks the animal has been trained to perform. They cannot be asked to produce special ID or certification, and they cannot be asked about the partner's specific disability.
A partner can be asked to remove a service animal from a premise only if the animal is out of control and the partner is unable to calm the animal sufficiently or if the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.
An animal that does not meet the definition of service animal can be removed from a Red Cross Shelter and placed in our usual animal sheltering facility for the duration of the disaster.
Allergies or fear of animals are specifically not considered valid reasons for removal of a service animal. A person with severe allergies may be also considered disabled, in which case accommodation of that person as well as the service dog team would be required. The allergy or fear sufferer is not considered in any way to trump the rights of the service animal team.
No attempt should be made to separate the service animal from their disabled partner.
In disaster situations, service animals and/or their partners may be confused and upset. They may need to be given time to settle down and should not be judged until they have had that opportunity.
If a human partner is incapacitated during a disaster, the service animal will be in our care. In most cases, it will be a dog. Preferably a service dog should be kept on a leash in the command center in the care of a specified person familiar with service dogs and their special needs. It costs approximately $20,000 to train a service dog and it is important that we keep that training intact and that we do our very best to keep the animal safe from harm.
If the Red Cross Shelter has not made the basic necessities available for the service dog, we should supply the following for the dog while it is in the Red Cross Shelter:
food and water bowls
portable crate, airline kennel, or child gates to give respite from children and curious adults
a tether cable if the partner wishes
an assistant to walk the dog 4 times a day if the partner wishes
If the service animal partner will require temporary housing after the shelter closes, we should advocate on their behalf to ensure that hotel managers and landlords understand the ADA requirement to accommodate the service dog and partner at no extra cost.
A service dog should not show aggression nor should it bark needlessly. However, a curled lip or raised hackles may be a way of signaling the partner. Barking may be a way of alerting the partner when more subtle signs are unheeded, or it may be a method of summoning help for the partner. Behaviors that seem inappropriate should be discussed with the partner and reasonable explanations accepted.
A service animal may have an identifying harness, cape, or backpack; however, none of these are required and in fact few service dogs wear them while working at home. Thus, the lack of official attire does not mean the animal is not a bona fide service animal.
Some disabilities are not visible, and it is illegal to ask questions regarding the specific nature of a disability. If the partner says they are disabled, if they can describe tasks the animal performs to assist with the disability, if the animal behaves well (usually much better than the average pet!), and if the animal is fully controlled by the partner at all times - then it is a service dog for our purposes.
Not all service dogs are Labradors, Golden Retrievers, or German Shepherd Dogs. Many signal dogs for the deaf are small mixed breeds rescued from shelters and trained as service dogs. My own partner is a Norwegian Elkhound. My daughter's former partner is a Leonberger and her current partner is a Standard Poodle. Breed alone neither qualifies nor disqualifies a dog as a service animal.
Service animals are unobtrusive. An animal that runs around freely, barks or growls repeatedly at other people without it being a trained task to assist their partner, bites or jumps on people, steals food, urinates or defecates inside buildings, or is aggressive towards other animals is not acting like a service animal and therefore we are not required to give it the legal standing of a service animal. Reasonable efforts can be made to mitigate the problem, such as giving the team a separate room or muzzling the dog.
You may not assume anything about how a particular animal is going to behave based on prior experience with other animals. For instance, you cannot assume that because you once knew a vicious dog of a given breed that a service dog of the same breed will be vicious.
Despite the legal requirement for Red Cross and other shelters to be accessible to the disabled, the sad reality is that many shelter locations do not comply with the law. In such locations, a service dog becomes even more important to the disabled partner. As an example, shelters may have stairs but no ramp or elevator; with Thor's assistance I can climb stairs that would otherwise be inaccessible to me.