Perhaps you have a service animal or support dog, or maybe you manage a business – have you wondered where the law allows these animals to go? You may be surprised to know there is a difference between “service animals” and support animals or therapy animals. Only true service animals have legal protection.
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the NC equivalent require that service animals be permitted in virtually all places where the public is allowed. Most often these are service dogs. The dog must have been individually trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog trained to signal when blood sugar is low. A person with depression may have a dog trained to remind them to take medication. A blind person may have a dog that assists with safe mobility. There is no legal requirement to have an ID card or a specific collar, harness, or vest to identify a service animal. There is no requirement that a service animal be registered. The NC Department of Health and Human Services has a voluntary registry. One way (but not the only way) to establish that an animal is a service animal is to show this registration card.
Emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are NOT considered service animals under the ADA. 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 or under NC law. Because the public often doesn’t understand that there is a difference between service animals and support animals, some businesses choose to err on the side of customer relations in allowing support animals as long as they do not cause a disruption.
If someone’s dog calms them during an anxiety attack, it may or may not qualify as a service animal. The ADA distinguishes between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. 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.
If it is not obvious if a dog is a service animal, a business may ask only two questions: (1) is the animal required because of a disability? and (2) what specific work or task related to a disability has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
If a particular service animal is out of control (e.g., aggressive behavior, jumping, running around, uncontrolled barking) and the handler does not take effective action, or if the animal is not housebroken, staff can request or insist that the animal be taken out. The handler is responsible for any damage the animal causes. Service animals are specifically permitted in the public areas of restaurants; this ADA requirement trumps local health regulations about animals in restaurants.
The ADA allows damages in federal court and/or enforcement action by the Department of Justice. Under state law, NC Persons with Disabilities Act makes it unlawful to disguise an animal as a service animal, and unlawful to deprive a person with a disability or a person training a service animal of any rights granted by law or to charge any fee for the use of the service animal; violation is a Class 3 misdemeanor.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney at Steffan & Associates, P.C in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at (919) 732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.