ADA Regs go to the Dogs, Long-Awaited Clarification of Service Animal Definition from Department of Justice

by Jenine Stanley

When the ADA was first conceived, no one thought that people would present snakes, pigs, horses (both full-sized and miniature), cats (both wild and domestic), and a host of other animals as "service animals that mitigate a disability." After all, most people assumed that the only animals trained to work with people with disabilities were dogs. Even in the 1980s, the dog was more than just a guide for blind people. Dogs worked to alert deaf or hard-of-hearing people to sounds, helped people with mobility impairments balance, retrieved objects, opened doors and performed many other tasks. 

There must have been a few people who did know the variety of animals and tasks they would perform in the future when the definition of "service animal" was arrived upon. It was kept very general to allow for these hopefully responsible uses of animals in public situations, responsible being the key word. Unfortunately, the very fluidity of the definition meant that just about anything could become a "service animal" if the person said it was and as long as it wasn't disrupting the business. This created some very unusual and tense situations when animals never meant to accompany people in public were doing so. 

Even when those animals were well behaved, sanitary and obviously doing tasks to assist their disabled handlers, the built environment didn't always agree. Another class of animals assisting people with disabilities became known as "psychiatric service animals" because their tasks included unconventional things to assist their handlers who had psychiatric disabilities, such as notifying when to take medications, offering a physical barrier between the person and close crowds by body blocking, stopping repetitive behaviors and sensing and reacting to panic attacks. Though these animals were certainly "service animals" under the definition, because their handlers' disabilities were not obvious, their presence caused a great deal of confusion. 

Then there was the issue of "emotional support animals." These animals had no formal training in tasks to assist someone. They were, by their presence, calming and stabilizing to the person and hence, to some, performing essential tasks to mitigate a disability. To most of the general public, though, these animals looked like pets, acted like pets and were treated like pets in terms of access. Many business owners took an all-or-nothing tact, denying all animals, service or otherwise, or allowing all animals in and not reprimanding those handlers who did not control their animals for fear of reprisal. This was bad for everyone. 

It is safe to say that the Department of Justice heard the concerns, not only of business owners but of service animal handlers who were frustrated at being denied access due to the irresponsible actions of others attempting to bring animals who either were not well-trained or not appropriate for public access into a business. In 2008 the DOJ asked for public comment on proposed regulations to tighten the definition of service animal to apply only to dogs. It also asked for comments on how to incorporate emotional support and psychiatric service animals into public access, if at all. 

The Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations (CADO), which includes representatives from Guide Dog Users, Inc., had been asked by DOJ to prepare a list of tasks and general public behavior standards for service animals. Much of this document was used to craft the proposed regulations. 

After a long delay due to the change of presidential administration and a forced review process, the assistance dog community was overjoyed to learn that the proposed regulations will indeed go into effect March 15, 2011. What does this mean to you as a guide dog handler, or to anyone with an assistance dog? 

The new regulations do specify that only dogs may be considered service animals. Handlers of miniature horses have some access rights; however, they are not officially included in the definition of service animal. This is probably the most confusing point of the new regulations. 

Animals that provide emotional support with no specific task training are not considered service animals for the purposes of the ADA. Other laws, such as the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, define rights for people with emotional support animals, but in terms of public access, such animals are not included. 

One portion of the new regulations does bear mentioning. 

§ 35.136 Service animals (d) Animal under handler's control. A service animal shall be under the control of its handler. A service animal shall have a harness, leash, or other tether, unless either the handler is unable because of a disability to use a harness, leash, or other tether, or the use of a harness, leash, or other tether would interfere with the service animal's safe, effective performance of work or tasks, in which case the service animal must be otherwise under the handler's control (e.g., voice control, signals, or other effective means). 

The section does not specify any particular leash, harness, color or wording. It does specify control of the service animal. 

GDUI's work with CADO brought about these new regulations, along with comments from many guide and service dog handlers. For more information about these new regulations, or to read them in their entirety, go to