They May Not be of Service…

Dale J. Venturini
President/CEO, RI Hospitality Association

Many Americans who live with disabilities find companionship and help living their daily lives in the form of a service animal, animals that are highly-trained, extremely obedient and are able to perform tasks that help to improve the owner’s quality of life. Although these animals are almost exclusively dogs, under federal law, in some cases, miniature horses are also considered to be service animals. Thanks to Rhode Island’s human rights laws, and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals may accompany their owners in many public places including restaurants, stores, hotels, theaters, various forms of transportation, amusement parks, educational institutions and any other place to which the public is permitted entry, aside from religious institutions and private clubs.

Service animals, or personal assistance animals, are typically dogs that have been trained to perform a specific set of tasks on behalf of their owner. Examples include guide dogs for the visually impaired, hearing dogs for the deaf or hearing impaired, psychiatric service animals which help owners manage mental and emotional disabilities, seizure alert animals, allergen alert animals and more. Neither Rhode Island’s human rights laws, nor the ADA covers or protects “emotional support animals.” These are animals that may provide emotional and therapeutic relief to their owners, but are not professionally trained to perform certain tasks or to assist their owners in a formal fashion.

The main difference that separates “emotional support animals” from service animals, in addition to the specific task they have been trained to perform, is how well trained the animals are. There have been countless incidents involving emotional support animals, or pets being passed off as service animals, attacking people and other animals, oftentimes because they are being exposed to situations and places where they are not permitted. There is absolutely no official oversight which establishes the qualifications required of a pet to become an emotional support animal – the pet’s owner must simply decide that it is an emotional support animal. These animals do not have to receive any particular training, nor do they have to be certified or registered – something that has been established by the Fair Housing Act. However, the Fair Housing Act does require a licensed health care or mental health care provider to supply emotional support animal documentation, which is required to be under the care of the provider.

Today, many websites and organizations are charging consumers for commercial services that “register” pets as emotional support animals. These certifications hold little to no weight, and do not certify that the pet has any special skills that allow them to serve as an emotional support animal, nor do they permit the pet access to public spaces. These certifications are proving to be highly problematic to business owners.

It is very important to be respectful of service animals and their owners, however, with so many people claiming their pets as emotional support animals, or even-worse, as service animals when they are not, the distinction can be difficult to understand. Always remember: as a business-owner, you are legally required to accommodate guests with disabilities and their service animals, but you are not required to afford that same courtesy to pet-owners who label their pets as emotional support animals. The only questions you can ask the owner of a service animal are: ‘is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?’ and ‘what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?’

If you have any questions about the laws surrounding service animals, please reach out to us at 401-223-1120, or contact Sarah Bratko, our Vice President of Advocacy and General Counsel at Sarah@RIHospitality.org.