Has everyone noticed the explosion of dogs just about everywhere? From grocery stores to airplanes, pooches are now a solid part of the people world. Long ago they were relegated to farms, then moved up to house pet (meaning they stayed in the house) and now as the saying goes, you can’t swing a dead cat … okay, bad joke. But dogs have become a regular part of public establishments. How legal is that?

Like stepping in the doggie mierda or merde – that’s what it feels like deciphering the legality of animals in public. Let’s start with the difference among pets, service dogs and emotional support dogs. Animals defined as regular pets are easy – they can be discriminated against, meaning no goats, kittens, fish, hamsters, fidos, etc. in public places unless the establishment allows them. 

Service dogs are legal just about everywhere, because they are trained to help the disabled. There was a time that miniature horses fit the category – not sure how – but not any more. Now, service dogs are not just seeing-eye dogs but also medical alert dogs that can predict seizures for epileptics, help with PTSD, and even ferret out gluten for celiac sufferers in a restaurant. These dogs are trained six months or more for their specialty, but the catch? There is no legal certification required or legal need to wear a service vest proving their purpose. That would infringe upon the disabled owners’ right to privacy, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. These dogs are allowed in any public accommodation from airplanes to grocery stores, and management can only ask, according to the ADA, if the animal is a service dog and what task it performs, since there is no paper documentation to prove the abilities. But fair warning: a proper service dog is trained for “public access,” meaning in public places it will not exhibit: aggressive behavior, public urination or defecation (only on command), begging for food or affection or hyperactivity or excited behaviors. (Another way to distinguish pets from service animals.) The dog also must be under leash or tether unless the owner’s disability makes it impossible to hold a leash or tether, then they must act under voice command or signals.

“It’s about understanding dogs as tools,” said David Zuniga, owner of Dogs en Vogue. “Unfortunately, because the ADA says it is discriminatory to ask for proof of service, a lot of people take advantage of the situation and sneak in untrained dogs. And corporations are afraid of litigation, so they let these people slide.” 

Now, if the animal defecates, urinates, shows aggressive behavior, etc. then business owners are allowed the right to deny access or refuse service. And yes, the animal owner has to clean up the mess.

“I wish companies would train employees to ask the right questions; then they can really find out if it is a service dog,” said Sophia Pierce, trainer and also owner of Dogs en Vogue. “The lines have gotten too blurred between service dogs and other animals.” 

Service animals should not be approached, petted or offered food, but instead left alone to complete their tasks and focus on their owner. If distracted, they could miss the owner’s cues for help. 

That leaves Emotional Service Animals (ESA); what’s their story? An ESA is not limited to dogs, but is any animal that provides therapeutic benefit through companionship, and no training is required. So an ESA is not allowed full public access like service dogs. Nope, that cute teacup Yorkie isn’t allowed in the store just because it makes someone feel better. There are legal rights for ESAs so emotionally disabled persons will not be discriminated against for housing. Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), an emotional support animal is permissible in a housing unit that has a “no pets” rule. It is illegal to ask about the mental disability, but ESAs do have a certificate. According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an assistance animal is not classified as a pet, so proof starts with a letter from a doctor or just even a medical therapist (kind of blurry classification) to obtain a certificate, nowadays commonly online.

Lastly, Pierce cautions pet owners taking untrained animals into public places. “Owners do not want to leave their animal alone at home but then, the animal may not be mentally equipped for loud public places.” Putting animals in situations they cannot handle can do more harm than good and cause them stress, resulting in aggressive behaviors or again, unwanted accidents, oh scheisse.

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  1. Wondered where you came up with the information that mini-horses are no longer allowed as Service Animals. To my knowledge there has been no recent changes to the ADA that would prevent a mini-horse from being a Service Animal. According to the ADA they still qualify – along with dogs.

  2. The article has several errors. Under the ADA a miniature horse may still be a service animal. There is no “certificate” of any kind for assistance animals under any of the ADA, the Fair Housing Act or the Air Carrier Access Act (not mentioned in the article). In housing a landlord can request verification of a person’s disability (without inquiry into its nature or severity) and of the need for the animal to allow that person to use and enjoy their dwelling. Once that verification is obtained the landlord will approve a reasonable accommodation for the person to have the animal. In housing there are no training or certification requirements, although some assistance animals may be formally trained to perform a service or task. The online sites that offer a “certificate”, or anything else for that matter are essentially scams taking people’s money and delivering little if anything of value in return.

  3. Since I have a fully trained Service Dog w ID papers n he happens to be one of the Marathon Puppy Mill dogs, last litter, the Prince of 9 wonderful babies!
    Zane Grey has traveled w his human Mom since birth as her companion on travel or contract nursing assignments in the lower 48 and for the last 5+ yrs n Alaska! U r wrong n your article, you can always ask “is this a Service Animal he should be harnessed n wearing a backpack n his he should be w his handler me n I always have his ID readily available! What u cannot ask me is my illness n what exactly this dog does for me n u cannot stop us unless we r out of control! Zane Grey has traveled to Alaska n a crate n bottom of plane n a car from here to Ketchican n for our last 4 yrs n the plane n regular seating! Since this is the anniversary of the puppy mill x 10 yrs maybe u would like to interview us? I ran into one of your reporters w Steve Cook at Overseas n we discussed the articles I had planned to do w Richard my neighbor at the KeyNoter!! Since their mail boxes n phone msgs r full n no one is retuyANY calls?? These articles can now belong to the weekly!! Let’s start w a Service Dog interview!! [email protected], 912-220-2932. Char is my across st neighbor!

  4. For clarifications sake, ESA’s still do NOT have a “certificate” it’s really a prescription or doctor’s note. I loved that you included that ESA’s are for DISABILITIES, everyone thinks that if you have a mental illness diagnosis or even a bout of depression that you qualify, that’s not how the law works at all! Most of the problems would stop if business actually educated their employees and people learned the laws and held those around them accountable. Most service dog handlers have stories about employees standing there and doing nothing as someone’s pet went after their service dog when they had every legal right to make them leave, and call the police in FL since interfering with a service dog is a misdemeanor crime and everyone knows someone that does it but they don’t call them out publicly or report them for fraud. Creating a new system would be pointless if people can’t even be bothered to learn the existing law, even if we made an official ID, what would be the official requirements, how would employees verify it, how would any behavior concerns be reported, and how do you deal with fake ID’s and all the vest already out there?

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