What You Need to Know About Service Animals

Louise R. McBride

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

Let’s look at the big picture.  Pet ownership in U.S. households has reached 85 million families, according to the 2017-18 National Pet Owners Survey, conducted by the American Pet Products Association. That is up from 56 percent of U.S. households since 1988. Broken down further, 60.2 percent of those pets are dogs.

A dog may be a dog—but there’s education involved to speak correctly about a service dog. In fact, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there are differences between a service dog, an emotional support animal, therapy dog, and pet.  And it goes from there. (See RSA 167-D:1 for state definitions and 29 CFR parts 35 and 36 for Federal Law).

What is a Service Animal?

According to the ADA, by definition, a service animal is a dog that has been trained to provide assistance to an individual living with a disability. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. (See www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm)

Service animals specialize in providing some of the work and tasks that individuals with a disability cannot perform on their own. A few examples of the tasks would be:

  • Alert persons with hearing impairments to sounds.
  • Halt to signal changes in elevation.
  • Pull a wheelchair or pickup things for a person with mobility impairments.
  • Retrieve dropped objects.
  • Help individuals with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.

Guide dogs are a type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind or have poor vision. (See www.education.nh.gov/career/vocational/blind_visu.htm and www.futureinsight.org) 

What about Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals

Comfort or emotional support animals provide aid without performing a specific task or duty. Often times it is said, “My pet gives great service when I’m comforted.” That may be so, but according to the ADA, that kind of assistance is not considered work or task performed by a service animal. A comfort animal under the law is considered a pet and is not afforded the rights of a service animal. The same holds true for therapy dogs. They are great companions and wonderful visitors in a hospital setting or panic-stricken situation to comfort victims of natural disasters. Under the law, however, they are in the category of pets and not service animals.

Where are Service Dogs Allowed

Under the ADA, businesses and organizations that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go.  This federal law applies to all businesses open to the public, including municipal offices, restaurants, hotels, taxis and shuttles, grocery and department stores, hospitals and medical offices, theaters, health clubs, parks and zoos.

In New Hampshire, state law recognizes only dogs as service animals.  Here are some things to keep in mind when addressing an individual with a service animal:

  • A public entity or private business is not responsible for the care and supervision of a service animal.
  • A public entity or private business shall not ask nor require an individual with a disability to pay a surcharge or deposit even if people accompanied by pets are required to pay such fees.
  • If a public entity or private business normally charges individuals for the damage they cause an individual with a disability may be charged for damage caused by his or her service animal.

Governor’s Commission on Disability Handles Public Inquiries

The Governor’s Commission on Disability (GCD) receives many public inquiries that involve some question or concern regarding service dogs. It’s a topic that impacts the disability community, the business community, builders with accessibility issues, employment and more. Town and city clerks often ask how to proceed in granting exemptions for registration fees and licensing of service animals. (See www.nh.gov/disability)

Identification of a service dog can be a tricky area because the public does not always understand the law or often blatantly ignores it, as is the situation that has come up frequently and is known as “fake service dogs.” (See RSA 167-D:8, II)

According to the ADA, two questions may be asked of an individual with a service animal when it is not obvious what a service dog provides:

  • Is the dog required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

A service dog, remember, is defined by its training. There is no Federal registry nor a government issued certificate or card proving that the animal is a service animal.,

The GCD stands ready to partner with groups and organizations seeking to eliminate ignorance and discrimination against individuals with service dogs through education. Go to www.nh.gov/disability for The Law and Service Animals brochure and other useful information.

Louise R. McBride is the Governor’s Commission on Disability’s Research & Information Specialist. She may be contacted at louise.mcbride@gcd.nh.gov or 603.271-2773.