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In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice issued revised rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on service animals. Earlier this month, federal officials further clarified the rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities who rely on service animals, answering the most frequently asked questions they have received over the last four years.

The Justice Department published a document, Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA, on July 20, 2015. This publication answers questions regarding everything from types of work a service animal may do, to how they are trained and what types of animals can be used.

Most importantly, it re-emphasizes that “The ADA requires state and local government agencies, businesses and non-profit organizations (covered entities) that provide goods or services to the public to make ‘reasonable modifications’ in their policies, practices or procedures when necessary to accommodate people with disabilities. Accordingly, entities that have a ‘no pets’ policy generally must modify the policy to allow service animals into their facilities.”

The document defines a service animal as a dog that has been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability” and that work or task must be directly related to their disability; however, no certification, licensing, identification or documentation is required. Some examples of types of “work” service animals may perform can include, altering their human to an impending seizure, reminding to take medication, retrieve items, check for the safety of an area, open doors, detect changes in blood sugars, prevent self-harming behaviors, and keep individuals from wandering, to name just a few.

In instances when it may not be clear if an animal is a service dog or not, the business or other entity, under Federal law, may only ask two specific questions:

  • Is the animal a service animal because of a disability?
  • What task or function has the animal been trained to perform?

No documentation of any sort is required to be presented and can not be requested from the animal’s handler. Also, the business cannot inquire about the disability itself or ask that the service animal’s work be demonstrated. Furthermore, the ADA does not require service animals to wear a specific harness, ID tag or other identifying markings.

Service animals can accompany those with disabilities for a number of reasons that many may assume would not be allowed. For example, salad bars or other self-service food lines, schools, buses, ambulances and hospitals. Also, hotels must permit service animals and cannot charge the guest an extra fee or be limited to staying in a designated “pet-friendly” room.

A few noted exceptions to this rule, however, are that the service animal could be restricted from a certain area of a dormitory reserved for students who have allergies, or from areas of a zoo where the animals on display are natural prey or predators of dogs, and where the presence of a dog may cause the displayed animals to behave aggressively or become agitated. Other exceptions are religious institutions, which are specifically exempt from the ADA rules, and airlines, which are governed by the Air Carrier Access Act concerning the rights of people with disabilities in air travel.

Those who believe they have been illegally denied access or service because they used a service animal can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. As an alternative, an individual have the ability to file a private lawsuit in Federal court in which they would charge the organization with discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For questions, comments or additional information, please contact Megan Halter in our Litigation Group, at or via phone at 610.429.1369.