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'Service' Or 'Emotional-Support' Animal? What's The Difference?

dog at work.jpegIn recent years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of registered service animals and emotional-support animals in the United States. But despite this spike, many people still don't know that there is a significant difference between "service" animals and "emotional-support" animals.

For example, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a "service" animal is defined as a "dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability." In addition, the tasks performed by the service dog must be "directly related" to the disability of the individual.

If an animal is considered a "service" animal, then both federal and Maryland law dictate that individuals with disabilities have the right to not only bring their animals to public places, but also to their workplaces.

However, these same rights to not apply for emotional-support, comfort or companion animals. In fact, ADA regulations expressly state that an animal that provides "emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship" is not considered to be "working" or "performing tasks" for the benefit of a disabled individual -- meaning these animals do not enjoy the same protections and privileges as "service" animals.

A few examples of what constitutes a service animal include:

  • A dog that help individuals who are blind with navigation and other tasks
  • A dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure in an individual who has epilepsy
  • A dog that alerts individuals who are hard of hearing to the presence of sounds or people
  • A dog that is trained to remind a person who has depression to take their medications

What employers should know

As mentioned above, employees with disabilities are permitted under the law to bring service animals to work, so long as they meet the requirements under the law. Therefore, if an employee asks their employer to bring their service dog to work, the employer should process this request like it would any other request for a reasonable accommodation from a disabled employee.

Conversely, employers are not required to allow employees to bring emotional-support or comfort animals to work since these animals have not been trained to perform a specific task or job. However, employers still need to be careful when they deny an employee's request to bring in an emotional-support dog since it may actually be considered a "service" animal under the law.

For instance, federal law makes a distinction between an emotional-support animal and a psychiatric service animal. If the dog has been trained to detect the onset of an anxiety attack or psychiatric episode, and it take specific actions to lessen the impact of the attack or avoid it completely, such as reminding the individual to take medicine, then the dog would be considered a service animal. But if the dog merely provides comfort and therapeutic benefits, then it is NOT a service animal.

Therefore, before an employer denies an employee's request to bring an emotional-support dog to work, they should first be certain that it is indeed an emotional-support dog and not a psychiatric service animal. If they make the wrong assessment, they can find themselves in legal trouble under the ADA.

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