Service Animals

About service and assistance animals

Learn about the rights of individuals with service animals or assistance animals.

Persons with disabilities have the right to be accompanied by a service animal wherever the person is allowed to go.  In housing, persons with disabilities have a right to reasonable accommodations, including the right to keep an assistance animal.

Service Animals

The Massachusetts Service Animal Law limits the definition of service animal to a dog that accompanies an individual with a sensory and or physical disability. Federal law allows for a broader definition of service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”  Both laws obligate state and local governments and any places that are open to the public to permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities anywhere members of the public are allowed to go.

Only dogs meet the definition of service animal under the ADA, with the exception of miniature horses. 

Examples of services include:

  • Guiding a person who is blind
  • Alerting a person who is deaf
  • Interrupting a compulsive behavior
  • Retrieving objects

The definition of "service animal" includes psychiatric service dogs that are trained to recognize and respond to psychiatric disability symptoms. For example, a dog who is trained to help its owner with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) avoid environmental triggers to her disability symptoms would be considered a psychiatric service animal.

However, animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support are not service animals. Emotional support or companion animals may have to be allowed in other places, such as in housing.

People are not required to possess any certification or identification for a service animal. Service animals are not required to wear a vest or badge.

Although there are rigorous, formal service animal training programs, Americans with disabilities have the right to train their animal themselves.

An individual with a disability accompanied by a service animal may not be asked to provide documentation of a disability, to answer questions regarding his or her disability, or to have the service animal demonstrate its work.

Only when the individual’s disability is not obvious, staff may ask the following two questions to determine whether an animal is a service animal:

Is the animal a service animal required because of a disability?

What task or service is the animal trained to perform?

The law requires staff to take the individual at their word.

Rights & Responsibilities

Service animals:

  • Are permitted to go wherever their handler is permitted to go.
  • Are allowed even if others have fears of or allergies to dogs.
  • Must be under the handler’s control at all times. In most cases this means on a harness or leash.
  • Must be housebroken.
  • May not pose a legitimate, direct threat to health or safety.
  • Do not have to be allowed to sit on furniture meant for patrons, to eat from plates provided by a food service establishment, or to ride in shopping carts.

In Massachusetts, service animals in training have the same status as fully trained service animals.

Assistance Animals

Although emotional support/companion animals do not meet the definition of “Service Animal” under the ADA and Massachusetts law, this does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act in the housing context. Under the federal Fair Housing Act and the state fair housing law, persons with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation to keep any assistance animal, including a service animal or an emotional support animal, in his or her dwelling as an exception to a “no pets” policy.  "Assistance animal" is a broad term that encompasses both service animals and emotional support animals.

Assistance animals:

  • are not pets.
  • work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or
  • provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability
  • are not required to be individually trained or certified.
  • are commonly dogs but can also be other animals.

Emotional support animals (ESA), sometimes referred to as “comfort animals,” or “companion animals,” are animals whose presence alone helps an individual with a disability. Unlike service animals, ESAs are not trained to perform a task or service. An example would be a dog that is not individually trained to provide a service, but whose companionship helps alleviate its owner’s symptoms of depression.

Housing providers:

  • May require medical documentation that the animal is needed because of a disability if the disability related need is not obvious or known.
  • May not charge extra fees to the resident for keeping the animal.
  • May charge the tenant for damages caused by the animal in the same way that it would to any other tenant.

Assistance Animals may not be restricted by any housing provider by breed, size, or weight.  Generally, municipal ordinances that prohibit specific breeds of dogs may not be applied to assistance animals. Similarly, while an individual housing provider may restrict the breed, size, type, or number of pets a resident may keep in his or her dwelling, exceptions must be considered when the animal(s) is needed due to a disability.

It is important to note that assistance animals may be denied or asked to be removed in cases where the animal's presence would:

  • impose an undue financial or administrative burden, or
  • would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider's services, or
  • the specific assistance animal in question poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation, or
  • the specific assistance animal in question would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.

Such a determination must be based on an individualized assessment that relies on objective evidence about animal's actual conduct, not on mere speculation.

Permission and Proof

Unlike in public settings, in the housing context, individuals with assistance animals must first obtain permission to have the animal in a residence or other places that are not open to the public and do not allow animals.  S/he must request a reasonable accommodation to a ‘no pets policy.’ An individual may be required to provide documentation that the animal is needed due to a disability if the disability-related need is not obvious or known to the housing provider.  No specific certification or registration is required; a note from a doctor or other provider that documents the connection between the individual’s disability and the need for the animal may suffice. Individuals should be wary of entities that claim to provide service or emotional support animal “certification” or “registration” for a fee.

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