May 1, 2017

Service Animal or Pet: How Can You Tell?

Service Animal or Pet:  How Can You Tell?

By Anne Devine, MA, BSN     

A malamute in the elevator. A fluffball in an interpreter’s purse. A sweet little “therapy dog” in registration. This really happens in healthcare settings. 

As a nurse, do you know the law and your employer’s guidelines for service animals? If you don’t, learn how to avoid violating federal or state civil rights laws. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recommends you follow the law that offers the most protection for service animals and their owners. 

How can I tell if it’s really a service animal?

You can’t always tell by looking, but you can make sure everyone’s rights are protected.

First, remember these important definitions.

The ADA says that a service animal is one that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

The service animal (usually a dog) might pull a wheelchair, fetch items, alert its owner to a sound (doorbell or phone ringing), assist a blind person, help someone during a seizure, provide balance, remind the owner when to take medication, etc.

Emotional support, comfort, and therapy animals are not service animals under the ADA. They provide comfort, but they’re not trained to do a task related to a disability. 

Some state or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. You can check with your state and local government agencies to find out more.

Ask these two questions

If you think the animal might be a pet, you’re legally allowed to ask only the following two questions:  

1. Is this animal required because of a disability?

2. What work is this animal trained to do?

Once you have the answers, you can do one of the following:

  • Allow the animal to stay because it does work that's related to a disability

  • Follow your employer’s guidelines about asking the owner to remove the animal

What can't you do if you work in a public building or private business?

  • You can’t ask about a person’s disability 

  • You also can’t ask to see paperwork about the animal’s training or certification 

  • You can’t demand that the animal wear a special service animal vest

Managing service animals in your workplace can be tricky. Here are answers to a few common questions.

Are there different kinds of service dogs?

Yes. Service dogs specialize, just like nurses. The ADA lists five major types of service dogs:

  • Guide Dogs or Seeing Eye Dogs provide navigation services for blind or severely visually impaired individuals 

  • Hearing or Signal Dogs alert individuals with significant hearing loss or deafness to sounds -- like a doorbell or telephone 

  • Psychiatric Service Dogs are trained to assist people with psychiatric disabilities to detect the onset of symptoms and lessen their effects. They may turn on lights for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), keep disoriented people from danger, etc. (NOTE: Not the same as an emotional support, comfort, or therapy animal)  

  • SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dogs) assist people with autism by alerting them to their own repetitive movements (hand flapping, for example) so they can stop the behavior 

  • Seizure Response Dogs are trained to predict a seizure or stand guard over the owner until a seizure ends

Are there other laws I should know?

There are other laws, including the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), that provide rights to people who need an emotional support dog. The nonprofit U.S. Dog Registry provides even more helpful information.

Can I ever exclude a service animal from my workplace?

Sometimes. For example, the animal may not be allowed in areas where it can cause a safety concern (such as the OR). If the animal isn’t housebroken or is out of control, you can ask the owner to remove it. 

The owner must have the animal under control with a leash, harness, hand signals, or voice commands.

What are a nurse’s responsibilities when a service animal walks in the door?

Your job is to protect the rights of the disabled patient and make sure the owner has control of the animal. 

You aren’t responsible for supervising or caring for the animal. Staff and others shouldn’t interact with the dog because this can create a health and safety hazard.

What if other patients are uncomfortable with the animal?

You can make a room available for the person with a service animal as soon as possible, or move the patient and animal away from those who are afraid.

Managing service animals in your healthcare workplace doesn’t have to be tricky

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice offers a detailed list of Frequently Asked Questions and Answers related to service dogs. If unclear, speak with your charge nurse or manager.

Now that you know more about disability rights and service animals, you can honor the law and guidelines of your healthcare employer, and focus on making your patients and their service animals feel welcome.

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Next Up: Dealing With Work Stress? Pet A Pooch

Anne Devine, MA, BSN, is a freelance healthcare writer who lives in Seattle, Washington. She has more than 15 years of experience working with employers and clients in the academic, nonprofit, healthcare, and corporate worlds, including a medical device company, online pharmacy, and a variety of startup and software/in-the- cloud firms. With roots in public health nursing, she especially enjoys working with and writing for healthcare organizations and the professionals who keep them going.

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