By Steve Craig — Many people in the vacation rental industry are confused and frustrated by the subject of service animals. I do not know of any company that has an issue dealing with a true service animal (like a trained guide dog for a blind person). However, confusion and frustration sets in when companies are forced to deal with guests who claim their pet is a “service animal” when it is not.
Issues occur when these abusers demand to rent “no pet” properties and refuse to pay pet fees. This causes companies to become frustrated because they feel they cannot question these claims for fear of potential lawsuit reprisals and subsequent bad publicity.
As you probably know, many people claim their pets are service animals because they provide emotional support, comfort and companionship. They can even go online and get documentation for an animal.
Google the phrase “buy service animal documentation” and you will be stunned at the proliferation of sites selling vests, certificates and special leashes. You can get a service dog ID card for $55. You can register a “therapy” dog for $39.99 and can even get a “complete emotional dog kit” for $129. Banner ads claim, “Take your dog anywhere” and, “Never pay a pet deposit when renting.” Even the names of some of these agencies are quite impressive: Service Animal Registry of America (SARA), United Service Animal Register, National Association of Service Dogs, etc. None of these agencies are of any value. Just because these agencies may send a certificate saying that a dog is a service animal doesn’t mean that it is true.
Most of the rules surrounding service animals are based in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, “A service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with severe depression may have a dog that is trained to remind the individual to take his medicine. An epileptic may have a dog trained to detect the onset of a seizure. A diabetic may have a dog to alert the individual when his blood sugar levels reach extremes.
Emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals are not considered service animals under the ADA.
Here are answers to the questions that I have been asked most often when pertaining to service animal regulations:
- Is the dog considered a service animal if it calms a person when he is having an anxiety attack? The key is whether or not the dog has received specific training. If the dog has been trained to sense an oncoming anxiety attack and is trained to take specific action, it is considered a service animal. However, if the dog’s presence is the sole provider of comfort then it is not considered a service animal under the ADA.
- Can a guest with a service animal rent a property even if a “no pet” policy exists for the property? Yes. They cannot be restricted to solely “pet friendly” accommodations.
- Can a pet cleaning fee be charged? No. A charge to clean pet hair or dander is not permissible. However, if the service animal causes damage to the accommodations, a fee can be charged as long as it is equal to damage fees charged for other guests.
- Can the service animal be left alone in the accommodations? No. The dog must be under the handlers control at all times.
- Must the service animal be on a leash? Yes, unless the leash hinders the service animal’s work.
- What if the guest makes claims about his service animal based on the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA)? The FHAA only applies when a guest rents long-term. (In some cases emotional support animals are allowed.)
- What questions can I ask as a company to prove the dog is a service animal? You can only ask two questions:
- Is the service animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
You cannot request any documentation for the dog or ask that the dog demonstrate its task. You also cannot inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
Therein lies the rub.
If the person says the dog has been trained for a specific skill but the company is not allowed to pursue “proof” of that fact, then the claimant almost always gets his way.
I hope this article has been helpful in determining which pets are considered true service animals (as defined by the ADA) and which ones are not. The government has a detailed FAQ that is accessible on the U.S. Department of Justice’s website which can be found at www.ada.gov.
By Steve Craig, Pro Resort Housekeeing