From picking up dropped items to guiding someone with vision impairment, even predicting potential life-threatening conditions like seizures before they happen, service dogs are vital to many individuals with varying levels of disabilities.
Now imagine one of those individuals needs to escape an abusive partner but the emergency shelter says no pets allowed, no matter what. Is this legal?
The short answer: No. Individuals with service dogs are federally protected to bring their service animal into any public place with very few exceptions, such as areas of a hospital that must remain sterile, like operating rooms. But in terms of emergency shelters, service dogs are just as welcome as the survivor they’re assisting, according to Brian Sullivan with the public affairs department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“All shelters must adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act,” says Sullivan. The ADA states that all “State and local government agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations that provide goods or services to the public … make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices or procedures … to accommodate people with disabilities.” Service animals fall under this rule, and “entities that have a ‘no pets’ policy generally must modify the policy to allow service animals into their facilities,” reads the Act.
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Emotional Support Animals Are a Different Case
Unfortunately, an emotional support peacock—or any emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animal—isn’t included in this provision. While these non-service animals may be allowed in public places, it’s up businesses and nonprofits to decide this, and they are not federally protected.
What Qualifies as a Service Animal?
According to the ADA, a service animal must be a dog, though Sullivan says the Department of Justice, which the ADA falls under, has a separate provision for miniature horses as service animals in limited circumstances. The dog must be trained to directly assist a person with a disability, such as:
- Retrieving something a person needs, like medicine or a cane
- Supporting a person who is unsteady on their feet
- Alert their owner when the person is about to experience a medical emergency, such a drop in blood sugar, a seizure or a dangerous heart rhythm
- Alerting other people when their owner is in distress
Service dogs can be helpful not only to those with physical disabilities but also psychiatric issues as well. According to ServiceDogCertifications.org, a service dog may:
- Guide a disoriented handler
- Provide tactile stimulation for anxiety attacks, panic attacks, etc.
- Identify hallucinations
- Search a room (helpful for people with PTSD who are hypervigilant)
- Interrupt and redirect (for people with OCD who may self-harm)
No specific service animal certification or registration is required by the ADA to prove your dog is a service animal, which explains how that peacock may have gotten through airport security. However, it is reasonable that a shelter or other business may ask for proof of disability or need for a service animal that comes from a medical professional, so survivors who are planning to seek emergency shelter may want to secure a note from their doctor if possible. This could be something they keep with a getaway bag they pack in preparation of leaving.
What to Do If Turned Away
If a survivor with a service dog is turned away from seeking emergency shelter specifically because of their service animal, there are several things they can do, according to My Assistance Dog, Inc. Start by keeping a cool head, even though it may be frustrating. Calmly explain to the shelter the laws that protect service dogs. It may be helpful to direct them to this page that explains the ADA.
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Also, even though it is no doubt a stressful time, be reasonable to their concerns. Shelters can often be full facilities where survivors must share a room with someone else. Ask them if there are any accommodations you can make to ensure other survivors are comfortable with your dog there. You may be able to share a room with someone who is comfortable with animals. Or perhaps they have recommendations of another shelter or transitional housing facility that could better accommodate you.
If you still feel like you’re being discriminated against, calling the police likely won’t help as this is a civil court issue, not a criminal one. You can file a complaint with the ADA here, or contact your local Fair Housing Assistance Agency.
For more information on safely escaping abuse with your pets, such as including your pets in your order of protection and make sure you have custody of your animals, see the other related articles in our Pets section.
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