Know Your Rights: Service Animals

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Service Dog

Although many landlords prohibit their tenants from having a dog or cat in their unit, they do have to make exceptions for service animals, or animals who are trained to aid those individuals with physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual disabilities. If you require a service animal to live with you, you’ll want to know your rights when it comes to securing a lease with one.

If a landlord ever challenges you about your service animal, be sure you know the following information so that you can take the appropriate course of action.

Know What Qualifies a Person for a Service Dog

A service dog is trained to help those with physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual disabilities perform a task, which includes pulling a wheelchair, picking up dropped items, letting a person who is hard of hearing know that there is a noise (such as the doorbell ringing), reminding their handler to take their medication, helping them walk across the street, or pushing an elevator button for them.

Any person who is over the age of 12, has a diagnosed disability, can provide a stable home environment, and is able to physically and cognitively complete any handling training is qualified to own a service dog. Those who are under the age of 12 are able to have a service dog if they have autism, but generally, they must be at least six years old and enrolled in an autism therapy program.

Know What Your Landlord Can and Cannot Ask You About Service Dogs

Thanks to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), there are certain things that your landlord, business owner, transportation company, etc. cannot ask you about your service dog. Although it can be obvious what a service dog is helping certain disabled people with (such as helping a blind person cross the street or walk in a store), not every disability is so visibly pronounced. Therefore, when you bring a service dog into a public place or are renting an apartment, a staff member is only allowed to ask you the following questions:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

The landlord and staff members of an apartment complex are not allowed to ask you about your disability, require medical documentation, or require a special ID tag for the dog. They are also not allowed to ask you to “test” the dog or ask it to demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task you have stated it assists you with.

A landlord or staffer is also not allowed to give the excuse of “allergies” or “fear of dogs” when refusing to rent out a unit to a qualified tenant with a service dog. Finally, they are not allowed to charge the tenant extra pet rent or additional security deposit fees. Remember, your service dog is not your pet — it is assisting you with everyday life.

There’s a Difference Between Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

Guide Dog

Many licensed mental health professionals like therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists prescribe their patients to adopt an emotional support animal to help them with their mental illness or anxiety. Although emotional support animals do provide comfort and security to their handlers, they do not have the same federal protections as service animals under the ADA. Because they are not performing specific tasks for their handlers, they fall just a little outside of the legal definition.

However, many states have laws about emotional support animals that pertain to whether or not a landlord has the right to evict or not rent their owners a unit. Emotional support animals are also included under the Fair Housing Act’s definition of assistance animals, but always be sure to check with your local and state tenant laws to see if there is anything outlining your right to an emotional support animal. Generally, you will just need a letter or prescription from a licensed therapist or physician in order to bypass a building’s “no pet” policy without too much trouble.

Still Having Trouble? Seek Out Legal Advice

If your landlord is giving you any trouble or grief over your legally allowed service dog or emotional support animal (such as raising the rent, discriminating against you in an apartment application, or making your life more difficult due to the fact that you have a service animal), then you might want to seek legal counsel. An attorney should be able to help you determine whether or not you are actively being discriminated against and what kind of legal action you can take to ensure that your rights are not violated. Ask your friends or family members to recommend a legal professional who can help you through this uncomfortable situation.

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