What Is a Service Animal?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) grants protections to people with disabilities accompanied by service animals in all 50 states, and defines a service animal as “any dog (any breed) 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 task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. Service animals may be readily apparent—as in the case of a seeing-eye dog—or may be less conspicuous.
Under the ADA, it is illegal for places of public accommodations–including health clubs–to deny access to a person accompanied by a service animal in most circumstances.
It is not necessary for an individual to visually distinguish a service animal from one that is not. Meaning a dog not wearing a vest with “Service Animal” printed on the side could still be a service animal. Furthermore, a dog can be considered a service animal without requiring formal training; legally the dog’s owner can personally train it to do work related to the individual’s disability.
It’s important to differentiate service animals from emotional support animals, which are not afforded legal protections under the ADA. Health clubs and places of public accommodation are not required to allow in emotional support animals.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines an emotional support animal as an animal that “works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability." While an emotional support animal may be any species, ADA-recognized service animals are dogs—or in the rare case a miniature horse.
Many states have adopted separate laws that strengthen the protections afforded to individuals who require the assistance of service animals. It is essential for club operators to comply with both the ADA and their state’s anti-discrimination law.
How Should Health Clubs Handle Service Animals?
A place of public accommodation must provide access to individuals with service dogs unless doing so would result in “a fundamental alteration or jeopardize the safe operation of the public accommodation.” A public accommodation may not discriminate against individuals with service animals in any way, including requiring that they pay an additional fee.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) outlines two definite scenarios in which a public accommodation may refuse access to a service animal:
- When the service animal is out of control.
- When the service animal is not housebroken.
What constitutes “under control” is dependent on the circumstances of the individual’s disability. While in most situations a service animal would be leashed, there are situations where this would not be necessary. For instance, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD may require a service animal to enter a public accommodation before him to confirm that the building is safe.
However, a service animal would not be considered to be under control if it was acting violently or aggressively, or was repeatedly barking. A dog that barks just once, or that barks because something has provoked it, is not considered out of control. Further, a place of public accommodation may not refuse admission to a service animal due to concerns over allergies or fear of dogs.