Difference Between Pet and Service Animal

Service animals are everywhere in society, assisting people with disabilities to navigate the world with more ease and independence. While they might look like ordinary pets, they’re actually completely different animals. Although, pets and service animals both play an important role in the lives of their “people,” service animals perform some specific jobs and enjoy more legal protections.

As one might guess from the name, service animals are taught early to perform a specific service for those that they serve. In order to qualify as a service animal, must perform specific tasks for their handler, and these tasks must be things their handler is unable to accomplish on their own with ease. While they do not legally qualify as service animals, some people use monkeys and even cats as service animals too.

Guide dogs are without a doubt the most classic example of a service animal. Guide dogs help blind people and those with low vision get around safely. They’re trained to very high standards using a technique which is known as “intelligent refusal.” This means that their handlers tell them where they want to go, and they are given the task of picking the safest route and refusing to do something they think might put either themselves or their owners in danger.

Here are some useful things to know about service animals:

  • Handlers are not required to carry any kind of certification.
  • asking for “certification” is not legal.
  • Service animals are not required to wear livery or markings. Many do, for the benefit of members of the public who might be confused about what exactly they are doing.
  • If there’s a question about whether an animal qualifies for treatment under the ADA, an operator of a public entity like a hotel, bus, or grocery store can only ask for examples of what tasks the animal can perform.
  • An operator cannot ask for specific information about the nature of the handler’s disability or the animal’s training.
  • If a service animal is disruptive,  the owner of the establishment can ask them to leave this is because hosting disruptive or aggressive animals goes beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Although, pets can be trained to do lots of tricks, and many provide emotional support or friendly faces at home, they aren’t service animals. This means that they do not perform the specific tasks that help their disabled owners function independently and with ease. That’s why pets don’t have legal protections under legislation like the ADA. This requires businesses to accommodate service animals. In recent years “Emotional support animals,” have become more popular. These are not service animals either under the law, but it is a gray line.  Denying an emotional support animal can be deemed discrimination in California.  My professional recommendation is to treat emotional support animals same as service animals.


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