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Animals and Access

What is current practice?

A woman using a scooter smiles broadly while holding a black dog on a leash. Dog is wearing a vest.

There is much confusion in our field about the use of animals to provide access. Some of the problematic practices we see are:

  • Some policies are long, confusing and use the terms ESA and service animal interchangeably or incorrectly.
  • Disabled people with service animals are required to register with the disability service office.
  • Some professionals have a misunderstanding that service animals are only for people with certain conditions and that if a person has a psychiatric disability, the dog is an ESA and not a service animal.
  • Professionals rely solely on external documentation to determine if the modification of the “no pet” policy in housing is warranted.
  • Professionals look at having an ESA, rather than modification of the policy, as the accommodation.
  • Some professionals discuss ESAs in disparaging ways.
  • Policies are written in ways that are overly restrictive and indicative of a lack of understanding of the possible situations in which an ESA may be helpful.
  • Policies are enacted around service animals and ESAs that are more restrictive than the civil rights laws—the ADA and Fair Housing Act.
  • Policies are created with blanket restrictions on ESAs that do not allow for individual circumstances.
  • Professionals assume that an ESA must be an animal the person has an established relationship with; others assume a family pet cannot be an ESA.
  • Professionals assume that someone who has an ESA and then trains them to be a service animal must be gaming the system.

What are the implicit messages?

  • Students who use ESAs or service animals make the professional’s job difficult.
  • People with disabilities suffer the consequences of those who try to pass their pet as an ESA or service animal.
  • All people with animals are suspect.
  • It is okay to question people with service animals because they might be a person with an ESA or pet who is trying to get around the rules.
  • It’s okay for professionals to speak disparagingly about disabled people who use animals for access.
  • It’s okay to put up additional hurdles for all disabled people in order to make sure we don’t let any fake service animals or ESAs through the door.

How might it be different?

  • Get clear on the definitions of service animals and emotional support animals. Confusing ESAs and service animals is likely to result in discrimination toward someone with a service animal. And if we are sharing conflicting information and using conflicting terminology, imagine how confused others on our campus will be.
  • Inform employees that having a service animal in any area where the public is allowed is a civil right. Creating an atmosphere where people who use service animals can come and go freely without being questioned or harassed should be a top priority. That commitment should be higher than the commitment to keep people from bringing pets on campus. Some campuses have decided to take this approach: When a person has a dog in a public area or classroom and the dog is well-behaved, they assume it is a service dog. This could mean that occasionally a pet may be brought to campus and pass as a service dog. Better that than service dog owners having to answer the allowed questions over and over again. You may also want to share this flyer or a similar one in key places on your campus.
  • Remember that a service animal is a service animal is a service animal. Whether a service animal performs a task for someone who is deaf or blind or has a psychiatric condition, the person’s rights are exactly the same. If the task involves recognition and response and directly relates to the person’s disability, it does not matter what the task is or what the disability is, the person has the same rights.
  • Approach requests for emotional support animals in the same way other requests for accommodations are approached. Just as with any other accommodation, determining whether the “no pet” policy should be waived for a person requesting an ESA requires the same process: What is the student’s disability? What is the barrier the student is experiencing? What is the link between the barrier and the disability? How does the presence of the ESA alleviate that barrier? If more information is needed to answer these questions, request it from the student or a professional that the student has worked with. 
  • Remember that ESAs can be any species. The Fair Housing Act does not limit the species as long as the animal does not pose a threat to people or the facility. There is no reason to ask if a certain species is allowable or not. If there is no threat and the animal has been determined to be a reasonable accommodation through an interactive process, allow it.
  • Make sure policies and practices are not more restrictive than what the law allows. Many campuses are creating policies related to animals and access. When a campus does this, it runs the risk of creating an environment that is more restrictive than the law and that results in discrimination. It is also important to avoid “blanket bans” and to remember that most decisions (about ESAs) should be made on a case by case basis. Policies should be there to protect the student from discrimination, not protect the university from the student.
  • Avoid making students jump through unnecessary hoops. Just as with other accommodation requests, the role of disability service providers should be to remove barriers to access. Complicated processes create barriers for disabled students that nondisabled students do not encounter.
  • Avoid making fun of requests for ESAs and service animals. Joking about animals and access runs the risk of creating an environment in which disabled people may be reluctant to request accommodations or obtain a service animal. The authors have heard from a couple of people who use ESAs and who have felt humiliated and emotionally unsafe at recent conferences because disability service professionals were joking about ESAs in their presence. We can do better.

Refocused Guidance on Animals on Campus

Animals on Campus 

Anytown University has a no pet policy across the campus and in campus housing with the exception of Happytime Housing which is a pet-friendly zone. In areas where pets are not allowed the following exceptions will be made: 

Service Animals
Anytown University welcomes disabled employees, students and visitors who have service dogs. We encourage all university employees to work to create a welcoming environment for service animal owners and their dogs. Feel free to post this flyer in your area to create a more welcoming environment.  

Students with service animals who live in campus housing: For your own protection and that of your service dog, you are welcome (but not required) to inform both housing and the Office of Disability Access and Equity at [contact information].  

Employees with service animals:  You are encouraged to meet with your supervisor or [contact] in Human Relations. 

Reasonable Accommodations 

Exceptions will be made to the “no pet” policy for individuals with emotional support animals (animals that are not trained as service animals) who have requested and received a reasonable accommodation which allows them to have an animal present. This accommodation is typically limited to campus housing but other requests will be considered on an individual basis. Students seeking reasonable accommodation should contact the Office of Disability Access and Equity at [contact information]. Employees seeking reasonable accommodation should meet with either their supervisor or [contact] in Human Relations. 


Service animals: dogs* that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The task(s) performed must be directly related to the specific person’s disability. (ADA)

Emotional support animals: animals of various species whose mere presence significantly reduces or alleviates one or more symptoms of a person’s medical condition. These animals are passive and are not trained to engage in recognition and response as it relates to a person’s condition.

*The ADA revisions include another provision that allows miniature horses, when specific criteria are met, to be treated similarly to service dogs.” See DOJ Fact Sheet: Service Animals. 

What is the potential impact of this change?

  • Disabled people who use service animals or ESAs feel welcomed on campus.
  • Disability resource professionals lead the way in creating a campus free from harassment and discrimination.
  • Processes are as simple as possible while still providing access.
  • The problem is located in the presence of a “no pet” policy rather than in the person or the presence of an animal.
  • The expertise of the disability resource professional is valued, rather than reliance on third party evaluators. 
  • Bringing in documentation from a company that accepts payment for fake documentation carries no power because there is a sound internal process.

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