CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – We often see animals accompanying individuals in grocery stores, restaurants, and on transportation, but is it legal?

The state and federal laws vary for people with disabilities who use service animals or emotional support animals.

Service Animal

A service animal can only be a dog or in rare cases, a miniature horse, that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Examples include guiding a person who is blind, alerting a person who is deaf, interrupting a compulsive behavior, or retrieving objects.

The Massachusetts Service Animal Law limits the definition of a service animal to a dog that assists an individual with a sensory and/or physical disability. Federal law allows for a broader definition of service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

There is no certification or identification provided to owners of service animals in Massachusetts however, all dogs whether they are pets or assistance animals are required to be licensed with their city or town.

Service animals in public places:

  • Are permitted to go wherever their handler is permitted to go.
  • Must be under the handler’s control at all times. In most cases, this involves the use of a harness or leash.
  • Must be housebroken.
  • May not pose a legitimate, direct threat to health or safety.
  • Are allowed even if others have fears of or allergies to dogs.
  • Do not have to be allowed to sit on furniture meant for patrons, to eat from plates provided by a food service establishment, or to ride in shopping carts.

Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal can be any animal that provides emotional support to a person with a disability, just by its presence. Unlike service animals, they are not individually trained to do work or perform tasks.

An assistance animal does work, performs tasks, provides assistance, or provides emotional support for a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity or bodily function.

An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act. Under this act, housing providers have obligations to make reasonable accommodations to allow assistance animals (support and emotional) in units and in common areas. 

In Massachusetts, emotional support animals are not considered service animals under the ADA or the Massachusetts law regarding service animals. This means emotional support animals are not permitted to go anywhere the public is allowed to go under the definition of ‘service animal’.

How to determine a service animal versus an emotional support animal

Establishments may question the animal owner only when the individual’s disability is not obvious to determine whether their dog is a service animal. There is a fine line between what questions may be asked without being intrusive.

Standard questions may include, “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?”, and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” According to the Massachusetts Office on Disability, if the answers indicate that the dog performs actions that help mitigate the symptoms or limitations of a disability, then it is considered a service animal.

“The law requires staff to take the individual at their word. If the answers do not provide enough detail for staff to determine if the animal meets the definition of a service animal, they may ask questions to clarify. For example, if the animal owner answered “My dog helps me with anxiety,” that could be an emotional support animal or a service animal, so staff could ask clarifying questions. Once an adequate answer has been given, further questions might be seen as harassing and should be avoided. The process is easier if service animal owners provide enough detail to indicate that their animal takes specific disability-related actions in response to a command/signal.”

Massachusetts Office on Disability

The service animal owner may not be asked to provide documentation of a disability, to answer questions regarding his or her disability, or to have the service animal demonstrate its work.

Clear The Shelters

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