Service Dogs in Schools

  • October 30, 2015

Achieving Systemic Change One County at a Time

by Brian Keller


Over the past year DRT has been involved in several cases involving schools and access for service animals. As a result, our advocacy and legal staff have been hard at work combining their special education expertise and anti-discrimination experience to help school districts to craft service animal policies that are compliant with federal law. In the course of working with these school districts, we have noticed a handful or recurring problems.  

What is a Service Animal and who can have them? 

While the staff at DRT will be quick to espouse the personal benefits of pets from turtles to parakeets, the law is clear on the topic: service animals are not pets. But what are they?  

A service animal is defined as a dog or miniature horse that has been trained to perform specific tasks or work for a person with a disability. Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way now. Yes, miniature horses. Technically, the Department of Justice defines a service animal as a dog, but then goes on to say that miniature horses should be treated as service animals. The effect of this legal sleight-of-hand is that under the law, miniature horses are exactly the same as any service dog. While there has been discussion about the use of miniature horses within the disability community, their status under the law is clear. The use of miniature horses as  service animals is rare. While several school districts have been resistant to allowing miniature horses in their service animal policy, the law clearly requires them to allow students with a disability to be accompanied by their service miniature horse, and DRT remains dedicated to full compliance with the law. 

Service animals are trained to perform specific work or tasks. That work can include a lot of different things.  The most obvious and traditional work is that of a guide dog. People with vision disabilities use guide dogs to help them navigate the busy world. But, contrary to tradition, guide dogs can be important for people with disabilities other than a visual disability. The Department of Justice gives the example of a guide dog helping to pull a wheelchair. Guide dogs have also been trained to help people with a hearing disability recognize noises that are vital to safety, like sirens or train whistles. Many service dogs are trained to help individuals with disabilities find and retrieve dropped items, recognize people at the door, or answer phone calls. They have also been trained to help individuals with sensory processing disabilities, like autism, focus on important information that needs specific attention, such as fire alarms. Service dogs can be used to help children with autism stay in one location; a sort of reverse guide dog.    

Other service dogs are trained to work with individuals with diabetes or who experience seizures. These dogs have been trained to detect subtle changes in body chemistry that indicate an upcoming seizure or blood sugar drop. These dogs can play an important monitoring role for people with these disabilities, but they can also play a vital safety role. The ability to not just react, but to predict seizures and blood sugar drops has proven invaluable to many individuals who use these dogs. The ability to predict these events allows them to take medication, get to a safe place, or seek help. These dogs can also go find help from others in the event that their owner is unconscious or unable to get help themselves.  

Of equal importance in the definition of a service animal is that a person with a disability must use it. That is, only individuals with a disability have a protected right to use a service animal. It is worth noting here that decades ago there was some discussion about the nature of that protection. Specifically, there was some legal discussion about whether the dog had the right to enter, or if the individual had the right to bring the dog.  That question is settled now, though. The individual with the disability has a right to bring their service dog with them just like any other adaptive or assistive device.  

One final note on the definition of a service animal. Service animals are explicitly not “emotional support animals.” Emotional support animals are usually animals used to provide emotional comfort and support to an individual. While these animals have benefit for individuals and they receive some protection under the Fair Housing Act, they are not protected under the ADA.  

What are the limits on service animals?

There are two important sets of limitations in the area of service animals. The first is a limitation on what others can ask of a service animal owner. There are only two questions that can be asked if a service dog is brought into a public entity or a place of public accommodation (including schools): (1) Is the service animal needed because of a disability?; and (2) what work is the animal trained to do? However, people are not allowed to ask what that disability is, what is the severity of that disability, ask about alternatives to a service animal, or request to see proof of disability. Furthermore, while the business or public accommodation is allowed to ask what specific tasks are performed by the animal, they are not allowed to ask if those tasks are medically necessary, if the dog is housebroken, if the animal has had its shots, or when was the last time the dog was bathed. Finally, just as people cannot request or require proof of disability, they also cannot require any sort of documentation for the service animal.  

There are only two reasons that a service animal can be excluded from a public entity or place of public accommodation: (1) the animal is out of control and the handler is not capable of bringing the animal back under control; and (2) the animal is not housebroken. Once the two permissible questions are asked, it is assumed that the animal is both well behaved and housebroken, but if the animal demonstrates otherwise during their time in the establishment, the animal can be excluded. The law is also clear, that if the animal is excluded, then the owner is to be allowed to participate in any program or benefit without the animal. For example, if an individual with a disability brings their service dog into a coffee shop, and that dog acts up for whatever reason and cannot be brought back under control, the coffee shop can require that the dog leave, but should allow that individual to stay without the dog.

Service dogs in schools

While some educational institutions remain confused about service dogs in a school setting, the law is clear. All laws and requirements that apply to public accommodations like the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), restaurants, and bookstores apply to schools. While schools have their own sets of rules in other areas of the law, they do not when it comes to service dogs. DRT’s advocacy efforts have been primarily focused on helping schools craft policies that comply with the law. Several school districts now have effective policies, and we are working with others to ensure that they comply with the law. 

DRT remains committed to full compliance with the law and protection of the rights of individuals with disabilities. We have found that the best way to protect those rights is to educate individuals attempting to violate them of the factual context and the legal requirements that apply to the given situation and to empower citizens to be self-advocates. The best way to do so is to know your rights and be willing to speak up about them. The more that people know about service animals and all they are able to do, the better people respond to them. We also offer more information and resources about service animals in our website resources. If you have an issue with a public accommodation, including a school disallowing your service animal entrance, feel free to contact DRT’s Intake team at 800.342.1660 or by email at to see if we can provide you with direct assistance. 

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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