How to Advocate for Your Service/Support Animal

By Adrian Johansen

TThe impact that animals have on our lives cannot be overstated. They are always so much more than pets. They are members of our families, our most loyal companions. For many of us, they are also a vital means of support. Beyond the traditional role of guide dogs for those with visual impairments, we are still learning more about the sheer breadth of emotional and mental challenges support animals can help us to handle. 

It seems strange then, that people with service or support animals still regularly face obstacles to bringing their animal companions into some spaces. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation changed regulations that had previously required airlines to make accommodations for support and service animals to fly with their owners free of charge. Revisions to the Air Carrier Access Act now limit the definition of a service animal to "a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability." This creates issues for many service and support animal owners.

Airlines are not the only area of difficulty; access to public spaces, rental properties and workplaces can all be met with resistance making it important to understand how to be an effective advocate for your service or support animal. Let's take a look at a few areas of focus.

Tan colored service dog pup

Understand the Law Surrounding Service Dogs

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary piece of legislation for this area. In essence, it requires that employers, government agencies and businesses make reasonable accommodations to ensure that those experiencing disabilities have equal access to goods and services. Most of us would consider that a service or support animal—in whatever capacity that is—would be included under the definition of "reasonable accommodation." But it's not quite that straightforward.

Much like the Air Carrier Access Act, the ADA only considers service dogs under the allowance for reasonable accommodations. Specifically, dogs that have been exclusively trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability. This means that emotional support animals and therapy animals of any kind are not included in the ADA and, therefore, you have no legal right to bring these animals into work, onto public transportation or into businesses.

A caveat here concerns housing. A separate piece of legislation, the Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make accommodations for emotional support animals that have been officially recommended by a doctor. However, this doesn't extend to therapy animals, as they are not generally provided under doctors' recommendations.

Man with service dog

Expressing Needs and Benefits for your Assistance Animal

Advocating for your service animal often comes down to diplomacy. Yes, it would be ideal if all people would immediately understand the requirement for your service or support animal. Unfortunately, getting reasonable accommodations often comes down to you educating people about how your animal affects your functioning, and how they can be an asset.

This doesn't mean to say that you necessarily need to attend work interviews or shopping trips, armed with a bunch of pamphlets about your condition. Rather, it's more about being clear about precisely how your animal assists you in that particular environment. Use straightforward language, rather than medical terminology. Yes, it can be difficult to talk about our challenges, particularly where emotional support animals and mental health are concerned—but part of removing stigma is finding ways to talk about it, and to express our needs. A lot of advocating for your support animal involves appealing for the empathy of others; it can be difficult to empathize if you don't have insights into the extent of others' challenges.

You should also talk about how your animal will impact the overall environment in which they'll be entering. In workplaces, for instance, not all support dogs are covered under the ADA. However, you can highlight to your manager the positive effects that the presence of dogs has on morale. Indeed, animals in the office are known to reduce employee stress, which in turn can have a positive impact on overall productivity. Prepare by understanding what their priorities might be, and shape your advocacy to include these.

Addressing Your Animal's Suitability

One of the steps in effectively advocating for your service or support pet is understanding the objections. You are likely not to agree with the reasons that your animal cannot gain access, they may even seem unreasonable. However, as you are seeking empathy from others, it's worth taking time to try to empathize with their position on the matter. This way you can better address their concerns.

In the workplace or businesses, they may be concerned about the animal's safety. This is certainly understandable. However, given how essential the wellbeing of your support animal is, you should have adequate insurance to get them the treatment they need should they become sick or injured. You can refer to this as part of your response—thank them for their concern, and reassure them that as a responsible animal owner you have taken out comprehensive protection. 

Boy looking at service dogs

However, it is often the case that people will be more concerned with the safety and sanitation of the environment and its occupants. Again, from an outsider's perspective, this may well be understandable, and business owners could certainly be liable for any damage or injury caused by your animal on their premises. Talk them through the training that your service animal has been through; include detail into modules taken not just about assisting you, but behavior around other people and crowded spaces. Your approach should not be one of defensiveness—although it's only natural to feel this way when confronted. Instead, aim for reassurance and cooperation.

In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to advocate for your service or support animal. Unfortunately, there is still some resistance to their presence in certain spaces. Approach the matter with an informed, diplomatic stance. Come from a place of empathy, and seek to gain cooperation rather than reacting defensively.

Pre-Register for Abilities Expo Today...It's Free!

Sign up for the Abilities Buzz

Stay in the know on disability news and info.