Service Animals: Access to Dental Facilities

Sept. 30, 2005
All service animals have full access and privileges to enter any place a normal person would be permitted to enter.

By Niki Henson, RDA

A person walks into your dental office with a dog on a leash. They appear to be totally normal, and the dog is not wearing any identification markings. The person walks to the front desk, signs in, and takes a seat in the reception room to await their dental treatment. What would you do? How would you approach this person? What are you required to do legally?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (AwDA) has a variety of important definitions and laws regarding what you may and may not do and say. Let's explore these terms and prepare to aid the disabled patient in a calm, caring, and legal manner.

First, the AwDA defines a service animal as "any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government." Examples of types of animals used as service animals are: dog, miniature horse, monkey, and bird — the most common being the service dog.

The animals are trained for many different categories. Service is divided into guide (for the blind), mobility assistance (for wheelchairs or people who need stability when walking), seizure or medical alert response (to alert the owner of certain events or conditions), skilled companion (for children under 15 and adults who require another person to aid in commanding the animal), hearing alert (for the deaf or hard of hearing), and many other specialties.

All service animals, regardless of the age of the owner or type of service, have full access and privileges to enter any place a normal person would be permitted to enter. A business may not charge for the service animal, or increase the price due to the animal's presence.

According to federal law, service animals are not considered pets. They are not subject to any rule that normally applies to pets. Service animals are allowed to work without a leash (even where leash laws exist) if their service task requires they are not leashed to complete that specific task. For example, opening a door for a person in a wheelchair is not usually possible with a leash on the animal.

In addition, anyone injuring or threatening a service animal while they are working, if convicted, would be charged for assault on a human being. Service animals, while working, are protected by the same laws that protect people.

Secondly, only certain people are protected by the AwDA law, and allowed to use service animals in public places. Only a person who is legally defined as disabled or a professional service dog trainer is allowed special access privileges under the AwDA law. A disabled person is defined as "with respect to an individual, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment. 'Major life activities' is normally defined as: functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working." This disability may or may not be visible to anyone. (The person may not look handicapped.)

Therefore, for a person to be protected under the AwDA, the person must be legally disabled, and the service animal must be specifically trained to aid that individual. To determine if the person and animal qualify, the only questions you may ask are:

1 Are you disabled?

2 Is that a service animal?

3 What services does the animal do that helps you?

If you doubt that the animal is really a service animal, you may ask: "Will you please have the animal demonstrate a service task?"

Some service tasks that animals perform are event related items such as alerting the disabled person of a siren or a chemical change indicating an imminent seizure. Therefore, although you may ask for a demonstration, the animal may or may not be able to show you a task. You may not refuse access based on the demo, but you may call the local police and report a person who you feel is falsely claiming to have a service animal.

You may not ask the nature of the disability, degree of disability, or ask for identification or certification of the person or service animal. There are only limited reasons you can refuse entry, or ask the animal to be removed. They are as follows:

• The person says they are not disabled.

• The person says the animal is not a service animal.

• The animal shows aggression towards the owner or another human.

• The presence of the service animal will result in a fundamental alteration to the nature of the business.

• The animal is barking constantly (except as a service related task such as barking to alert the owner to a situation or sound).

• If a service animal is physically ill.

• If the service animal is unreasonably dirty.

Therapy animals are not legally defined by federal law, but some states have laws defining therapy animals. They provide people with contact to animals, but are not limited to working with people who have disabilities. They are usually the personal pets of their handlers, and work with their handlers to provide services to others. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have "no pets" policies. Therapy animals usually are not service animals.

Other important details:

• You are not required to provide special accommodations for the animal.

• The owner (or someone who the owner has made arrangements with) must ensure the animal defecates and urinates in the appropriate places, and any waste is disposed of in a proper manner.

• You must provide corridors, seating areas, doorways, and other public or patient access areas to be wide enough for a wheelchair to easily maneuver.

• There is appropriate etiquette on the way to treat a person with a service animal. You and your staff should be familiar with these rules, and encourage compliance with others in the area.

Service animal etiquette:

• Always speak to the person first.

• Do NOT pet a service dog. Ask the person for permission. The service dog/animal might be distracted from its work.

• Do NOT offer food or treats to a service dog.

• Do NOT harass or startle a service animal

• Do NOT bark, whistle at the service dog.

• Do NOT ask questions about the person's disability. Some people may feel uncomfortable discussing their disability or their service animal.

• If you are afraid of dogs/animals, remove yourself and go to another area.

• Do NOT try to separate handler from service animal.

If you have any comments or questions, please contact the author at:

Niki Henson, RDA, is with Cornerstone Dental Academy in Houston. She can be contacted at [email protected].