New Laws Change Rules for Service Animals
Beginning in 2019, the definition of service animal is changed to exclude animals that provide comfort or emotional support but that are not otherwise trained to perform work or tasks for a person with a disability. Places of public accommodation remain obligated under both federal and state law to allow service animals to be present.
Substitute House Bill (SHB) 2822 amends chapter 49.60 RCW, the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD). The legislative purpose of the new law is to “penalize the intentional misrepresentation of a service animal, which delegitimizes the genuine need for the use of service animals and makes it harder for persons with disabilities to gain unquestioned acceptance for their legitimate, properly trained, and essential service animals.”
The legislature recognized that there are occurrences where people “intentionally or mistakenly represent their pet, therapy animal, or emotional support animal to be a service animal and attempt to bring the animal into a place that it would otherwise not be allowed to enter.” This creates a dilemma for persons running public places and a disservice for persons with disabilities who rely on service animals.
New State Law Definition
The definition of “service animal” in RCW 49.60.040(24) now eliminates animals other than dogs or miniature horses and provides specific examples of work or tasks a service animal may be trained to perform, excluding comfort and emotional support.
(24) "Service animal" means any dog or miniature horse, as discussed in RCW 49.60.214, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by the service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing nonviolent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal's presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks. This subsection does not apply to RCW 49.60.222 through 49.60.227 with respect to housing accommodations or real estate transactions.
Comfort and Emotional Support
Excluding emotional support, well-being, comfort, and companionship from “work or tasks” is significant. Service animals trained to perform other work or tasks may, of course, provide comfort as well. However, if comfort or emotional support is the sole role for an animal’s presence, then there is no longer a legal requirement to accommodate a person with an animal. The distinction is not always obvious because some service animals may be trained to do work or perform tasks for persons with disabilities that are not apparent, such as neurological and psychiatric disabilities. For example, some service animals are trained to alert their handler when a seizure may be about to occur or to assist with medication alerts.
The definition of “dog guide” remains unchanged in RCW 49.60.040(8):
…a dog that is trained for the purpose of guiding blind persons or a dog that is trained for the purpose of assisting hearing impaired persons.
Human Rights Commission
The Washington State Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the WLAD, has a 2013 publication related to service animals that covers a variety of topics. Although the definition of service animal is changing, the guidance regarding service animals in places of public accommodation remains applicable:
RCW 49.60.215 prohibits discrimination in a place of public accommodation due to the “use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a disabled person.” WAC 162-26-130 requires “fair service in a place of public accommodation regardless of the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a disabled person as well as because of the disability itself.”
Service animals must be allowed into all areas of a place of public accommodation where the general public is allowed – this includes dining and eating areas, restrooms, and areas where food is sold. A place of public accommodation cannot request that the service animal be removed unless it creates a risk of harm. This risk must be actual, and cannot be speculative or based on a fear of dogs. In addition, if an animal exhibits disruptive, poor or unsanitary behavior, it would not be considered a trained service animal, and can be removed.
Two Inquiries Allowed
RCW 49.60.214 is a new section describing the civil infraction of misrepresenting an animal as a service animal and spelling out the two questions that may be asked to determine whether an animal qualifies as a service animal. The two questions are:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
An enforcement officer or other person at a place of public accommodation cannot ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disability, request or require documentation, or request that the animal demonstrate the type of work it is trained to do.
There should be no inquiry at all when it is readily apparent that an animal is trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with disabilities. The law provides examples of this, such as when a dog is guiding a person who is blind or when a dog is pulling a person’s wheelchair or providing assistance with stability or balance to a person with an observable mobility disability.
It is now a civil infraction with a maximum fine of $500 to represent that an animal is a service animal when the person knew or should have known that the animal in question did not meet the statutory definition of a service animal.
Dogs and Miniature Horses
State law now has less flexibility on what species of animal may be trained as a service animal. “Service animal” is defined as either a dog or a miniature horse. This change eliminates the possibility of trained cats, monkeys, birds, larger horses, or other animals.
Although this article does not include federal law about service animals, I would note that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provisions requiring accommodations for persons with service animals. Washington state law is now more in line with federal law. For example, federal regulations provide:
[t]he work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
Keep in mind that the purpose of this new law is to reduce and prevent both the intentional and mistaken misrepresentation of pets and other animals as service animals when they are not. The goal is to provide support and protection for persons with disabilities using trained service animals.
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