New ADA Regulations Narrow Service Animal Definition

But will it solve the problem of badly behaving humans?
By Beth Finke, March 2011, Updated June 2021

Starting today, March 15, 2011, only service dogs and trained miniature horses are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Monkeys, rodents and reptiles, among others, are no longer permitted to accompany individuals with disabilities into places of public accommodation.

Department of Justice regulations (implementing Title III of the ADA) used to define a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”
The ADA revisions going into affect today were drawn up after some disability advocates asked the Department of Justice to crack down on people who were faking or exaggerating disabilities in order to get their companion animals into places of public accommodation. Starting today, a service animal is defined as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”
Notice the specific word dog in that sentence. Aside from one provision for miniature horses, other species of animals (whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained) are no longer deemed service animals.
It really does make it harder for the rest of us when an animal or his handler’s poor behavior causes people to think badly about service animals. I’ve heard stories about helper parrots pecking at shoppers in stores, a therapeutic rat that quelled anxiety in his owner but caused anxiety to others, and comfort pigs going crazy on airplanes. In my own life, however, the only negative service animal stories that have affected me personally have been about dogs.
The last time I went to a Cubs game, I was stopped while trying to get into Wrigley Field with my Seeing Eye dog. The man taking tickets said he didn’t know if the dog was allowed. I pointed to the harness, told him she was a Seeing Eye dog. He was skeptical.
Turns out that a week earlier someone had brought a puppy to Wrigley, claiming the dog was a service dog. The dog misbehaved, and fans sitting nearby complained. After that, the people working the gates were told to scrutinize anyone coming in with a service dog.
In addition to being despicable, faking a disability to gain privilege is fraud. It also results in increased scrutiny of people with legitimate disabilities. I’ve had this happen to me at Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. At a jazz club in the Loop. At a sandwich shop in our neighborhood. I was stopped at the door at each place. At the first two, the doorman checked with a supervisor before letting me through with my Seeing Eye dog. At Jimmy John’s, they just kicked us out. We haven’t been back.
As the very first school in the U.S. to train guide dogs for the blind, the Seeing Eye has worked for nearly a century to give guide dog’s public access. I didn’t really have a problem with having this access extended to qualified service animals of any type—helper pigs, parrots, monkeys, you name it, as long as they were qualified.
I wish the powers that be could have somehow revised the law to regulate the behavior of the animal rather than its species. And as long as we’re cracking down, why not start with the species that is most at fault here: humans.


Beth Finke is the author of Safe & Sound, winner of the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh award for children’s literature. Her most recent book is Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors.