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Understanding the Rights of Service Dogs & Emotional Support Animals in HOAs & Beyond

There are approximately 61 million adults living with a disability in the United States, and one of them may just be your neighbor. Increasingly, disabled individuals are provided the assistance of service animals who perform critical tasks to improve their quality of life. With more than 500,000 trained service dogs supporting individuals with disabilities in the United States, it’s likely that your homeowners’ association (HOA) has a service dog-and-handler team living among you. To help create more accessible communities for these individuals and their working partners, community members must understand the crucial responsibilities of service dogs and other assistance animals, their rights within an association, and how to accommodate their needs in your condominium or HOA.

Service Animals in an HOA

Service animals, and service dogs in particular, are well known for their work with individuals with disabilities. When it comes to community associations, it is important to understand that service animals are not pets. They’re specially trained working animals that enhance independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive, and developmental disabilities, and improve the everyday lives of thousands of people across the country. Community associations are required to accommodate the service animal under state and federal law, regardless of what the governing documents may dictate.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as specially skilled dogs who are individually trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate particular disabilities for their owners. According to the ADA, disabilities can be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. For example, some dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs, others are taught to alert to the sounds of the telephone, oven timers, alarm clocks, smoke alarms, and even a baby’s cry.

Housing protections for service dogs protect these animals and their handlers living in an HOA. Under the Fair Housing Act, service animals must be allowed in multi-family rental buildings, condominiums, and apartments, regardless of any "no pets" policy. Additionally, no pet deposit may be charged, even if one is normally charged for animals living in the establishment.

Service Dogs in Public Spaces

One of the most significant distinctions between service dogs and other types of support animals and pets is their right to public spaces. Under the ADA, service dogs must be allowed into public places and, in fact, it is unlawful to refuse a person with a service animal to enter into a public place. This right is called “public access.” According to Assistance Dogs International, public access is the right of a person with a disability to be accompanied by their assistance dog in all public accommodations. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is allowed to go, regardless of any “no animals” policies that may be in place.

Service dogs and handler teams complete public access tests that are used to demonstrate the handler has control over their dog and that the dog is behaved when in public. There are minimum training standards set forth to ensure that a team is ready to go out in public without trainer supervision, with special considerations for the safety of the dog, the handler, and the public. Assistance Dogs International is a global coalition of non-profit organizations that trains and places assistance dogs. Its recognized Public Access Certification Test (PACT) is used to evaluate a service-dog-in-training’s obedience and manners. The test also assesses the handler’s skills in a variety of situations before graduating and credentialing a team.

Emotional support animals in HOAs

Emotional support animals are becoming more prevalent in communities across North America. An emotional support animal is a clinically prescribed animal whose mere presence provides therapeutic relief to a condition or disorder the owner may suffer.

Owners of support dogs may live with the complications of any number of mental and emotional challenges, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or schizophrenia, to name a few. There are approximately 40 qualifying disorders on the approved list for an emotional support animal designation. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the entity that issues fair housing guidelines, for an individual to receive an emotional support animal designation, the animal’s owner must attain a diagnosis by a doctor or mental health professional, and obtain a letter stating the animal provides benefits to the owner with regard to the diagnosed disability.

The Fair Housing Act mandates “reasonable accommodations” for emotional support animals, even in buildings that don’t allow pets, and owners cannot be charged a pet deposit. For associations with a “no pet” rule in place, accommodations must be made for both service dogs and emotional support animal owners.

While an association cannot exclude an emotional support animal, they can require some documentation in support of the owner’s request. That documentation may include:

  • A written request by the owner to the HOA to accommodate the owner’s emotional support animal
  • Details on how accommodating the animal will benefit the resident
  • A note from a doctor or other health professional

Any such requests should be respectful of the resident’s privacy, so there is no need to know the specific emotional disability of the resident.

Support Animals in Public Places

Like service animals, emotional support animals can be of any breed or size, but they are not limited to dogs. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals do not require training to perform specific tasks; rather, it is their presence that provides assistant to their owner.

A critical difference between service dogs and emotional support animals involves their public access rights. While support animals enjoy fewer public access rights than their service dog counterparts, emotional support dogs and their owners do receive some federal protection for housing privileges.

Educating Communities on Accessibility

Though there are challenges in understanding the complexity of public access right and housing permissions for working dogs, there is proof that the assistance both emotional support animals and service dogs provide can greatly improve the lives of the individuals and families they serve every day. Associa is proud to educate residents, board members, and communities on the importance of understanding the roles of these animals who support disabled individuals in our neighborhoods. Together, we are helping promote more inclusive, accessible communities.

If you are facing a service dog or emotional support dog issue in your community, The U.S. Department of Justice has a toll-free ADA hotline. That number is 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TDD).