Service Animals & Therapy Dogs at School

Dogs can be trained to provide significant physical and emotional benefits to people. Two types of dogs might serve that role in schools: service animals and therapy dogs. A service animal is a dog (or miniature horse in certain situations) that is individually trained to perform tasks that are directly related to and that mitigate the effects of a person’s disability; a therapy dog, however, provides emotional support with just its presence.

Schools must allow a person with a disability accompanied by a service animal access to school property. That right does not apply to a person with a therapy dog. But, a school may allow a therapy dog at its discretion.

Service Animals

Michigan and federal law generally require schools to permit persons with disabilities, including members of the public, students, and school employees (in some cases) to be accompanied by their service animal at school facilities and events. To be a service animal, the work or task the animal performs must be directly related to the person’s disability. Examples may include assisting a blind or low vision person with navigation; alerting a deaf person to the presence of persons or sounds; pulling a wheelchair; and alerting a person to the presence of allergens, high/low blood sugar levels, or the onset of a seizure or panic attack.

 School personnel may ask visitors and students only two questions about a service animal unless the answers to the questions are readily apparent: (1) is the service animal required because of a disability; and (2) what work or task has the animal been trained to perform? When an employee seeks to bring a service animal to work, the employee and administration must engage in the interactive process to discuss whether the employee needs a reasonable accommodation because of a disability and, if so, whether the service animal’s presence in the workplace is a reasonable accommodation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires a service animal to be under its handler’s control at all times. The handler does not need to be the person whom the service animal assists. For example, if a student with a disability cannot control the service animal, another person, such as the student’s parent, may serve as the handler. Unless otherwise determined by the student’s IEP or 504 Plan, a school is not required to provide handling services for the service animal, nor is the school responsible for the animal’s care or supervision. A school is required, however, to provide an area for the service animal’s care.

A school may exclude a service animal from school property or functions if the animal is out of control, not housebroken, or poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. A direct threat to the health or safety of others does not mean that a service animal may be excluded from school property solely because others may have a dander allergy. Rather, the ADA requires public schools to accom­modate both the person with the service animal and the person with

allergies. The Department of Justice has advised, for example, that when a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility with a person allergic to animal dander, the two persons should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms within the facility. The Office for Civil Rights has also clarified that when accommodating both students, the student with a service animal should not be excluded from certain areas within the school.

Therapy Dogs

In contrast to service animals, a school has discretion as to whether to allow a therapy dog on its property and to establish rules and requirements for the dog. If an employee seeks to bring a therapy dog to work due to the employee’s disability, school officials will need to engage in the interactive process.

The use of school-sponsored therapy dogs in the educational setting is increasingly popular. A therapy dog might be owned and cared for by school personnel or brought into the school in partnership with an agency. A school therapy dog is available to support students (and staff) instead of being assigned to a specific person.

Therapy dogs are individually trained. Best practice is to require the dog to be trained and certified by an approved therapy dog training organization. Therapy dogs typically engage in animal-assisted activities and interactions at school under the direct supervision of a handler. Both the dog and handler are usually individually trained, evaluated, and oftentimes registered or certified to provide therapeutic support in schools or other settings. A therapy dog must be well-behaved and have a temperament suitable for interactions with students. While a therapy dog may bring comfort, stress relief, and joy to students and staff, it is important that all training and certification information is submitted by the dog’s handler before the school allows the dog on school property.

Thrun Policy Service subscribers will find additional guidance about service animals and therapy dogs in Policies 3108 (“Service Animals“) and 3109 (“Curricular Animals“).