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Power of the Paws: The Role of Animals on Campus & Legal Issues

Animals on college campuses are a big draw. Often students will flock to dogs when their owner is walking them on campus. But what happens when that dog is there to do a job?  There are more roles that animals can play in the world and specifically on a college campus. These roles can be divided into three main categories: service animals, emotional support/assistance animals, and therapy animals. It is important to know the differences and definitions of each role as certain laws pertain to some but not others.

Service animals are defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, or calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack; the opportunities for service are numerous. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The 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 Americans with Disabilities Act. One example of a gap in services is the needs of veterans returning from war with PTSD. The U.S. Department of Vetrans Affairs describes some of the challenges that service men and women could utilize animal assistance to overcome.

Emotional support/assistance animal’s admissibility into housing is determined by the Fair Housing Act. “An assistance animal can be a cat, dog or other type of companion animal, and does not need to be trained to perform a service. The emotional and/or physical benefits from the animal living in the home are what qualify the animal as an assistance animal. A letter from a medical doctor or therapist is all that is needed to classify the animal as an assistance animal.” However, Service Dog Central emphasis the important differences to take note of between emotional support animals and service animals.

The final category refers to therapy animals. These animals are trained to work with their handler and respond specifically in a variety of settings. Therapy animals are trained to achieve specific physical, social and emotional goals with their participants. Some examples of environments in which therapy animals are utilized include hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, elementary schools, community centers, and colleges.

In Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College, the plaintiff alleged that actions taken by her college to prohibit her “psychiatric service animal” to accompany her to class prohibited her from being a successful student. The college contended that the plaintiff did not meet the demonstrated need or documentation required to permit the animal on campus. The standard of law in this case was based on United States v. Lambert, wherein to obtain injunctive relief, “the movant must show (1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) irreparable injury suffered unless the injunction issues; (3) the threatened injury to the movant outweighs whatever damage the proposed injunction may cause the opposing party; (4) the injunction, if issued, would not adverse to the public interest.” The judge first determined that the animal in question fit the definition of a service animal. Next, the judge determined that the benefit to the student outweighed the “threatened injury” to the college. Finally the court decided that it was inappropriate to intervene and rectify poor grades earned as a result of the student's absence, and it was the college’s right, as well as the individual professor’s, to grade their class as they see fit. While the judge sided with plaintiff in awarding her rights to have her service animal on campus, it is important for students to communicate need to administration before assuming policies on college campuses.

In United States of America v. University of Nebraska at Kearney, the concern was raised regarding whether university housing is considered a “dwelling” under the Fair Housing Act. A student that was prescribed a therapy animal was denied the ability to live in student housing with the animal due to a no-pet policy on campus. One of the main difficulties in this case was that the Fair Housing Act did not define the term “residence;” therefore the university argued that students were considered “transient visitors.” Using the Dwelling Test from Franchi v. New Hampton School, the court determined that university residences fell under the definition of dwelling as laid out by the Fair Housing Act. Due to this test, the court determined that the university must comply with the Fair Housing Act and allow residents who have demonstrated need an exception to the no-pet policy.

What is important to note is that while these two cases demonstrate some of the challenges faced with the emergence of animals on college campuses, they do not cover all circumstances. Colleges and universities should continue to adapt their policies as more legislation and case laws dictate future direction. Hopefully, student’s needs are kept in the forefront of administrators and legislators minds as this evolves. 

This post was co-authored by Ms. Abbey Lane and Dr. David Nguyen. Ms. Lane is a Hall Director at the University of North Dakota and a masters student in the UND Higher Education program.


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Reader Comments (8)

Abbey, this is a great topic! I work with a veteran who has issues with PTSD and has a service dog and I see how invaluable this service animal is to him not only day-to-day functioning but navigating a university campus.

April 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Helgeson

I found myself wondering if UND has any service animals in the resident halls or in student apartments? There is a no-pet policy on campus, but I don't know if that has been challenged here. Interesting to consider though. Service dogs who perform a duty amaze me. I have seen various segments on what some of these animals are trained to do and am stunned by how much responsibility and control they have. There definitely are individuals who would not function as well without theses animals around. Good job!

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTina Monette

This is a great topic to write about. Kudos, Abbey! I strongly believe that service / comfort / emotional support animals are vital for those who really need it. Tina wondered if anyone at UND has a service animals in residence halls or student apartments, and I can tell you that the answer is definitely yes. I know this because I am one of those people who has an animal in my on-campus apartment. I did go through the appropriate channels to get my dog in my apartment, and it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. I think service animals should be allowed on campuses to responsible owners because animals are an extremely important support mechanism for plenty of people. You provided great examples!!

April 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTara Lulla

Great topic. I just spend some time yesterday at the UND staff appreciation lunch where there were two therapy dogs. It is amazing how much peace and comfort you can find just by petting an animal. There is significant evidence that animals improve people's mental health. Building more awareness across college campuses in regards to the specific jobs these animals are trained to do would be beneficial.

April 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Hansen

Makes sense that you would pick this topic. Having just spent time with therapy dogs on campus the other day, I am convinced that animals have a place on campus. With mental health becoming an increasingly relevant and current issue on college campuses, I think we need to start looking into every option more heavily. Thanks for the discussion you provided.

May 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Hale

So naturally this topic hits home for me as I have my own emotional support animal. I think it is critical for people to know the difference between each of the three types you had mentioned, as well as for them to understand that it may not always be in the best interest of the animal or their owner to distract them from performing their tasks they are equipped to do. The hoops here at UND that a student has to make their way through in order to gain these types of accommodations is a bit astounding, as speaking from my own experience the process took over a month to complete. I sincerely hope this is something that will change in higher education's future.

May 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Sniegolski

Abbey, great job with this blog. I really appreciate how you laid out and defined the differences between different roles that animals can have on a college campus. In my experience, I think I've heard emotional support and therapy animals used synonymously, so it important to understand the different roles that they have.

May 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay Stack

A unique topic. I think it was a good point to define what service dogs are and not only students that wish to bring their pets from home. There is certainly an argument to be made for why dogs/pets should be allowed on campus but as you mentioned, there needs to be more legislation and policies to push this topic into the future.

May 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoy Roach III

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