Power of the Paws: The Role of Animals on Campus & Legal Issues
Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 5:12PM
David H.K. Nguyen

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.


Article originally appeared on Highereducationlaw.org (http://www.highereducationlaw.org/).
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