Service dogs, emotional support animals, assistance animals…what do they all have in common? A myriad of intersecting and sometimes overlapping federal and state laws. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 468 (Stats. 2021, ch. 168) into law on Sept. 30, adding another piece of legislation into the mix, though hopefully adding clarity on this issue.

Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals

Under both California and federal law, the term “service animal” denotes a dog or miniature horse that is specifically trained to perform disability-related tasks to mitigate their handler’s disability. Examples of disability-related tasks include picking up dropped items, guiding a blind handler around obstacles, alerting a Deaf or hard of hearing handler to important sounds, or calming a handler with PTSD to alleviate a panic attack. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Fair Housing Act (FHA), California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and Civil Code sections 54.154.3 permit service animals to accompany their handlers in public spaces where pets are not allowed, as well as rental homes, apartments, and other housing providers that fall under the FHA and FEHA.

Emotional support animals, however, differ from service animals in one key way: training. An emotional support animal is defined more generally as an animal (not necessarily limited to a dog or miniature horse) that provides therapeutic support to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental disabilities. Importantly, there’s no requirement that an emotional support animal be specifically task-trained, or even trained in basic obedience at all. Emotional support animals undoubtedly provide genuine comfort and support to their owners, but without individualized training to perform a mitigating task, federal law is clear that emotional support animals are not permitted in public spaces as service animals are.

Co-Author of AB 468: In Their Own Words

Unfortunately, “the presence of untrained dogs — pets, emotional support dogs and pet dogs being falsely portrayed as service dogs — can put the access rights and physical safety of a service dog team in danger,” explains Canine Companions for Independence. Founded in 1975, Canine Companions provides highly trained service dogs to people with disabilities and co-sponsored AB 468 along with another service dog organization, Guide Dogs for the Blind. Drawing on their experience as a longtime provider of these dogs, Canine Companions says that “service dogs require up to two years of extensive training and socialization in order to be comfortable and appropriate in public.”

In Canine Companions’ vision (and own words), the aim of AB 468 “is to reduce confusion about the access rights of emotional support dogs by making it a requirement that providers of emotional support dog equipment, dogs[,] and letters of medical necessity clearly inform consumers that emotional support dogs do not have access rights in public places. Ultimately, this should lessen the number of untrained dogs in public that may endanger a working service dog.”

New Rule Effective Jan. 1, 2022

The key provisions of AB 468 include:

Sale of dogs and supplies. A person or business who sells or provides dogs for use as emotional support dogs must provide written notice to the buyer that:

  • The dog does not have the training to qualify as a service dog;
  • The dog is not entitled to the rights and privileges accorded by law to a service dog; and
  • Knowingly and fraudulently representing oneself to be the owner or trainer of a service dog is a misdemeanor.

(New Health & Saf. Code, § 122317(a)(1)-(3).)

Additionally, a person or business who sells or provides a certificate, identification, tag, vest, leash, or harness for an emotional support animal must provide a similar written notice. (New Health & Saf. Code, § 122317(b)(1)-(2).) The written notices must be in 12-point, bold type and provided either on the receipt or separately. (New Health & Saf. Code, § 122317(c).)

Documentation of healthcare needs. A healthcare practitioner must not provide documentation for an individual stating their need for an emotional support animal unless:

  • The practitioner has a valid, active license and gives the details of their license in the letter;
  • They are within the scope of their professional license to make the assessment;
  • There is a client-provider relationship with the individual for at least 30 days prior to providing the documentation;
  • The provider completes a clinical evaluation of the individual and their need for the dog; and
  • They provide verbal or written notice to the individual that fraudulently representing the dog as a service dog is a misdemeanor.

(New Health & Saf. Code, § 122318(a)(1)-(5).)

A practitioner may also be subject to discipline from their licensing board for violation(s). (New Health & Saf. Code, § 122318(c).)

Penalties. The bill provides for civil penalties of up to $2,500 for multiple violations. (New Health & Saf. Code, § 122319(a)(1).)

For additional reading about service dogs and emotional support animals, see California Landlord-Tenant Practice (2d ed. Cal. CEB) § 2.27B and the California Municipal Law Handbook (Cal. CEB) § 9.192.

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