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As School Reopens: Should Schools Allow Service Dogs?


Written by Leslie Ingraham

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 08/13/2021, edited: 08/13/2021


Service dogs are a lifeline for people, including children with disabilities. These furbulous pups assist with key tasks and work on behalf of their humans in many ways, and can often be seen by their side wherever they go. For children, that could include school where these pooches can aid them throughout the day. 

However, opponents of service dogs in schools claim that dogs are disruptive, can cause allergy problems for some students, teachers and staff, and that some people in schools may be fearful of dogs in general. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws specify that public places need to make “reasonable accommodations” for persons with disabilities who request the presence of their service dog. 

So, should schools allow service dogs? Read on for answers to this, and to learn what a service dog is and how they can help us everyday.

What are service dogs?

The ADA defines service dogs as pups that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for individuals with disabilities. The tasks and work must be directly related to the disability. 

Some examples of a service dog’s work might include providing seizure warnings or detecting blood sugars that are too high or too low. They can also give the person reminders about taking their medications, retrieving their meds, or give reminders to test their blood. Service dogs can fetch items, pull a wheelchair, or help with walking and balance. 

Federal law states that all children and adults, including those with disabilities, have the right to be educated using the programs in existence at the time, including K-12, boarding/private schools and universities or colleges. If a school has a policy against animals, the ADA states that such a policy must be altered to accommodate service dogs. This might include rearranging classroom furniture to decrease allergic reactions in teachers or other students, or providing a trash container outside near where the student or handler will walk the pup. The Fair Housing Act mandates service dogs be allowed in school dormitories and the school’s public areas. They are typically not allowed in a swimming pool, but may stay nearby on the pool decking.

What about emotional and psychological disabilities?

While the ADA doesn’t define emotional support and companion animals, it’s clear that these are pets, not service animals. They’re simply “there” rather than being trained to do certain jobs. However, trained mental and psychological service dogs are canines that perform tasks for specific psychological conditions, like depression, that can significantly limit life activities. 

What are the schools’ responsibilities?

Schools have no choice but to allow a service dog in school with a student because federal law mandates it. They may only ask two questions:

  • Is the service dog required because of a disability? 
  • What work and tasks has the service dog been trained to do?

Schools aren’t allowed to ask the student or parent/guardian to identify their disability or its extent. It may ask for information about the dog, such as rabies status, but the responsible person is not required to provide it. 

Are there exceptions to the rule that schools must accept a particular service dog?

There are two exceptions to the law requiring schools to allow service dogs:

  • If the dog demonstrates aggressive behavior toward other students, staff or teachers
  • If the presence of the dog would fundamentally change the program or service offered by the school

It’s more likely that problems will occur because other students might treat service dogs as pets or companion dogs, petting them or offering food. 

Who is responsible for handling the dog?

What schools are not responsible for is handling the service dog. Handling might include taking the dog outside or giving commands. Often the student serves as the handler, although it’s been found that children under the age of 14 may not be mature enough to do this well. Sometimes the handler is the child’s parent or guardian, or they may hire one. Schools must permit handlers, if they’re needed, to be at the school whenever the student and service dog are there.

Are service dogs allowed in the cafeteria, salad bar or other food areas?

The answer is yes. These dogs are trained to restrain themselves around food and people. They should cause no problems in line for food with their student, such as at a salad bar or cafeteria service area.

How can schools prepare students, faculty and staff for the arrival of a service dog?

Given enough lead time, schools can adequately prepare physical surroundings as well as provide education for other students and their parents, teachers, and staff. The topic can be covered in a staff meeting, leaving enough time for the many questions that may arise. Students might be gathered for an assembly to prepare them with rules they’ll be asked to follow. One-on-one or group meetings with concerned parents will allow them to express their concerns and learn more about service dogs in general. The support staff will learn about physical or procedural changes that may have to be done. Arguably the most important piece of implementing a service dog’s entry into the school setting is preparation.

So, should service dogs be allowed in schools? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Success for the student depends largely on cooperation between the school and parents, and the acceptance of this challenge as part of the school environment. Check out the Daily Wag! for more topics about dogs and pets.

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