In all my years of practice, I can tell you that the debate over whether emotional support animals should be entitled to occupy a no-pet condominium ranks as high as any other issue in terms of how hard people are willing to fight for their beliefs. I also learned that some dog owners would spend more litigating their right to keep their dog than perhaps they would to keep their spouse.
Let me state the obvious for a moment. If someone is obviously disabled and presents the association with proof that they have a dog that is trained to help them with their disability, the association better not stand in the way of the unit owner keeping that dog. If they do, it may cost them big.
Despite the popularity of the topic, many people, and even news agencies are simply using the wrong terminology to refer to emotional support animals as opposed to service animals. The other day CNN’s website told a story of a gentleman who was hired by Loews Hardware, who allowed him to keep his dog with him on the job. The employee claimed that his dog has no training whatsoever, but because of a prior brain injury, simply being around his dog calms him down and allows him to better communicate with the customers. The CNN article incorrectly labeled the animal as a service animal. The dog is certainly not a service animal inasmuch as admittedly the dog has no training whatsoever. So let’s review some basic terms:
SERVICE ANIMAL: means an animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. (Most common – seeing eye dog for a blind person)
EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL: The pet needs no training whatsoever. It is simply prescribed or recommended to the patient. The owner must show that the pet is necessary to afford the owner an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling due to his or her psychological disability.
I don’t think any rational person would opine that a service animal shouldn’t be allowed to live in a no-pet community. Service animals are quiet, well trained, well behaved and rarely if ever create a nuisance within the community. Emotional support animals on the other hand……..
Another difference….. under Florida law a service animal is limited to a dog or a small horse. Yes, it’s now a matter of time before someone asks to keep a small horse in unit 403, believe me. An emotional support animal on the other hand can be any animal at all it seems. That’s why you keep seeing crazy stories on TV about people bringing their emotional support pig or hedgehog or snake on an airline.
In fact, despite the fact that Miami-Dade County completely outlaws pit bull dogs, a judge ruled not too long ago that a pit bull that is prescribed to the owner as an emotional support pit bull gets to stay in the condo. The fears of the other owners as well as the County’s belief that pit bulls are inherently dangerous meant nothing.
Regardless of whether the animal is a service animal or an emotional support animal, the animal must be under control and on a leash, harness or other tether unless it would prevent the animal from performing its service. Furthermore, if the animal becomes a nuisance to the community because it barks, or defecates on the common elements, or bites someone, the association can sue to have the animal removed.
Here’s a new law that I’m a big fan of. A person who misrepresents that the animal is a “service animal” commits a misdemeanor and must perform 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves individuals with disabilities. So think twice before you wrap Fido in a cute little vest that says he’s a service animal if the animal was never trained.
We’re just getting warmed up. In our next blog, we’ll discuss what not to do when presented with a request to keep a service animal when the applicant is clearly disabled and the dog is clearly trained. We’ll also discuss what laws apply and if no pet communities are simply a thing of the past.