When managing a rental property, whether it is pet-friendly or not, you will most likely encounter tenants with service dogs. As a landlord, you are permitted to ask your tenant for specific documentation. However, you must always keep accessibility and fair housing laws in mind. Keep reading to learn about landlord-tenant rights regarding service dogs and the kind of proof that you are allowed to ask for.
Types of Service Dogs
It’s essential to understand the differences between the types of service dogs people can have. Not all of these dogs have the same skills or rights. Here are the three main kinds of service dogs and their specifications:
So, in theory, the two types of dogs that you’ll be encountering are service dogs and emotional support animals (ESA). (Keep in mind that a tenant may have an emotional support animal that is not a dog.) There are a variety of subsets of service dogs that are trained to help people with unique disabilities. For instance, some service dogs may specialize in guiding individuals who are blind or alerting their owners of dangerously high or low levels of blood sugar.
Service dogs have special training to assist their owner with their particular disability. An emotional support dog, on the other hand, does not have any special training. This is simply an animal that provides comfort and companionship to an individual with mental health issues. A licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist will usually write an ESA letter to verify that the patient needs the dog to improve their condition.
If your tenant has a disability, they are able to request reasonable accommodations for their condition. Reasonable accommodations are changes in property rules, policies, or practices so that a person with a disability can live in or use a housing unit. Note that there are certain requirements all units must meet regardless of the presence of a tenant with a disability. All rental units must have:
- An accessible route into and through the unit.
- Accessible light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls.
- Reinforced bathroom walls to allow later installation of grab bars.
- Kitchens and bathrooms that can be used by people in wheelchairs.
Reasonable accommodations include waiving a “no pets” policy for someone who requires an assistance animal.
Landlords are NOT required to make a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act for service dogs in these cases:
- Buildings with 4 or fewer units where the landlord occupies one of the units
- Single-family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker
- Hotels and motels are not considered dwellings under the Fair Housing Act but are considered places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Private clubs
General Landlord Requirements
In general, a landlord:
- Cannot require a pet deposit for a service dog or emotional support animal. However, the owner of the service animal is liable for any damages, beyond wear and tear, that may be caused by the dog. This includes teeth marks on trim, carpet torn by a dog’s digging, and carpet soiled by dog waste or vomit.
- May require some sort of proof of disability as a condition of accommodation, and some sort of proof the animal in question is a trained service animal or emotional support animal verified by a licensed mental health professional.
- Is permitted to exclude a dog, including a trained, certified service dog, if the presence of the animal poses a direct threat to the safety of those located on or near the premises. The dog may also be banned from the property if it interferes with the covenant of quiet enjoyment of other tenants or neighbors. However, the landlord may choose to allow the tenant to stay, as long as the dog is no longer present.
Kinds of Documentation You can Ask For
Here is the kind of documentation you are allowed to ask for if your tenant claims to have a service dog or emotional support dog. Service dogs and ESAs are not the same and they are treated differently under federal law. Landlords may require medical documentation for ESAs, but not for service dogs.
- A letter from the tenant’s licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist stating that they need the dog to help alleviate their symptoms. The letter should be an official document with the letterhead of the mental health professional along with their contact information, phone number, and email address. The letter should also include the professional’s license number. As a landlord, you can verify the letter in a number of ways. Keep in mind, however, that you may not, for any reason, have direct contact with your tenant’s therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist. Nowadays, it’s very easy to produce fake ESA letters. You can verify your tenant’s letter by:
- Politely talk to the tenant and ask them about the letter. Remember not to be accusatory; your tenant has chosen to disclose to you that they need special accommodations, so always be considerate.
- Looking up the mental health professional’s license number and verifying its validity. You can do this by visiting the state website for their clinical discipline and entering their license number. If you have trouble, your tenant should be able to obtain a screenshot of their counselor’s or doctor’s license verification by contacting them. Find the link to your state’s license bureau here
- Asking the tenant to have their mental health professional fill out a reasonable accommodation form.
- Identification of the service dog, such as a photo.
- Verification from the tenant (or their family member/caretaker), in writing, stating (1) that the tenant or a member of his or her family is a person with a disability; (2) the need for the animal to assist the person with that specific disability; and (3) that the animal actually assists the person with a disability.
- Copies of the animal’s medical records to ensure they are in good health, parasite-free and immunized/vaccinated.
What You Can Not Ask For
The following items are the kinds of proof you are not allowed to ask for:
- A service dog’s certification or training papers. While you are allowed to ask for some sort of proof of a dog’s role as a service dog, you are not necessarily allowed to ask to see certification. This is because of the rules outlined by the ADA apply to housing as well.
- Access to a tenant’s medical records.
- Specific information about the tenant’s disabilities. You are not allowed to ask any questions like:
- “Do you have a disability?”
- “How severe is your disability?”
- “May I have permission to see your medical records?”
- “Have you ever been hospitalized because of a mental disability?”
- “Have you ever been in a drug rehabilitation program?”
- “Do you take medications?”
- “How long have you been in therapy?”
- “How many sessions have you had with your therapist?”
You should never harass or accuse your tenant of lying. If you ask your tenant any of these personal questions, your actions may be considered discriminatory and in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Refusing Service Dogs
In rare cases, it may be possible to restrict a tenant from having a service dog. A landlord is permitted to refuse accommodation for a service animal based on breed if allowing the animal would be unreasonable. For example, if your insurance carrier drops your coverage because of a restricted breed on the premises, you may be able to refuse the service dog.
Some dog breeds are considered “dangerous” and many insurance companies change policies because of the supposed higher risk involved. The dogs believed to have a propensity for violence are Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Chows, Akitas, Alaskan Malamutes, German Shepherds, Siberian Huskies, St. Bernards, and Wolf Hybrids. It also includes any mix of the dog breeds listed.
Here are some other reasons where you may have the right to deny a service dog or evict a tenant because of the dog:
- The tenant is not legally disabled or cannot prove it in writing via a health care professional.
- The assistance animal is not prescribed for the treatment of the tenant’s specific disability or no nexus is demonstrated or backed up in writing by a health care professional.
- The assistance animal would create an undue burden.
- The assistance animal is illegal or otherwise not allowed according to state or municipal law.
- The animal is a direct threat to the health and safety of other tenants which cannot be reduced or eliminated.
- The presence of the animal “fundamentally alters the nature of the housing provider’s operations.”
- The tenant won’t take responsibility for the animal, such as cleaning up waste, letting it run free, or resolving noise problems.