Resources

Information on Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

Virginia Commonwealth University strives to ensure our campus, facilities, and programs are accessible and welcoming to all individuals. In fact, access serves as a cornerstone of our very mission as moral and ethical obligation, rather than just a legal requirement. We recognize that for some individuals equal access requires additional supports or accommodations, which we acknowledge in our Accessibility Policy and Nondiscrimination Statement. While VCU generally does not permit animals within facilities, we also recognize that Service and Emotional Support Animals can play a crucial role in the lives and success of many individuals with disabilities. As an institution, we are committed to supporting students who have a verifiable need to bring a Service or Emotional Support Animal on campus.

Included below are some general guidelines and a collection of the more common questions that students, faculty and staff tend to have regarding Service and Emotional Support Animals. Please feel free to contact the Office of Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity (SAEO) if you have any additional questions which could not be answered here.

General Questions

Who should I contact for any questions related to animals on campus?

For all questions related to students with service animals on the Monroe Park Campus, please contact the Office of Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity at SAEO@vcu.edu or (804) 828-2253.

For all questions related to students with service animals on the Health Sciences Campus please contact the Division of Academic Success at DAS@vcu.edu or (804) 828-9782.

All questions regarding emotional support animals in the residence halls may be directed to The Office of Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity.

For employee and visitor inquiries about service animals, please contact ADAservices@vcu.edu and for more information, refer to the Accessibility and Reasonable Accommodation for Individuals with Disabilities Policy.

What is the difference between a service animal, an emotional support animal (ESA), and a pet and where are they are permitted on campus?

Service animal – A service animal is a dog* that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. A service animal must be housebroken and under the effective control of its handler at all times. A dog whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support does not qualify as a service animal. An individual does not need to formally request or be approved to bring their service dog into campus facilities, however we do encourage students to disclose their use of a service animal to the appropriate office (SAEO or DAS) so that support can be offered if necessary. Generally, service animals have the same access to VCU facilities and spaces as their handler except in limited circumstances, such as when the animal’s presence would pose a safety hazard, create a disturbance, damage property, or they are not fully under the control of their handler.

* Under the particular circumstances set forth in the ADA regulations, 28 C.F.R. 35.136(i), a miniature horse may qualify as a service animal.

Emotional support animal (ESA) – Also commonly referred to as a support animal, comfort animal, or therapy animal, an emotional support animal may be any type of animal which provides a therapeutic benefit for their handler. Unlike a service animal, an ESA does not accompany a person with a disability at all times and need not have been trained to do work or perform tasks related to a disability. ESAs may be considered for access to university housing, however, they are generally not permitted in other VCU facilities (e.g. libraries, academic buildings, classrooms, labs, student center, etc.). In order for an ESA to reside in a residence hall, a student must request a housing accommodation through SAEO.

Pet – A "pet" is any animal that does not qualify as a service animal or an ESA, and is often kept for companionship. Pets are not permitted in VCU facilities, including residence halls, dining halls, or classrooms.

What does it mean that a service animal must "do work or perform tasks"?

A service dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. Examples of such work or tasks may include leading a blind individual, retrieving items for an individual with limited use of their hands, alerting an individual with diabetes when their blood sugar reaches high or low levels, or detecting the onset of an epileptic seizure and then helping the person remain safe during the seizure. Providing comfort or emotional support does not, on its own, constitute work or tasks.

Do service animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?

While no federal law requires service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness, Virginia law requires a guide dog to be in a harness; a hearing dog to be on a blaze orange leash, and any other service dog to be in a harness, backpack, or vest identifying the dog as a trained service dog. Va. Code § 51.5-44(E).

What does under control mean? Do service animals have to be on a leash? Do they have to be quiet and not bark?

Service animals are required to be under the control of the handler at all times. The service animal must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered while in public places unless it would interfere with the service animal’s work or the nature of the person’s disability prevents this from being possible. In those cases, the individual must use other means to effectively maintain control of the animal. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may use a long, retractable leash to allow her service animal to pick up or retrieve items. They may not allow the dog to wander away from them and must maintain control of the dog, even if it is retrieving an item at a distance from them. Under control also means that a service animal should be housebroken and should not be allowed to bark repeatedly in a lecture hall, theater, library, or other quiet place. However, if a dog barks just once, or barks because someone has provoked it, this would not mean that the dog is out of control.

Student Information

How can I request to bring my emotional support animal into my residence hall?

In order to bring an emotional support animal into a residence hall, a student must submit a request for a housing accommodation to SAEO by completing the following steps:

  1. Submit a Housing Accommodation Request Form.
  2. Submit recent documentation from a qualified, treating healthcare provider familiar with the requesting individual’s disability and course of treatment, which addresses the following:
    1. Confirmation of a diagnosis
    2. Details related to the functional impact or limitations resulting from your disability.
    3. Information about why an emotional support animal is a necessary component of your treatment plan.

This information will be reviewed by the Housing Accommodations Review Committee who will determine if there is sufficient evidence to support the request. This Committee consists of professionals representing the following campus offices: SAEO, Student Health, Counseling Services, and Residential Life and Housing.

Can I bring my emotional support animal into other VCU buildings?

While an ESA may be permitted in a student’s assigned residence hall living space as an approved accommodation, ESAs are generally not permitted inside other VCU buildings. VCU will engage in an interactive process to respond to any such requests and propose alternative accommodations to meet a requesting individual’s disability-related needs.

Is my service or emotional support animal required to be certified?

No. In the case of a service animal, VCU may ask if the dog is required because of a disability and what work or task it has been trained to perform. In the case of an emotional support animal, VCU may require documentation of a disability which establishes the need for the ESA.

It is important to note that there are no nationally recognized or licensed certifying agency for service or emotional support animals. In recent years, there have been many individuals and organizations selling service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA or prove that the dog is a service animal. VCU will not consider these as sufficient documentation.

Am I allowed to have a service animal in-training on campus?

It depends. An experienced trainer or person conducting continuous training of a service dog may be accompanied in university facilities by a dog that complies with the requirements of Virginia law: a dog in training must be a minimum of 6 months old and wearing at all times an appropriate harness, leash, vest, or other identifying marking indicating that it is a trained service dog.  Socialization and obedience training would not afford an animal the status of a service dog in training, as all animals permitted inside VCU buildings or in areas requiring special access must already be obedient and appropriately socialized (including being housebroken).  While federal law provides service dog access to facilities for individuals with disabilities, it does not require exceptions to policy to provide access for an individual without a disability who is training a dog.

Faculty/Staff Information

As a VCU faculty or staff, what questions can I ask to determine if a dog is a service animal?

In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal (such as a guide dog or a dog pulling an individual in a wheelchair), faculty/staff may ask only two specific questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

If the answer to the first question is “yes” and the individual appropriately describes the type of work or task the dog has been trained to perform, the individual with a service animal may access any facilities where members of the public, participants in services, programs or activities, or guests, as relevant, are allowed to go. Faculty/staff may not request any documentation, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability. Remember that only a dog (or qualifying miniature horse) can be a service animal. No other animal requires making an exception to a general policy prohibiting animals unless the individual has obtained written approval from the appropriate disability support office on campus.

How should or shouldn’t I interact with a student’s service animal?

Once you have established that the dog is, in fact, a service animal using the two questions above, you may be curious about how you or the other students in the class should interact with it. The best thing to do is pose this very question to the student using the service animal. Let them know you are supportive and ask if they have any suggestions or recommendations about how others should or should not interact with their dog. Generally speaking, it is best to pretend the animal is not even there. A properly trained service animal will be incredibly well-behaved and obedient, so you will barely notice it. Also, keep in mind that even if you can't tell what tasks the dog has been trained to perform for its handler, service animals are potentially working all the time and interacting with or even petting them could distract them from an important task.

How can I help the situation when a service animal is being disruptive?

If a service animal is out of control and the handler does not take immediate and effective action to control it, faculty/staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises. If you believe that a service animal is not properly obedient or socialized to remain in classroom or other setting without being disruptive, please contact SAEO or DAS to discuss mediation with the student. The dog’s handler will assume responsibility for any damages caused by an animal. In this case, a student whose animal has been removed for this reason may continue to participate in any course, activity, or program without the animal.

How can I, as a VCU faculty or staff member, request to bring a service or emotional support animal to work?

To initiate the interactive process towards determining eligibility for this type of accommodation, you can contact your supervisor, human resources or the ADA Coordinator. Requests for a reasonable accommodation will be assessed and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Employees will be asked to complete the Employee request for accommodation form and the Medical certification for employee accommodation form as part of the accommodation process. More information can be found in the Accessibility and Reasonable Accommodation for Individuals with Disabilities Policy. ~https://equity.vcu.edu/ada/