Michael_CollinsQ. I work at a hospital and we have questions regarding service animals. We strive to keep our patients together with their service animals, but a couple of events occurred lately involving questionable service dogs that weren’t trained and did not have identification. How do we know if they are legitimate and not just pets? Can we advise a patient who is in our hospital for treatment that it may not be in their best interest to have a service animal with them at this time?

We have had patients who are physically or cognitively unable to care for their animal while they are inpatients. Our staff have been forced to help by assuming the responsibilities of walking, relieving and feeding the animal. Staff members are not available to care for other patients while they are walking the animals, and there is a related risk as an employer when they are away from their assignments.

Other complaints relate to ill-trained animals, aggressive behavior, poor hygiene, excessive shedding and “accidents” in the patient rooms or hallways. Where is the line drawn? For instance, can service animals go into operating rooms? How do we handle the situation if a person is not able to handle their own service animal?

Recently a patient who was visually impaired had two guide dogs: one in service and one retired. We had both animals in the patient’s room because the two dogs couldn’t be separated. The retired dog could hardly walk and the “active” dog was not harnessed, and the patient was unable to take care of the animals, so our staff had to do it. What can we do as a team to be accommodating, educated, and best serve our patients? Can we have identified requirements/guidelines for accepting service animals in a hospital?
— Befuddled

A. Service animals are allowed to accompany people with disabilities in hospitals, although there may be some restrictions necessary if their presence could compromise patient health in a specific setting. Such determinations should be made on a case-by-case basis only. Your first step should be to develop a policy that is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and post it in a prominent place while educating staff at all levels about it. That policy can then be shared on the hospital website for prospective patients and provided to them when they check in for care.

Separating real service animals from the “wannabes” when patients check in can seem confusing. Under the ADA’s revised regulations, the definition of “service animal” is limited to a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks that must be directly related to the handler’s disability. In situations where it is not apparent that the dog is a service animal, a business may ask only two questions: “Is the animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?”

Service animal patches, vests or ID tags are not always legitimate. Some states have regulations and registries for service animals requiring a doctor’s statement of medical need, but many do not. The federal government does not maintain a registry or issue identification for service animals. That does not keep people from purchasing identification papers, vests or official-looking tags for their pets off the Internet that lead them to believe their animals will be registered with the federal government as full-fledged service animals.

The ADA regulation that describes a service animal should be the deciding factor. The definition of service animal states they must be housebroken and on a leash, tether, harness or otherwise under the handler’s control. If those conditions are not met, or if they are aggressive toward other people or animals, you can ask the person to remove the service animal from your hospital. That should be done only when absolutely necessary, and the handler or owner would still be entitled to stay.

Rather than have your hospital staff take service animals for walks, try contacting a local service club, scout troop or a group that volunteers at the humane society to see if they would volunteer some time to help with any service animals that are brought to the hospital by patients. Setting up a regular program to train those volunteers about the hospital and ADA requirements should end the problems you are having when staff have to help handle the animals.

• ADA Update: A Primer for Small Business; www.ada.gov/regs2010/smallbusiness/smallbusprimer2010.htm#serviceanimals
• Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Places of Business; www.ada.gov/qasrvc.htm