How Do Service Dogs Fit Into Your Lease?

Even though landlords are required by law to accommodate tenants with service animals, they can still deny pets. Here’s the difference between them and how to protect your building’s policy.

November 14, 2015

Many people suffer from physical and mental disabilities so severe that they need a service dog, which not only provides therapeutic support but also helps perform basic tasks. But what if you manage a property with a no-pets policy, and a tenant wants to have a service dog at home with them?

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating based on disability, among other things, so they must accommodate tenants who depend on the assistance of a service dog. That doesn’t mean, though, that they lose their right to ask other tenants not to have animals in the building.

During the property management forum at the 2015 REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Diego, Judy Keene of the nonprofit Next Step Service Dogs, which matches people with trained canines, urged attendees to understand the difference between a pet and a service animal.

Most dogs that have no formal training to assist a person with a disability can be placed in the “pet dog category,” Keene said. “But service dogs are trained specifically to help a specific person with their disability and perform specific functions.” (Emotional support dogs, which aren’t necessarily trained but are prescribed by a mental health provider, are considered akin to service dogs.)

A service dog may be trained to help a returning war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, by turning the lights on in dark rooms and sniffing them out to make sure there are no safety threats before his owner enters, Keene said.

You have the right to deny tenants’ requests for those animals that are merely pets, but how can you know a tenant is telling the truth when they say their dog is a service animal? There are signs you might be able to pick up on that will tell you whether the animal is a service dog, but, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, you cannot request documentation of the animal’s service status.

“You can tell it’s not a service dog if it acts badly,” Keene said. “Uncontrolled barking, pooping in the corner, hyperactivity, or constant whimpering or crying is not service-dog behavior.” The law only protects a tenant’s right to have a service dog if the dog is undisruptive to other tenants and under the control of the owner (on a leash outside the apartment) at all times, she added. You have the right to ask that the service dog be removed from the property if these rules are broken – and particularly if the dog poses a threat or hazard to anyone.

But remember that if you advertise a no-pets policy, you’d be wise to also state on your marketing, signage, and lease forms that your policy is subject to tenant’s rights laws to avoid any potential blowback, Keene said.

Note: A previous version of this article misstated that landlords and property managers can request documentation that an animal is a service dog. That is against ADA guidelines.

Navigating the Needs of Emotional Renters

Service animals aren't the only things property managers should be sensitive to when working with some tenants. A portion of the forum at the conference was dedicated to teaching property managers how to communicate with tenants who struggle with emotional issues, using veterans with PTSD as the example. Helping these veterans find housing as they re-acclimate to society is a point of pride for many real estate professionals, but the process can be as difficult to manage as it is fulfilling.

PTSD and other disorders can present communication barriers that are hard for the average person to understand and adapt to. “With PTSD, your mind is jumping around a lot,” said Linda Stanley, a retired U.S. Air Force major and VA psychiatric nurse. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed, and that may display behaviorally as anger or frustration.”

You don’t want to misread symptoms of legitimate emotional dysfunction as a sign that someone won’t be a good tenant—and end up unfairly denying them housing. Stanley offered pointers for improving communication, and though they’re tailored to people with PTSD, many can be applied to other scenarios.

  • Start with “thank you.” Many people with PTSD are afraid of being stigmatized, Stanley said. If you’re dealing with a veteran, show them your understanding by saying “thank you for your service” before talking business. This will put them at ease for the rest of the conversation, especially if there are complex lease terms to discuss.
  • Choose an appropriate environment. When you meet to go over a lease, do it in a quiet place. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed in areas with loud noises or crowds,” Stanley said. “[Veterans] had to be so aware of their environment at war, it becomes too much.”
  • Don’t talk about too much at one time. If you have certain requests of tenant, explain them one at a time. Lengthy lists of demands can be hard for them to process in one sitting, Stanley said.
  • Let them go at their own pace. Don’t demand that people sign a lease agreement on the spot. Let them discuss it with someone they trust. It’s imperative that they don’t feel coerced into something, explained moderator Ginni Field, who works with vets in her real estate business.