Service Animals in Schools: What K-12 Educators Should Know

Service Animals In K-12 Schools: What Educators Should Know

Trident Public Risk Solutions reminds schools about how the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) addresses service animals.

Service dog laying in grass, looking happy

The Montana School Boards Association recently recommended its schools update their service animal policies to align with federal and state laws – meaning that specially trained dogs can accompany students with disabilities to school, but emotional support animals of any species are not allowed.

“Schools need to treat service animals as a reasonable accommodation to a disability,” says Thom Rickert, vice president and emerging risk specialist at Trident Public Risk Solutions. “They can no longer assume having a human aide as part of an individualized education plan renders a service animal superfluous.”

What is a service animal?

In its guide to service animals and emotional support animals, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.”

Tasks for service animals in schools may include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items and alerting a person to a sound.

Thousands of service dogs are used around the world to aid people with disabilities. Ariel Re, which along with Trident is part of Argo Group, sponsors The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in the U.K. Ariel (pictured) is Ariel Re’s sponsored guide dog.

What is an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animals provide companionship and sometimes help with mood disorders and certain phobias. They do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities and are therefore not covered by the ADA as service animals.

Districts will have their own policies regarding emotional support animals in schools.

Tips for K-12 schools

1. Create a plan.

Meet with the student, the student’s family and the dog’s trainer before bringing the service dog to school. The plan should address how to educate school staff and other students about the service dog.

2. Discuss concerns ahead of time.

Neither fear of dogs nor allergies warrants removing a service dog. The plan should accommodate students who are dealing with those issues.

3. Take safety precautions.

A service dog should have a harness, leash or tether. If that’s impractical, the student or trainer should be able to control the dog by voice commands or other signals.

“Taking these initial steps shows your willingness to abide by the ADA and provide a quality education for all the students in the classroom,” Rickert says. “It also reduces the likelihood of legal hassles down the road.” 

Trident Public Risk Solutions provides insurance coverage for public entities such as public schools. Learn more at