Tennessee Laws on Guide Dogs and Support Animals in Public Places and Housing

Tennessee state law provides the right to a guide dog for those with physical disabilities, but federal law adds on rights for those with mental disabilities.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Under Tennessee's public accommodation law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities may bring their service animals to all public accommodations, including stores, businesses, motels, restaurants, theaters, schools, and more. Tennessee's law is more limited than the ADA, in that it applies only to dog guides who assist those with physical disabilities, but public accommodations in Tennessee must comply with both state and federal law.

What Is a Service Animal Under Tennesee Law?

Tennessee's public accommodations law doesn't use the term "service animal." Instead, it refers only to "dog guides." The law doesn't define the term dog guide, but it does say that public accommodations are required to allow dog guides only if they are leading or accompanying someone who is blind, deaf, hard of hearing, or otherwise physically disabled. Based on the language, it seems unlikely that a psychiatric service animal would qualify for protection under Tennessee law.

Under the ADA, however, a service animal is any dog that has been individually trained to perform tasks or do work for the benefit of a person with a physical or mental disability. Examples of service animals that must be allowed into public accommodations under the ADA include:

  • hearing dogs (or miniature horses), which alert their handlers to important sounds, such as alarms, doorbells, and other signalsg
  • guide dogs (or miniature horses), which help those who are blind or visually impaired navigate safely
  • psychiatric service animals, which help their handlers manage mental and emotional disabilities by, for example, interrupting self-harming behaviors, reminding handlers to take medication, checking spaces for intruders, or providing calming pressure during anxiety or panic attacks
  • seizure alert animals, which let their handlers know of impending seizures, and may also guard their handlers during seizure activity, and
  • allergen alert animals, which let their handlers know of foods or other substances that could be dangerous (such as peanuts).

Neither the ADA nor Tennessee's service animal law includes what some people call "emotional support animals": animals that provide a sense of safety, companionship, and comfort to those with psychiatric or emotional disabilities or conditions. Although these animals often have therapeutic benefits, they are not individually trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers. Under the ADA and Tennessee law, owners of public accommodations are not required to allow emotional support animals, only service animals and dog guides. These laws also don't apply to pets.

Which Public Accommodations Must Allow Service Animals in Tennesee

Tennessee law requires places of public accommodation, recreation, and amusement to allow dog guides. These places include hotels, restaurants, barber shops, stores, theaters, public transportation, public schools, and elevators.

Under the ADA, the definition of public accommodations is very broad. It includes:

  • hotels and other lodging establishments
  • public transportation and terminals, depots, and stations
  • restaurants and other places that serve food and drink
  • sales or rental establishments
  • service establishments
  • any place of public gathering, such as an auditorium or convention center
  • places of entertainment and exhibit, like theaters or sports stadiums
  • gyms, bowling alleys, and other places of exercise or recreation
  • recreational facilities, such as zoos and parks
  • libraries, museums, and other places where items are collected or displayed publicly
  • educational institutions, and
  • social service centers, like senior centers, homeless shelters, and food banks.

Rules for Your Service Animal

Under the ADA and Tennessee law, a public accommodation may not ask you questions about your disability or demand to see certification or other proof of your animal's training or status. If it is not apparent what your service animal does, the establishment may ask you only whether it is a service animal, and what tasks it performs for you.

The ADA prohibits public accommodations from charging a special admission fee or requiring you to pay any other extra cost to have your service animal with you. However, you may have to pay for any damage your animal causes.

Under the ADA, your service animal can be excluded from a public accommodation if it poses a direct threat to health and safety. For example, if your dog is aggressively barking and snapping at other customers, the facility can kick the dog out. Tennessee law and the ADA both allow an accommodation to exclude your animal if it is not housebroken or out of control (and you can't take steps to control it).

Service Animals in Tennesee Housing

Tennessee law prohibits discrimination in leased or purchased housing accommodations against those with physical disabilities. You must be allowed full and equal access to all housing facilities. Tennessee's law on service animals in housing, however, applies only to guide dogs that assist handlers who are fully or partially blind. Your landlord may not charge you extra for having a guide dog (although you may have to pay for any damage your animal causes). If your lease or rental agreement includes a "no pets" provision, it does not apply to your service animal.

Under the federal Fair Housing Act, housing facilities must allow all service dogs and emotional support animals, if necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the home. To fall under this provision, you must have a disability and you must have a disability-related need for the animal. In other words, the animal must work, perform tasks or services, or alleviate the emotional effects of your disability in order to qualify. (For more information, see the Department of Housing and Urban Development's guidance on service animals.)

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