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Policy & AdvocacyPosition Papers and ReportsNASN Issue Briefs Full View    July 25, 2014

NASN Issue Briefs Full View

Service Animals in Schools (Adopted January 2012)


Service Animals in Schools


Issue Brief

printable version


Animals that provide for the physical and mental well-being of humans are perhaps the most admired of all working animals. “Service animal” is a term that distinguishes those animals that serve individuals with physical or mental disabilities, usually on a one-on-one basis, from pets or other types of skilled animals, such as police dogs (Ensminger, 2010).  The term, though primarily legal, is used quite broadly in today’s society, and a request to bring a service animal into the school setting presents questions due to the complex disability discrimination laws, insufficient medical and psychological data concerning service animal benefits, and difficulty distinguishing between a service animal and a household pet. 
The registered professional school nurse (hereinafter referred to as school nurse) is the school’s healthcare representative on site (AAP, 2008), and has a unique role in providing school health services to children and young adults with special healthcare needs, including those with chronic illnesses and disabilities who may require coordination of care and services.  School nurses actively collaborate with others to build student and family capacity for adaptation, self-management, self-advocacy and learning.  They are leaders in development and evaluation of school health policies and programs, through coordination of linkages between the medical home, family and school, and are, therefore, valued assets in planning efforts for “service animals” in schools. 


In the past 20 years there has been an expansion of the diversity of service animals being utilized by persons with disabilities, with some confusion as to what truly is a “service animal”.  Effective March 15, 2011, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations define a service animal as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability” (USDJ, 2011).  In addition there is a new separate provision which includes miniature horses in the definition of a “service animal” if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities (Jacobs, 2011).  Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.  Service animals are working animals, not pets.  The work or task a service animal has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.  Animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA (USDJ, 2011). Children who may require a service animal in school are supported by the ADA regulation, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794), Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq), as well as state and local laws.


School districts recognize that service animals may be used to provide assistance to some students/staff with disabilities, which includes the presence of the service animal in the school, on school property, including school buses, and at school activities.  Schools have a legal responsibility to provide planning and services for children with special healthcare needs, including allowing service animals into schools.  Planning promotes quality care for students with special healthcare needs in school and enhances the student’s academic success. 

Communication between the family, school, and healthcare provider is critical and may uncover adaptations or alternatives to the service animal’s presence in schools.  Some initial questions to ask once the request for a service animal has been made include the following:

  • Is the service animal required because of a defined disability, and will the animal impact the student’s academic and behavioral functions to support his or her education?

  • Does the student need the service animal for equal access to educational services and programs?

  • What work or task has the service animal been trained to perform?

  • How will the service animal alert its handler/student to an impending incident?

School district policy in regard to service animals should address the following:

  • Compliance with current federal, state and local laws regarding service animals in schools.

  • Written documentation from a veterinarian that the service animal is in good health and properly vaccinated. Although such documentation is not legally required, it helps confirm that the animal is safe to be around other students at the school (Virginia Department of Education, 2011). 

  • Provision of training for staff and students in rationale for, and interaction with, the service animal.

  • Education of students, staff members and the community on the role of service animals and the laws permitting them access to public places.

  • Control of the service animal in school.   “Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices.  In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls” (USDJ, 2011, para. 6). 

  • Schools may exclude any service animal if that animal is out of control, the animal’s handler does not take effective action to control it, or the animal is not housebroken (USDJ, 2011). 

Other factors that the school should consider include the following:

  • According to the law (USDJ, 2011), schools are not responsible for care, including elimination needs, food or a special location for service animals.  The animal’s owner/family is responsible for the “care and supervision of the service animal” (USDJ, 2011).  However, many students who have service animals are not able to provide care for their animal at school. Communication and planning between school and home are essential in making adaptations to this rule (Minchella, 2011). 

  • When there is more than one service animal in a school building, special arrangements should be made so the animals can meet each other in a controlled setting.

  • When a miniature horse is the service animal, the type, size, and weight of the miniature horse and whether the facility can accommodate these features without compromising legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation, should also be considered.  Other requirements which apply to service animals, shall also apply to miniature horses (USDJ, 2011). 

Service animals in schools may create additional issues and questions for schools to consider, such as triggering allergies in some students/staff, fear of safety to self or others, increased liability for the school district, and general animal care issues, such as feeding, grooming, and elimination. Planning for a service animal in school depends on multiple factors and requires individualized preparation.


The school nurse identifies student health issues and special needs that are relevant to the student’s educational progress and recommends services or program modifications that the student may need or require.  The school nurse is also the link between the student/parents and other school personnel, and between school personnel and the community health care providers and resources.  Communication and planning are essential in supporting the student with a service animal.  The school nurse plays a key role in facilitating this communication and planning process.

School nurses have a community health-based understanding of the stressors of caring for a child with special healthcare needs, and school administrators often rely on the school nurse’s broad knowledge base and ability to anticipate concerns and to coordinate and develop plans for the student’s health care needs during the school day. Those plans may involve having a service animal and may indicate what role the service animal will have in interacting or alerting the student or staff to a potential emergency situation.

A multi-disciplinary approach is required to determine eligibility for services within the educational system. The school nurse is the leader in educating, advocating, supporting placement of, and evaluating the success of these services. Based upon school policy, the building administrator, along with input from the school nurse, will determine the appropriateness of the service animal in the school. 


American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2008). Role of the school nurse in providing school health services. Pediatrics, 121, 1052 -1056. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-0382l

Ensminger, J. (2010). Service and therapy dogs in American society:  Science, law and the evolution of canine caregivers.  Springfield. IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) of 2004, 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1400 et seq.; 34 C.F.R. Parts 300 et seq.  Retrieved  from   http://www.copyright.gov/legislation/pl108-446.pdf

Jacobs, M. (2011). Service animals in the schools: What every district needs to know about the ADA rules.  LRP publications.

Minchella, L. (2011). Hot topics in special needs school nursing:  Service animals in schools. NASN School Nurse, 26 (2), 78-81.

Rehabilitation Act (Section 504): 29. U.S.C, 794; 20 U.S.C. 1405; 34 C.F.R. Part 104.  Retrieved from http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_07/34cfr104_07.html

Virginia Department of Education. (2011). Guidelines for school division policy and procedures regarding service animals in Virginia's public schools, 2011. Available at  www.doe.virginia.gov/VDOE/sess

United States Department of Justice (USDJ). (2011). ADA 2010 Revised requirements: Service animals. Retrieved from  http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

Acknowledgement of Authors:
Christine Tuck, MS, BSN, RN, NCSN
Nina Fekaris, MS, BSN, RN, NCSN
Lindsey Minchella, MSN, RN, NCSN

Adopted: January 2012

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