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The One About Emotional Support Animals

Updated: Apr 1

Thousands of years ago canines found their ways into our homes and hearts, changing over time to becoming man's best friend and often loyal helper. Dogs have been used to help with protection, herding, field work in agriculture, hunting, and even for their supposed healing properties in the case of the Xoloitzcuintli in ancient Mexico. Today dogs continue to work, and in some roles that are a bit unique when compared to those of the past - therapy work, service work, and emotional support. But what are these modern job designations, and what are the differences between them?

Service Dogs

As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are individually trained to perform specific tasks and to work with people with disabilities. According to the ADA, disabilities can be “physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities.” The work of the service dog must be directly related to the handler’s disability. These are just some of the things a service dog can do:

  • Guide dogs help blind people navigate.

  • Hearing dogs (also known as Signal Dogs) alert deaf people to sounds, such as a knock on the door or a person entering the room.

  • Psychiatric dogs are trained to detect and lessen the effects of a psychiatric episode.

  • Service dogs help those in wheelchairs or who are otherwise physically limited. They may open doors or cabinets, fetch things their handler can’t reach, and carry items for their handler.

  • Autism assistance dogs are trained to help those on the autism spectrum. They can distinguish important sensory signals, such as a smoke alarm, from other sensory input. They may also alert their handler to repetitive behaviors or overstimulation.

  • Some service dogs that are trained to recognize seizures and will stand guard over their handler during a seizure or even go for help.

  • Allergy Alert Dogs are trained to detect an allergen and its residue at schools, events, or activities and alert their owner. Their training is similar to that of a police dog learning to track scents or drugs. Breeds commonly trained as allergy alert dogs are the Poodle and the Portuguese Water Dog.

The ADA mandates that service dogs have full public access rights, which means they’re allowed to go places where animals are typically forbidden. They can be brought into restaurants, stores, libraries, and other public spaces. They must even be permitted in rented housing, even if other pets aren’t allowed. Service dogs are also allowed on airplanes and other public transport. One caveat: each airline has its own rules regarding service dogs. Most require that the dog sits on the traveler’s lap or at their feet. Dogs cannot block the aisle or sit in the emergency exit row due to safety concerns. Service dogs are exempt from the pet fees that airlines charge.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs play a different helping role than service dogs and emotional support animals. They are not trained to live with a specific handler. Rather, these are dogs that, with their human teammate (usually the dog’s owner), volunteer in clinical settings. These locations include hospitals, mental health institutions, hospices, schools, nursing homes, and even orphanages. These dogs are specifically trained to stay calm in potentially stressful situations and provide comfort and affection. They should have a naturally calm temperament, be unfazed by unfamiliar noises and movements, be comfortable being handled (sometimes with slight initial roughness, as some patients may not possess the ability to discern their strength), and simply love on people. Although they’re defined as comfort dogs and often used in therapeutic settings, therapy dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA. Therefore, they don’t have the same legal right to access in public spaces. There are no uniform state or national rules that regulate and certify therapy dogs, and different organizations have different guidelines. As a general rule, therapy dogs should be trained, insured, and licensed by the non-profit that’s offering their services.

If you’re interested in volunteering and think your calm dog may be a good candidate to be a therapy dog, organizations like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs test dogs for their suitability and, if accepted, have guidelines that must be followed. While it doesn’t certify therapy dogs, the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program offers their training program to organizations, and the CGC test is often a prerequisite required by therapy dog organizations. If interested, you may want to start by reaching out to an AKC certified trainer to take the class that would grant your dog his CGC title.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

Emotional support dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA. They may be trained for a specific owner, but they aren’t trained for specific tasks or duties to aid a person with a disability, and this is the main difference between ESAs and service dogs. But this doesn’t minimize the support these dogs provide for people with a psychological disorder. They’re considered companion animals and ease anxiety, depression, some phobias, and loneliness. In the technical sense, in order to be considered an emotional support dog a mental health professional must prescribe the ESA for a patient with a diagnosed psychological or emotional disorder, such as anxiety disorder, major depression, or panic attacks. Interestingly, an ESA can be species other than a canine. Common alternatives are rabbits, cats, Guinea Pigs, and parrots. Some people even have snakes for their ESA, and some opt for livestock such as Miniature Horses or chickens. The important thing to realize here is that just about any animal can be an ESA because the help they provide is not dependent on any behavior they do, but on the mental/emotional impact the person relying on them experiences. In a very real sense, it is similar to a small child taking their favorite blanket with them everywhere and clinging to it during stressful situations. This is a very real benefit, and not one to be diminished. But the hard pill to swallow is that it isn't an inseparable benefit, where the owner requires it to do normal tasks or to monitor for chronic health anomalies. And if that is what the owner actually needs, then they have avenues through which they can go to receive a certified Service Dog. In fact, there are multiple.

Unlike service dog owners, ESA owners have only limited legal rights. While they don’t have unlimited access to public spaces, the Fair Housing Act mandates “reasonable accommodations” for emotional support animals, even in buildings that don’t allow pets. These rights, especially in the case of rented housing, typically require a letter of diagnosis from the owner’s doctor or psychiatrist. Airlines are not required to accommodate emotional support animals. There are often notable behavioral differences as well that make it obvious when an ESA or untrained SD is not a certified Service Dog. Generally speaking, a certified Service Dog will not urinate inside businesses, exhibit excitement or playfulness while they are working, bark at people or other dogs, jump up to greet people or other dogs, pull on their leash (unless this is part of their trained duties, which can sometimes be the case for people in wheelchairs), whine a lot, require constant treats as reward or pacifier, or exhibit noticeable anxiety.

Shades of Grey

Increasingly, there has been a blurring of the lines between these service designations for canines. Often, owners with an ESA will simply refer to the animal as a "service dog," which may be colloquially correct but is not correct in the technical sense and muddies the waters a bit, complicating the issue for any business that the aforementioned owner may be entering. A common retort is that a business cannot ask for identification or proof of certification for an alleged service dog to determine if said dog is an ESA being masqueraded as a certified Service Dog. This is true in almost all cases; it is considered unlawful for a business to ask for proof of Service Dog certification, just as it is considered unlawful for them to ask what service the dog provides. This is due to laws protecting medical privacy. This unfortunately means we are on the honor system. The ability for people who rely on certified Service Dogs for seizure alerts, sight work, etc. all depend on individuals with Emotional Support Animals being honest and not attempting to take an ESA where it shouldn't be going (restaurants, grocery stores, etc.). The more ESA owners violate these guidelines, the more this puts Service Dogs at risk of being potentially barred from entering these places by legislative means.

Some states have been trying to address the problem. As of writing this post, Tennesse has just moved forward with a proposal to ban Emotional Support Animals and any "untrained" service dog from entering restaurants. This has been in the works for months already, using up the time of legislators that could be better spent addressing other issues in their state. Taking your ESA into places you shouldn't isn't victimless. It is important to recognize that these efforts to crack down on this issue are not unfounded. ESAs and untrained "service dogs" have not only attacked people in public spaces but have attacked well-trained certified Service Dogs resulting in animals no longer being able to do the work of assisting their owners.

Protecting the ability for Service Dogs to help their owners who need them is a group responsibility. If you have an ESA or untrained "service" dog, please abide by all guidelines and do not attempt to take them into places which they are lawfully prohibited or discouraged.

Check out the handy chart below to quickly compare the differences between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals below.


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