Service and Emotional Support Animals

Pets and their therapeutic and tangible benefits to society have been researched for centuries. Documentation of working dogs can be traced to the 1750s when a Paris hospital for the blind started training guide dogs. By the 1930s, the German Shepard Dog Association had successfully trained 4,000 guide dogs and inspired facilities around the world to develop techniques for training guide dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) further legitimized and recognized the value of service animals as a necessary aid by providing legislation and guidance to protect service animals and their handlers. Even with the ADA providing clear guidelines on service animals, confusion still abounds among the public as individuals use emotional support animals as service animals. This article seeks to provide clarity between the two types of animals and the rights afforded to both.

Service Animals

According to the ADA, a service animal is a dog that is trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed may vary based on an individual’s needs and may include monitoring blood sugar levels, reminding the handler to take medications, detecting seizures, calming an anxiety attack, guiding someone with a visual impairment, and alerting someone who is deaf. The function a dog performs must directly relate to an individual’s disability.

About the Service Animal

A service animal can be any dog breed that is housebroken and under the control of the handler. Under the control of the handler implies that a dog must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered while in public. If a service animal is unable to perform the tasks they are trained to perform while harnessed, the handler must be able to maintain control through voice commands.

In some cases, a dog may not be the appropriate service animal, and provisions in the ADA allow for miniature horses to be considered service animals. The ADA uses four assessment factors to determine if a miniature horse can be accommodated in a facility.
1. If the miniature horse is housebroken
2. If the miniature horse is under the control of the owner
3. If the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight
4. If the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements

Regulations for Service Animals

Service animals are not required to wear an identification such as a harness, vest, or tag. In addition, service animals do not need to be registered through a government entity. Service animals do not need to be certified, and handlers are not required to provide documentation of training. If an animal is provided a certification, under the ADA it is not recognized as proof of being a service animal.

In virtually all settings, a service animal is allowed to accompany their handler. This includes self-service food lines, hotels, hospitals, schools/colleges, stores, restaurants, housing, and public transportation. If a person is staying at a hotel, the facility cannot charge extra for cleaning fees, the handler is not restricted to a pet-friendly room, and the handler cannot be charged additional fees for the accommodation of a pet-friendly room. If there are questions about an animal’s purpose, only two questions are allowed to be asked:
1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
After the two questions are asked, staff are not allowed to harass the handler, probe further into the animal’s function, or inquire about the disability. In addition, staff cannot ask for service animal certifications or documentation.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESA) differ from service animals based on their function. An ESA’s purpose is to provide companionship and support in an attempt to alleviate an aspect of a disability. While dogs are the most common ESAs, cats, miniature horses, pigs, ducks, and monkeys can serve the same function. The main benefits received from an ESA include decreased anxiety, improved physical health, reduced feelings of isolation, and reciprocal love.

Regulations for Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are not covered under the ADA. Due to the lack of legislation, businesses and other entities are allowed to deny ESAs from entering a facility. Although public facilities can reject the admission of an ESA, laws are protecting ESAs under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Housing providers must make reasonable accommodations to allow an ESA to reside at a housing site. Housing providers are permitted to receive verification of a disability and the assistance an ESA provides. The verification is often completed by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or therapist, that confirms the diagnosis and treatment.

Considerations

When dealing with a handler of a service animal or ESA, one should make efforts to keep the handler’s dignity intact. If an animal is permitted in a facility, it is required by law to provide the handler the same opportunities as other patrons. This means you cannot exclude a handler or remove them from a common area. In addition, it is important that the animal does not become overstimulated. This means do not attempt to pet, feed, or distract the animal even if there is no vest stating otherwise.
A recent trend occurring is the falsification of a service animal or passing off an ESA as a service animal. This is accomplished by purchasing a vest and telling employees a pet serves a purpose. Fake service animals and ESAs have become such a problem that 23 states have enacted some level of a punitive response. If someone you know has participated in this behavior, remind them of the damages they are causing to individuals with disabilities. Businesses are now more incited to ask questions and probe due to previous encounters. In addition, the perception of a service animal may be negative due to experiences from reckless pet owners.