Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals — Everything You Need To Know
Sometimes it may not be obvious if a person’s companion dog is a service dog or an emotional support animal. Both may look the same and have certain privileges, such as access to areas where dogs normally aren’t allowed. However, service dogs have more public access rights compared to emotional support animals. That’s why it’s important to know the distinction. So what’s the difference between the two?
Service dogs have to be specifically trained to assist people with disabilities that impair physical, sensory, or mental capabilities. People with disabilities require service animals to help them become more independent.
On the other hand, emotional support animals don’t require any special training to become one. To be recognized as such, an emotional support animal must be prescribed by a mental health professional to a person suffering from severe stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems. Emotional support animals are not limited to dogs and include various other domesticated pets such as cats, rabbits, or even pigs!
Emotional support dogs provide comfort and therapeutic benefits to people struggling with emotional or mental health problems, but they don’t require any training to fulfill this purpose. They can support patients simply by providing affection and companionship. In comparison, service dogs must be individually trained to perform tasks directly related to a person’s disability, such as guiding a person with visual impairment.
What are service dogs?
Service dogs have been around since the 1920s. Primarily, they were guide dogs (or seeing-eye dogs) trained to assist people with visual disabilities. Soon, these specially-trained dogs started assisting people with other disabilities like hearing loss or impaired mobility. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was officially acknowledged, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, housing, public accommodation, commercial establishments, transportation, and local or state government.
According to the ADA, service dogs are specially trained to assist people with physical, sensory, or mental disabilities that limit their independence and the extent to which they can perform daily life activities. Service dogs perform tasks such as:
- Pull wheelchairs
- Perform room searches for people with severe post-traumatic stress disorder
- Assist people with mobility issues by carrying, reaching, or picking up items for them
- Guide people with visual impairment
- Signal important sounds to people with hearing loss
- Detect the onset of a psychiatric episode and alert others
- Lessen the effects or duration of psychiatric episodes
- Protect people prone to seizures
- Assist people with autism by catching repetitive behaviors or overstimulation
- Assist people with psychiatric or neurological disorders by preventing disoriented, impulsive, or destructive behaviors
- Assist people with internal disabilities by detecting allergens, blood pressure, heart rate, or blood sugar levels
- Remind people with memory impairment to take their medication
In short, service dogs are not merely companions. They are working animals trained to perform specific tasks for their owners whenever it is required. These tasks must be directly related to the person’s disability, significantly improving their independence and quality of life.
What are the guidelines for owning a service dog?
As a service dog owner or handler, you are responsible for controlling your service dog. This means that you must ensure that your service dog is calm even in unfamiliar situations, capable of sitting quietly beside you, and attentive to your needs and commands.
The ADA requires that a service dog must be trained to perform tasks related to the owner’s disability. But it doesn’t require paid professional training, official registration, or any certification. The ADA also doesn’t require service dogs to wear special vests, harnesses, collars, tags, or any item that signifies identification.
People with disabilities may train their own service dogs. However, depending on age and temperament, not all dogs can become effective service dogs. Always consider this possibility when training your own service dog. Certain characteristics in service dogs are preferred, such as:
- Ability to stay calm in unfamiliar settings
- Focused, alert, and willing to please
- Ability to ignore distractions
- Ability to adapt to new situations
- Ability to perform repetitive tasks consistently
Make sure your service dog exhibits most if not all of these characteristics. If you choose to train your own service dog, start teaching basic skills such as house training, eliminating on command in different places, proper socialization, and proper reaction to new sights, sounds, and smells. Your goal should be for them to pass the Canine Good Citizen test.
After that, your dog must also learn to be reliable even in the presence of tempting distractions like food, other people, or animals. You may opt for professional trainers to assist with this specifically. There are also a wealth of resources online that help you train your dog’s focus.
Professional training programs specifically made for service dogs and their handlers are also available. These programs have strict standards and have a dropout rate between 50–70%. Also, these programs may cost upwards of $25,000. They include handler training as well as follow-up training to ensure the dog’s reliability. However, not everyone can afford the expense.
Thankfully, some non-profit organizations provide free service dog training for certain individuals, such as service dog providers for military veterans. These programs require the dog to pass minimum standards for training and behavior before they can be allowed to become the individual’s service dog. Such tests include the ability to reliably perform randomly selected tasks to assist people with certain disabilities.
Professionally-trained service dogs are generally required to become proficient in:
- Public access skills
- Housetraining and eliminating on command
- Focus and attention skills
- Behaving in public and staying by the handler’s side
- Remaining under control in various circumstances
Remember, the ADA allows owners to train their own service dogs. The law does not require paid professional training or any type of certification for service dogs. The only requirement is that the service dog must be specifically trained to perform tasks directly related to the owner’s disability.
What’s the proper etiquette when you encounter someone else’s service dog?
It’s important to know how to behave around a person’s service dog properly. Remember that your actions may cause the service dog to lose focus and fail to perform the tasks it needs to do to assist the handler. It may also pose a risk to you, especially when interacting with the dog causes it to become aggressive.
Here are some examples of how to act appropriately around service dogs:
- Do your best to put distance between you and the service dog if you are holding or wearing something that may distract the dog.
- Address the handler directly when asking about the dog
- Alert the handler if the dog approaches you
- Ask for permission before interacting with the dog
- Smile, be polite and respect the handler
- Respect their space and right to privacy
As much as possible, don’t interfere with the service dog’s responsibilities even if the dog is sitting quietly beside the handler. Avoid actions that may disrupt the dog’s focus. This includes:
- Talking to the service dog or interacting without permission
- Making eye contact with the dog
- Whistling, cooing, barking, or making other sounds to catch the dog’s attention
- Giving the dog command such as ‘come’ or ‘sit’
- Providing food or trying to tempt it with dog treats
- Touching or petting the dog without permission
- Praising the dog or doing something that may excite the animal
- Making unnecessary noises such as tapping your leg or clapping your hands
- Allowing children to approach the dog
Remember that handlers are not obligated to entertain your question about his or her service animal. Avoid asking insensitive questions about the handler’s disability. Overall, be respectful, polite, and always address the handler directly.
What are the rules when traveling with a service dog?
A service dog is generally allowed to travel to or enter any area where the public is allowed. The ADA prohibits anyone from refusing to provide services, entry, or accommodation to individuals based on their disability.
Businesses, commercial establishments, public facilities, and transport operators must modify their policies to allow service animals to accompany a person with a disability. Exceptions may be made if the animal disrupts important operations or poses a risk to the safety of others.
The ADA protects an individual’s right to privacy concerning their disability. In most cases, a person’s disability may be obvious such as when a person is in a wheelchair. But in cases where the disability cannot be seen, the law only allows two questions to be asked in order to confirm the service animal:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What task has the animal been trained to perform?
The answer to the first question must be ‘yes’, and the answer to the second question must be directly related to the person’s disability. If both conditions are met, then the dog may be considered a service animal.
Public facilities and establishments are prohibited from asking further questions about the disability. Additionally, they’re not allowed to ask for proof or documentation that the dog has been licensed or certified as a service animal. They are also prohibited from asking the owner to demonstrate what the dog has been trained to perform.
Despite these provisions, businesses reserve the right to exclude or discharge the service animal from the premises if:
- The handler does not have control of the animal
- The animal is not housebroken
- The animal is disrupting business operations
- The animal is barking, growling, or behaving aggressively.
- The animal is deemed dangerous to other people on the premises (such as in a hospital)
Airlines are also required to allow service dogs on board the plane to accompany individuals with a disability under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Airline personnel may ask questions or documentation regarding the service animal depending on the circumstances. A service dog owner is required to fill up a DOT form, specifically the “Service Animal Transportation Form,” and must submit it at least 48 hours before departure.
Airlines must also provide sufficient relief areas for service animals in the terminal and may escort them there. Inside the airplane, the passenger is solely responsible for the dog’s food, care, and supervision.
Individuals may request to take their service animals to their place of employment to accompany them at work. Employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodation” if there are no appropriate alternatives and as long as the service animal does not disrupt essential operations or pose a danger to other employees.
Public transport operators such as buses or taxis are also not allowed to refuse entry to individuals with a service dog regardless of any policy that prohibits animals inside the vehicle. But again, exceptions are made if the animal is disruptive, untrained, or is a danger to others.
In general, a service dog is allowed to go wherever the individual with a disability must go. However, always remember that you are responsible for your service dog’s behavior and must be responsible for the animal’s care and supervision as the owner.
What are emotional support animals?
Under the law, an emotional support animal (ESA), usually a dog or a cat, is an animal prescribed by a doctor or psychiatrist to help a person manage emotional or mental health problems. These problems may include:
- Moderate to severe stress
- Mild to moderate post-traumatic stress disorder
- Certain phobias
- Mild to moderate panic attacks
An emotional support animal provides therapeutic benefits by calming, soothing, or comforting its owner through affection and companionship. Animals don’t need training of any kind to become ESAs. Any animal whose mere presence and instinctive behavior positively affect the patient’s mental health condition can be considered an emotional support animal.
What are the guidelines for owning an emotional support animal?
It’s true that most dogs and other pets already provide emotional and mental health benefits to their owners. But to be recognized as an emotional support animal, the animal must positively influence the person struggling with a mental health problem. It must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional.
To be eligible for the rights associated with owning an ESA, you may need to present proof of prescription, which can take the form of a signed letter or doctor’s note. However, there’s no need to register your emotional support animal with any governing authority.
Federal laws limit the questions that business owners are allowed to ask people with disabilities. Service dog handlers, in particular, are not required to present proof, any certification, or medical documentation. As a result, too many people fraudulently claim that their emotional support dog is a trained service animal to gain public facilities entry.
As an ESA owner, you must never misrepresent your emotional support dog to gain additional privileges, special accommodation, or public access only available to service dogs. Even though emotional support animals perform an important role in the lives of people who need them, abusing the system in this way is disrespectful and undermines the reputation of individuals with disabilities that legitimately require this assistance.
A fake service animal that’s poorly trained can be an encumbrance as well as a danger to the public and actual service dogs. For that reason, misrepresenting service animals is against the law. In 2018, 48 measures were introduced to address this growing problem.
What’s the proper etiquette when you encounter someone else’s emotional support animal?
The proper etiquette for behaving around a person’s emotional support animal may not be as strict compared to service animals. However, the same manners must still be applied as much as possible. This includes:
- Talking directly to the ESA owner
- Asking for permission before interacting with the animal
- Avoiding insensitive questions
- Alerting the owner when the animal approaches you
Some emotional support animals need to focus solely on their owners, so avoid needlessly distracting them.
- Don’t coo, whistle, or make sounds that call the animal’s attention
- Don’t touch or interact with the animal without permission from the owner
- Don’t make eye contact with the animal
Don’t take it personally if the person doesn’t allow you to pet or interact with the animal. These animals are not for anyone’s amusement. They are there to perform a specific purpose for their owners. Remember to be polite and always be respectful.
What are the rules when traveling with an emotional support animal?
Emotional support animals are not covered as extensively as service dogs in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, permissions regarding where emotional support animals are allowed are entirely up to the local municipality, transport operator, or business owner. However, they may be considered an exception if you’re looking to rent a property with a no-animals policy.
Under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), emotional support animals are viewed as “reasonable accommodation.” They must generally be allowed to live with a tenant regardless of a rental property’s pet policies. To be qualified for this, a person must present considerable proof that an emotional support animal is needed, such as a letter of diagnosis from a doctor, psychiatrist, or other licensed mental health professional.
In the past, emotional support animals were allowed in the cabin under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. The ACAA had a broader definition for “service animal,” which allowed some people to take advantage of the rule.
In 2018, one woman tried to bring her emotional support animal, a peacock, inside the plane to which the airline had to refuse due to its large size. Before that, in 2017, a passenger who was allowed to hold his emotional support animal, a large dog, in the cabin, attacked a fellow passenger resulting in multiple facial injuries.
Due to an increase in animal incidents like the ones above, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) announced revisions to the ACAA in December 2020. The final revision, effective in January 2021, states that only service dogs can fly with passengers. The law also tightened the definition for “service dog” and aligned it more closely to the ADA’s definition.
Passengers who wish to fly with their emotional support animals must follow the guidelines provided by airlines regarding pet accommodation. This means that you may be charged animal fees to board your ESA on the plane. The airline also has the right to refuse animals to ride in the cabin and has a limit on the type of animal you can bring.
Emotional support animals may be allowed in the workplace as long as you formally request it. It’s up to the employer to decide whether the request is reasonable. Employers have the right to refuse ESAs in the workplace if it is deemed both risky and unnecessary. ESAs may only be allowed in the workplace if you’re unable to do your job effectively without it.
There’s no official rule covering emotional support animals both in public transportation and commercial establishments. In most cases, emotional support dogs with proper harnesses may be allowed to ride public buses or trains. As for businesses and commercial establishments, it may be up to the business owner’s discretion to allow them. Check with your local government to see what the specific provisions are for your emotional support animal.
Both service dogs and emotional support dogs are animals that play an important role to their owners. It’s important to know the distinction between the two and how to behave around these animals to avoid unnecessarily disrupting them and preventing them from performing their tasks.
Remember that proper behavior is required, especially around service dogs who are not merely pets but rather working animals that have a job to assist their owners.