A recent occurrence near my home town compelled me to write this article. A legitimate service dog and its handler were asked to leave a local grocery store where their presence was protected by federal protections of Service animals. The hard part is there has been a horrible trend in people abusing this protection by claiming their pets are service animals just so they can take them in public or keep them in housing where they would otherwise be forbidden. Often the case is worse by taking pets untrained and unprepared for public access out in public and causing problems for the many truly needy and legitimate dog and handler teams. Just saying a dog is a service dog does not make it so. It must be trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability that is protected under the ADA guidelines. Some people label their pet as an ESA which it may be, but those animals are not offered the same protections as service dogs. A dog that is helpful at calming someone with a panic attack as important and helpful as that is, is not protected to be in a restaurant for example.


Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Animals: Understanding the Key Differences

As our understanding of the vital role that animals play in human health and well-being continues to grow, it’s essential to distinguish between service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs). Though both provide invaluable support to their handlers, they serve different purposes, receive distinct training, and are protected by different laws. In this article, we’ll explore the primary differences between these two types of animals, the protections granted to service dogs, training requirements, and how individuals can obtain a service dog or ESA.

Defining Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

Service Dogs are specially trained to perform specific tasks that assist individuals with disabilities, such as guiding the visually impaired, alerting the hearing impaired to sounds, or providing mobility assistance for those with physical limitations. There are also Medical alert dogs that can alert their handlers to life threatening medical conditions as well such as low blood sugar or the presence of life threatening allergens. Seizure alert dogs for example can alert the handler to an oncoming episode to help them get safe before it begins. These dogs undergo rigorous training to ensure they can reliably perform their duties while maintaining public access manners.

Emotional Support Animals, on the other hand, provide therapeutic benefits through companionship and affection to individuals with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ESAs do not need specialized training to perform specific tasks; their mere presence offers emotional comfort and support.

Protections for Service Dogs

Service dogs are granted numerous protections under federal law to ensure that their handlers can fully participate in society without discrimination. Key protections include:

  1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Under the ADA, service dogs are allowed access to all public places where their handlers are permitted, including restaurants, stores, hotels, and public transportation. Business owners and staff are only allowed to ask two questions: whether the dog is a service animal required because of a disability, and what work or task the dog has been trained to perform. They can not ask about the medical history or condition of the handler.
  2. Fair Housing Act (FHA): The FHA requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities, including allowing service dogs in housing where pets are typically not permitted.
  3. Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA): Under the ACAA, service dogs are permitted to accompany their handlers in the cabin of an aircraft at no additional cost.

It is important to note that ESA’s do not have the same protections that service animals have.


Training Requirements

Service dogs undergo extensive training to learn specific tasks that directly mitigate their handler’s disability. This training often takes 18 months to two years and includes obedience, socialization, and task-specific skills. In contrast, ESAs do not require specialized training, though they should be well-behaved and able to handle various situations without causing disruptions.

Tasks and Functions of Service Dogs

The tasks and functions performed by service dogs vary based on the needs of their handlers. Examples include:

  1. Guiding visually impaired individuals and alerting them to obstacles.
  2. Alerting hearing-impaired individuals to sounds, such as doorbells or alarms.
  3. Retrieving items, opening doors, or providing physical support for individuals with mobility impairments.
  4. Alerting individuals with diabetes to changes in blood sugar levels.
  5. Interrupting panic attacks or other harmful behaviors for individuals with mental health conditions.

Obtaining a Service Dog or ESA

To obtain a service dog, individuals with disabilities can apply through reputable service dog organizations. These organizations typically have stringent application processes, including interviews, assessments, and home visits. The cost of obtaining a service dog varies but can range from $15,000 to $50,000. Financial assistance may be available through grants or fundraising efforts.

For an emotional support animal, individuals must first obtain a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that the ESA is necessary for their mental health treatment. There is no official registry or certification for ESAs, and any organization claiming to “certify” an ESA is likely fraudulent.

In conclusion, understanding the differences between service dogs and emotional support animals is crucial for recognizing the unique roles these animals play in their handlers’ lives. By appreciating their distinct functions, training requirements, and legal protections, we can ensure that both service dogs and ESAs continue to provide invaluable support to those in need.