Service Dogs, Therapy Pets, and ESAs

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Do you understand the difference between service dogs, therapy pets, and ESAs? About once a week, I encounter one or both of two things. One is a story about a person with a “fake” service dog in a public place and the other is a person who profoundly misunderstands what a service dog is.

It’s easy to do, unfortunately. And my suspicion is that most of the poorly-behaved “fake” service dogs people encounter in public are not handled by someone setting out to deceive people, but by someone who just doesn’t understand that it takes a lot more for a dog to be a service dog than simply for it to be owned/handled by a disabled person. There are several distinct roles a dog (or other kind of pet) can play in helping humans with illnesses or disabilities in their daily lives. The rules and laws can seem nebulous and are often exploited by dishonest people who take advantage of the confusion to sell people service dog “registrations” and IDs. Here’s hoping we can clear up some of the confusion for you.

The first category is therapy animals. These are pets (usually dogs) trained to help people other than their owner by providing comfort and joy. Therapy pets may visit hospitals, nursing homes, courtrooms, classrooms, or other public settings where people may be going through something stressful or traumatic. They must go through training, tests, and certifications in order to be allowed in some of these public settings, but are not necessarily trained to perform specific tasks. Their training is focused on obedience, socialization, and behaving in public. A therapy dog must be reliably quiet and able to sit still and follow commands even with a lot of distractions. They must be okay with being handled and grabbed by strangers, including kids. It’s asking more of your average dog than you might think! They may be trained to perform specific tasks, such as laying their heads in people’s laps or doing tricks to make people smile, but their job is simply to be a comforting presence to multiple people who might benefit.

The second is… dun dun DUNNNNN… emotional support animals. Yep. This is where things can get really confusing. In short, an emotional support animal is simply a pet. My perfectly ordinary dog (or even one of my cats) would magically officially transform into an ESA tomorrow if I got a note from my doctor saying I needed one. ESA designation is about the owner’s need, not the animal’s training.

ESAs are a good and legitimate thing. Having a pet can make a huge positive impact on mental and emotional health. It gives people a reason to get up and go outside in the morning, some company, someone outside themselves to focus on, and can even lead to social opportunities. But they get a bad name when people misunderstand the limitations on the rights granted by the “emotional support animal” designation.

ESAs do not have public access rights. They are not automatically allowed in stores, restaurants, classrooms, workplaces, or anywhere else pets are not permitted. You may be able to negotiate specific exceptions (for example, at your school or workplace), but there is no requirement for anyone to accommodate an ESA in public. This is because, while a service animal is highly trained to be safe and non-disruptive in public settings, an ESA is not. If, after I got my ESA letter from my doctor, I took my now-magically-transformed emotional support dog to a restaurant, she would spend the whole time licking the flavor molecules off the floor, barking at other patrons to pet her, and trying to persuade people to drop her a morsel of food. She’s a perfect angel at home, but she’s not trained to sit quietly in exciting, scary, or new public settings and would be a real pain in the butt for the people around me.

ESAs do have limited rights beyond those of a regular pet. Namely, they are allowed to live in housing where regular pets (or certain breeds or sizes of pet) are not permitted and are sometimes allowed in airplane cabins with their humans. However, due to abuse of the privilege and problems caused by disruptive pets, some airlines are tightening restrictions on ESAs. If you’re planning on flying with your ESA, make sure to check with the airline beforehand to make sure your pet meets the requirements.

It should also be noted that, even in housing situations, ESAs don’t have unlimited rights. The ADA mandates reasonable accommodations for disabilities and, if an animal is dangerous, destructive, or a public nuisance, allowing them may no longer be considered reasonable. Every pet should be properly confined, trained, exercised, and appropriately cared for, but it’s especially important with an ESA. Be courteous and responsible, especially if you live in close quarters with other people.

The final category of pet, and the one allowed the most rights, is a service dog. Whereas an ESA becomes an ESA based on the needs of the owner, a service dog becomes a service dog through lengthy and intensive training. A fully-trained service dog can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and for good reason. Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks in order to help one person navigate the world with a disability or illness. They are highly trained to perform those tasks reliably in the face of a lot of distraction. Those tasks may include things like opening doors, retrieving dropped items, pulling a wheelchair, alerting a blind or deaf person to hazards, “watching the back” of a person with PTSD, or alerting their person to specific oncoming health crises, such as low blood sugar or seizures. Because service dogs are allowed in public, they must be trained to be safe and non-disruptive. A service dog who barks because they’re nervous, poops on the floor, jumps on people, or knocks things over out of exuberance is not an appropriately trained service dog.

Part of the confusion about service dogs comes from the fact that there are no official registrations for a service dog. There are places where you can buy a vest or ID online or “register” your dog, but these are essentially scams. Organizations that train service dogs have specific standards and litmus tests, but if you’re training your own dog, it’s hard to know what to do and how to proceed. If you’re interested in training your own service dog, contact an agency such as Champ Assistance Dogs and ask them for guidance. Be prepared to hear that it’s a lot harder than you might think. Again, there’s a reason these dogs are so expensive. It takes months and a lot of skill to train one and many dogs (most of whom are generally really good dogs) will flunk out of the program and go on to be pets.

Most service dog training programs have some form of financial assistance to help people gain access to a service dog. Vocational rehab programs may also be able to help with the cost. For most people, though, getting a trained service dog will require some fundraising and may still be out of reach.

Lastly, one of the major misconceptions I come across with regards to service animals is that a service, therapy, or emotional support animal will not need care because they will be taking care of their person. This is absolutely false. Animals need care and some human must be responsible, physically, mentally, and financially, for that care. Your service dog may be able to turn lights on for you, alert you to an oncoming panic attack, or tell you when it’s safe to cross the street, but they can’t buy their own food, get their own veterinary care, groom themselves, or keep up with their own training. That’s on the human.

Animals are amazing, whether they’re performing incredible feats or simply making life better by being a soft, joyful, or calming presence. And if you plan on using an animal to improve your or someone else’s life in some official capacity, it’s important to understand the rights, responsibilities, and limitations of each specific designation.


Is your unofficial ESA not allowed to go to work with you? We can make sure their day isn’t too long and lonesome. Check out our let-out services or book one of our dog walkers for a mid-day stroll. Pets enrich our lives, so let us help enrich theirs!

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