August 5th-11th is International Assistance Dogs week, and it really had me thinking about how amazing these animals are. Just think about what they do every day for their owners! Do you know the difference between a “service animal”, “Emotional support animal” and a “therapy animal”? I thought they were all classified as service animals, but I sure was wrong! These three types of assistance animals help out in very different ways. Assistance animals don’t always have to be dogs either, there have been miniature horses, pigs, and other types of animals helping their handlers out as well! In honor of international assistance dogs week, let’s learn more about each type of assistance animal and what job they have to do for their handler, as well as what privileges they have over our everyday pets.

Service Animals

According to the USA Service Dog Registration website and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website, Service animals are trained to help their handler perform and do specific tasks related to that person’s disability. Examples of service animal tasks include guide dogs, alerting and assisting people who are deaf, alerting and calming someone with psychiatric disorders, and alerting and protecting someone who may be having a seizure or diabetic episode.  Police dogs and security dogs (such as drug or explosive sniffing dogs) are also considered service animals.

If a person has a service animal and is in general public, businesses have the right to ask (1) if the animal is required because of a disability. The business cannot ask what type of disability the person has, but they can also ask (2) what work/task the animal has been trained to perform.  The business cannot ask the person to have the animal “demonstrate” the task. These two questions should only be asked if the animal’s tasks are not visually obvious to the business. The ADA describes an “obvious” task to be a guide dog helping a blind person or a dog helping someone with mobility issues.

Emotional Support Animals (ESA)

An Emotional Support Animal is an animal that can provide emotional and therapeutic benefit to someone suffering from anxiety, emotional issues, or psychiatric problems. For an animal to be registered as an emotional support animal, the person needs to have a note from a licensed mental health counselor stating that the person has a condition and the animal is providing emotional support to the person.   These animals do not have any sort of formal training to help with any conditions the person may have.  They are simply there to lessen or eliminate the symptoms of a person’s emotional disability, which is still an important job!

Even though an emotional support animal may be recognized by the general public, according to the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are not considered a service animal because they are not helping with a specific physical task. Physical tasks are described as guide dogs or seeing-eye dogs, hearing dogs for the deaf, Psychiatric service dog, Sensory signal dog, or a seizure response dog. 

Abuse of the term ESA

Because of the abuse of the title “emotional support animal”, businesses in the travel industry have the right to question individuals about their animal including asking for documentation that they have a disability and the reason the animal needs to be traveling with them.  It is advised to reach out to a business before arriving with the animal, especially if traveling, to inquire exactly what they may need to service the person and their animal.  

Psychiatric service dog- emotional support animal?

Some may argue that a Psychiatric service dog is the same thing as an emotional support animal, however, according to the ADA, there are differences. The person must have a diagnosis related to a psychiatric disorder, and the service animal is trained to watch for and sense upcoming psychiatric episodes as well as perform certain tasks when that episode is happening, whereas the emotional support animal would just be present to keep the person calm.

Therapy Animals

Therapy Animal is also not considered a service animal under the guidelines of the ADA act, because therapy animals do not help just one specific person. Also, they are not trained to do a specific task for a person. Therapy animals comfort people and may even have specific training on how to behave appropriately in institutional settings, but that is usually as far as the training goes. Therapy animals are very beneficial as they are often seen in hospitals, nursing homes, or other places where people are generally sick and down in their spirits. This animal is meant to come in and comfort them and bring them a sense of hope and happiness.

Where Are These Animals Allowed In Public?

A service animal is allowed anywhere that the general public can be. They must be under physical or verbal control of the handler. They can be asked to leave if the animal is causing a safety issue and the handler is not able to correct the animal immediately.

An emotional support animal can only be allowed in airplanes, have special consideration for housing when there is otherwise a no-pet policy, and allowed in educational institutions. Like service animals, while in public these animals must be under control of the handler.

A therapy animal can only be allowed in places that other animals are not allowed if given special permission. They as well must be under control of their handler at all times or they may be asked to leave.

Are these animals required to wear a vest or some sort of ID?

According to the ADA, service animals, therapy animals, or emotional support animals are not required to have any sort of identification. A lot of folks with service animals do like to identify their animal as such so that the general public does not come up to the animal and distract the animal from its job.  If any business has a concern about the animal, they have a right to ask the two questions as mentioned before with identifying service animals.

Can I approach and pet these animals?

You should NEVER approach and pet a service animal unless the handler invites you to do so as this could cause harm to the handler if their service animal is distracted and something were to happen to the handler.  

Emotional support animals should not be approached in public unless prior consent is given by the handler.

Therapy animals are typically allowed to be approached and pet as their purpose is to comfort individuals.

Do these animals have to be on a leash in public at all times?

Yes, these animals should be leash-restrained in public at all times. They should not be allowed to roam.

Purpose and Love

Whether the animal is a service animal, emotional support animal, or a therapy animal, they all have very important purposes!  These animals go above and beyond every single day to help their handlers go about with their daily activities and functions. These animals illustrate just another example of the importance of having animals in our lives and the strength of the human-animal bond.  I am always amazed at how intelligent these creatures are! Thank you to all the individuals and organizations out there helping to train these talented animals, your work is so important to society!

Want more information on assistance animals and what they can do? Check out the USA Service Dog Registration website or the ADA Service Animal Resource website.

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