More Than Man’s Best Friend: How Service, Therapy and Emotional Assistance Animals Help Their Humans
Your four-legged friends and there for you through thick and thin, but some animals go above and beyond to assist their people
BOERNE, Texas — Walk into a store, visit a hospital or dine at a restaurant and it’s likely one will run into a service animal, hard at work for their handler. But fake service animals and untrained emotional support animals can interfere with the work of official assistance animals, causing problems for dogs and owners alike.
“People try to cheat the system,” said Viktoria Haynes, Canine Companions for Independence puppy raiser. “Emotional support animals most of the time do not have any formal training, or training of any kind. They’re just there to provide comfort.”
There are three different levels of working animals: assistance or service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals, Haynes explained. Service dogs perform tasks for their handler, and often have specialized skills. It takes a year or more of rigorous, specialized training before a dog can be certified as an “official” working dog.
“An (assistance) dog’s training starts the week that they are born,” Haynes said.
Despite the lengthy training working dogs endure, there is no formal way to distinguish them. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service dog is not required to wear a vest, Haynes said. Despite websites claiming otherwise, there is no official registry which certifies an animal as an official assistance dog, either. This means people can cheat the system and claim untrained therapy animals or emotional support animals as service dogs, which can interfere with working dogs and cause further trouble, according to Haynes.
“People will sometimes bring (untrained animals) into a store or restaurant or whatever. They can leave a bad reputation if they bark at people, or if they’re put in a cart but aren’t task-trained,” Haynes said. “Then when someone who has an actual trained assistance animal walks into that same store, they can receive some pushback.”
Haynes said it is this training which sets apart true assistance animals from therapy animals, or emotional support animals. Yet this wasn’t the case for Darleen Kegel, who has trained service animals and had one of her own for over 35 years.
Kegel’s first service dog was a Maltese named Honey. Honey was just a pet before Kegle was in a car accident, which left her hospitalized for over two weeks in 1985.
“She grieved terribly, to the point to where a close friend had to come and get her,” Kegle said. “They brought her to the hospital to see me, and she didn’t want to leave.”
Honey became Kegle’s service dog during a time when there were different rules and regulations, but eventually trained to help Kegle in the aftermath of her accident.
This tale of an animal becoming a therapy animal is one that is familiar to others, like University of Texas at Austin senior Samantha Shaps.
Shaps was dealing with depression and anxiety in the spring of 2019, and was having difficulty dealing with some personal trauma. Her mother thought it would be helpful for her to have a cat because they are naturally intuitive, and recommended she get one. Shortly after, Shaps’ apartment had a new member — a kitten named Emunah or, as she is more affectionately known, Moon.
“I named her Emunah, which means ‘faith’ in hebrew,” Shaps said. “I really saw in her this connection, this restoration of faith. Because of my trauma I had really lost (that), but she gave me that back.”
Without any training or urging, Moon became intuitive to Shaps’ needs and schedule, and provided comfort and support as she underwent intensive therapy for PTSD.
“She was instrumental in helping me heal…I live alone in Austin, and that summer when I was undergoing therapy I felt extremely alone,” Shaps said. “I started describing her as my support animal because I really relied on this connection.”
Trained or untrained, it is this connection that becomes important to both animal and handler, according to Kegel.
“I’m sure you have friends who get home from work or school and just want to see their dog,” Kegel said. “That dog might not have ever been trained, but that’s a therapy dog. The minute they get home from work, they are giving therapy to its owner just by its love, its unconditional love and devotion.”