If you have seen a dog in a vest, you’ve likely wondered what that dog does, and why it gets to visit in a hospital/fly on an airplane/walk into a store when your pet doesn’t. Other than pet dogs, which we all know and are familiar with, there are three other categories of animals that have distinctions (and some have legal protections).
Two important things before we start:
1) There are no valid/required national registries or certifications for Therapy dogs, ESAs, or Service Dogs in the United States. Some states, cities, or colleges have voluntary ones (usually they allow you to avoid things like city license fees or some such), but there are no requirements. That means there is no such thing as a “registered emotional service animal” or a “certified service dog.” Therapy Dogs International has its own certification for therapy dogs, as does Pet Partners, but neither is required (especially as Therapy Dogs do not have public access, housing, or air carrier rights). Some states grant public access rights to service dogs in training (SDiTs) in order to facilitate their training.
2) In order to have an Emotional Service Animal or a Service Dog, the handler must have a disability. You can’t simply have a dog you’d like to take everywhere because they are cute, slap a vest on them, and then demand rights from stores/your landlord/airlines. The ADA defines a disability as “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.1” So, when you say something like “I wish *I* could have a service dog!” you are actually saying that you wish you had a disability that impacted your life so much that you require the use of a medical device (service dog = wheelchair = oxygen tank = inhaler = insulin pump).
So, therapy dogs work with people who “volunteer with dogs to visit hospitals, special needs centers, schools, nursing homes, and other facilities. [These] volunteers…share [their] special canines to bring smiles and joy to people, young and old alike.2” Typically, therapy dogs visit people who do not have access to pets, but would benefit from the positives that interacting with animals can bring, however whether they are allowed in the building or not is totally up to the discretion of the owner of the establishment. They have no special rights when it comes to housing or flights.
ESAs, or Emotional Service Animals can be any animal (although there can be breed and size restrictions, so getting a moose on an airplane may not work). The person with a disability needs a note from their doctor/psychologist/psychiatrist explaining that the animal provides them with comfort and eases their emotional turmoil just by being near them. Then, the disabled handler needs to request the animal be allowed to live in their home (a right under the FHA if the landlord has more than 4 properties) and meets other conditions 3. ESAs may also fly in the cabin of a plane 4, but there, too, a doctor’s note is required and some airlines are cracking down on people labeling their pets as ESAs to avoid paying fees, especially as untrained animals have injured passengers 5. The ADA doesn’t offer any protection or rights to ESAs, because they aren’t required to have any special training, so an ESA cannot go shopping or to school with their handler.
A service dog must be a dog (or a miniature horse in some cases) according to the ADA 6. The dog must be trained to perform at least one task to mitigate the disability of their disabled handler, and must be housebroken and non-aggressive. It generally takes over two years to train a service dog, and the ADA does not provide public access rights to Service Dogs In Training (SDiTs) 7, although some states and cities do allow for that.
Service dogs can be trained to alert to drops in blood sugar, to seizures, or migraines. They can guide the Blind or visually impaired, listen for Deaf or hard-of-hearing handlers, pull wheelchairs, and provide mobility assistance. They retrieve dropped items, turn off lights, lead their handlers to a safe place, interrupt self-harming behaviors or panic attacks, and alert their handlers to a need to take medication. All of these must be trained tasks, however, or natural alerts that are shaped into a task. Service dogs are allowed into any place that the public can enter (schools, hospitals, stores, restaurants, etc) even if the place does not normally allow dogs 8. The only exception is if the place is a sterile environment (surgery theater, restaurant kitchen, etc).
The US’s lack of registry means a business or other place of public access cannot ask a service team for their “papers” or to see an ID or Service Dog tag. Businesses are only allowed to ask: 1) Is that a service dog? 2) What tasks is it trained to do? If the dog is aggressive, not under control, or not housebroken, they can be asked to leave, but that is that case whether a dog is a service dog, a or pet in a dog-friendly store. Service dogs do not have to wear a vest/special collar/leash wrap (although many do), nor do they need to have an ID, nor can the business ask what the handler’s disability is or ask to see a doctor’s note. Allergies to dogs (or fear of dogs) aren’t a reason to deny access (either to a public access area or for an employer to deny a service dog as an accommodation).
People with disabilities are allowed to train their own service dogs, in conjunction with a trainer or not, because of these rules. However, it is an immense amount of work and requires dedication and some funds (as the chances are great that SOMETHING will come up that requires the knowledge and skills of a trainer or behaviorist). Since people with disabilities can often have limited or fixed incomes, this flexibility can be a boon, but it also makes it easy for people to slap an Amazon vest on their pooch, or buy a kit from a disreputable online seller, and then try to pass them off as a service dog. This is illegal under federal law, and many states have additional legal penalties set up for those who insist on dragging their dogs into places they have no business bringing a pet.
Not only is it illegal and rude to falsify a pet’s service dog credential, it does harm. When stories like a biting service dog hit the news, it damages the public understanding of what service dogs are, and how they are supposed to behave. There’s also the issue that untrained dogs can attack service dogs, and that this can have terrible consequences that range from the death of the service dog, the need to retire it due to it becoming fearful and skittish, or intense re-training. All of these leave the person who relies on the service dog up a creek, as waiting lists for trained dogs can last years and cost upwards of $30,000.
Lastly, interfering with a service dog performing its duties is illegal. Not just at the federal level, but multiple states have laws and additional penalties. That kissy noise people make at dogs they see in public? That can break a guide dog’s concentration, or cause an alert dog to miss noticing an oncoming seizure. Petting is the same thing. Don’t pet service dogs, and don’t get upset when handlers ask you not to. Ignore the dog.
If you are a person with a disability, and you think a service dog might mitigate some issues for you, reach out to the online community. Google your local SD trainer. Contact a program. Subscribe to Drew Lynch. Email me. Learn.
If you are a person without a disability who wants to take their pet everywhere with them? Don’t.
Here is info on me and my service dog (Tulio). He also has a facebook, IG, and twitter (for educational purposes). All photos of other service dogs are used with the express permission of their handlers.
Any questions? Shoot me a message!