Do You Know the Difference Between a Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal?

By delaneydit123 on Aug. 11, 2017


After a Delta Air Lines passenger was severely injured by an emotional support dog aboard a flight at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, in June, 2017, the validity of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) is a hotly debated topic. According to a whitepaper, prepared by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in April, 2017, there is a perceived increase in problems caused by people fraudulently identifying their pet as an assistance animal to gain access and/or avoid pet fees. While there is no denying that companion animals serve a purpose in mitigating psychological disorders for the legitimately disabled, it can be difficult to identify those who may not be adhering to the original intent of the law. This controversial issue is generating powerful feelings on all sides, and many are finding it difficult to address such dicey questions.

While all pets boost our spirits and bring joy to our lives, emotional support animals take it a step further by providing critical therapeutic benefits to those with physical or mental disabilities. For those suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD, their loyal sidekick is not only their forever friend, but their lifeline. While both, service animals and emotional support animals, are considered assistance animals, it is important to note that they are not one in the same; service animals undergo extensive training over an 18-month to 2-year timeframe to learn how to perform specific tasks, while ESAs do not require any formal training. Refer to this chart, provided by the AVMA, to help you better understand the animal’s different legal statuses:  


servicedog_ESA_legal.PNGThose who work in public facilities, such as airlines and restaurants, are finding themselves in a tough spot. Because, on a cursory glance, a pet can easily pass for an ESA or a service animal, it can be difficult for employees to identify fraudulent animals. According to the AVMA, there is a growing need for employees to determine which animals may access a particular space, to know how to distinguish assistance animals from pets, and how to respond when an admitted animal becomes a problem. Although a letter from a mental health professional is required to bring an ESA into a public facility or travel with an ESA, it is relatively simple for pet parents to obtain documentation online. There are several online sources that will, for a small fee, “certify” a pet as an assistance animal after a short, online questionnaire. In addition, employees are often reluctant to ask for this documentation in fear of the ramifications that may result.

Some individuals believe that placing emotional support animals in stressful situations that they are not equipped to handle, such as flying, is inappropriate and unsafe. Also, the presence of these untrained pets is becoming problematic for people with disabilities that actually require assistance animals. Many argue that with more animals in a public setting, it makes it difficult for a genuine service dog to do its job. There is also a growing concern that untrained animals will undo years of hard work and cast a poor light on the service community.

While articles circulating the internet have certainly fueled conversation and led to calls for more regulations related to obtaining and identifying an assistance animal, the debate is still in its early stages. According to the AVMA, lawmakers are attempting to fight these incidents by creating laws that will punish individuals who are intentionally misrepresenting their pet as a service animal, redefine service animal for that individual state, or make it harder to obtain a legitimate service animal. However, there is concern that attempting to navigate this gray area could backfire, resulting in new problems for the disabled.  Orbit-on-a-walk.jpg

Interested in reading about how service animals have changed other community member’s lives? Click on the links below:

Have a thought? Comment below! 

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