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Service, Therapy, and Emotional Support Dogs

By: Jerri Johnson

August 1, 2023

I get several calls a week from people wanting to get their dog certified as a service dog, therapy dog, or emotional support dog.  More often than not, however, the callers are confused as to what each of these designations are and what the requirements are of each.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”.  According to the ADA, “State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is allowed to go”.  Keep in mind, however that this is not without provision.  The ADA states that the dog must be in control of the handler, leashed (unless it interferes with the animals performance of the service task), and housebroken.  Service animals are not required to be certified or go through a professional training program.  In situations where it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal, the disabled handler is only required to answer 2 questions 1) if the dog is required due to a disability, and 2) what task the dog has been trained to perform.   They are not required to wear a vest or other ID that indicated they are a service dog.  The ADA makes it clear that emotional support dogs are not considered service animals as they are not individually trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability.  State or local laws may not be more restrictive that the ADA.

The ADA does not define or address access rights for therapy dogs or emotional support dogs.    Therapy dogs are generally defined as dogs that are trained, registered and insured with a therapy organization that accompanies it’s owner along with or under the supervision of a therapist to provide various forms of therapy for patients or clients.  These dogs are not afforded any special access rights other than what is given by the organization they work under and the facility that accepts them.  While no special training is required, well mannered dogs with a good temperament are best suited for therapy tasks.  Those interested in providing therapy with their dog can check with various therapy organizations.  The American Kennel Club offers a therapy dog title.  To achieve this title you must complete a certain number of therapy visits with an AKC accepted organization.  You can find more about the title and the numerous therapy organizations that work with AKC from AKC.org.

Emotional support animals are generally defined as animals that provide their owners with emotional comfort through companionship.  Although the ADA and most states do not extend public access privileges  to emotional support animals, they are covered in the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).  Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), comfort or emotional support animals, must be admitted into housing covered by the FHA.  The FHA requires that the owner provide medical proof for a need of an emotional support animal.  The animal requires no special training or certification.  Under the ACAA emotional support animals can fly with their owner with some important provisions about size, behavior, disruption, and destination to a foreign country.  Under the ACAA the owner must prove a medial or psychiatric  need for the emotional support animal.  When considering taking your Emotional Support Animal with you to public spaces it is best to check with your individual state laws.

It should go without saying, that you should always be respectful of the laws governing these different kinds of helping dogs.  Each of these animals have important tasks they provide.  There are legal penalties for lying about service and emotional support dogs.  in addition it makes it much harder for the people who need these animals to be able to have them without harassment.

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