Service dogs, therapy animals, and ESAs


Bandit, shown here with Kristine, is a trained service dog at work — not a therapy or emotional support dog. (Photo by Liz Kaye Photography/Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN).

While doing research and interviews for a magazine story on therapy animals a few years ago, I learned the important legal and functional differences between therapy animals and service animals. Now emotional support animals have entered the mix, and sometimes the headlines. What distinguishes one from another, and what does it mean for us and our animal companions?

Let’s start with a brief breakdown. The American Veterinary Medical Association summarizes each category with legal chapter-and-verse citations, and Pet Partners has a useful downloadable chart with the roles and rights of each.

Service animals

Service animals, or assistance animals, are specially, individually trained to assist or perform tasks for people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. This training comes from organizations such as the Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN), which is the only accredited service dog training program in the state.

These are the dogs who help the blind navigate streets and shopping malls, alert someone with epilepsy of an oncoming seizure, or retrieve keys dropped by a person in a wheelchair. According to the Americans with Disabilities act, the tasks the animal performs must be directly related to the person’s disability in order for the animal to be classed as a service dog.

Yes, a service animal basically means a service dog — but miniature horses can be service animals if they are housebroken, under the handler’s control, and can be accommodated by whatever facility the handler wishes to enter. Under the ADA, service animals are allowed just about anywhere as long as they do not directly threaten public health or safety.

ellie - photo by venita lawyer:paws, inc edited

Ellie, a therapy dog with PAWS, Inc. (Pets Assisting Well-Being and Success), visits with an attendee at Fort Wayne’s Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention. Ellie and her human, Venita Lawyer, have worked in a variety of school and clinical settings. (Photo by Venita Lawyer/PAWS, Inc.)

Therapy animals

These are the dogs who, with their (usually volunteer) handlers, go from room to room in hospitals or listen to children read in libraries. They hang out in student commons areas during finals week and are becoming more common sights in airports.

My understanding is that most therapy animals do not undergo training (apart from canine “good citizen” classes), but they and their handlers are often members of groups such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Fort Wayne’s PAWS, Inc., which works with Alliance of Therapy Dogs-registered dog handler teams.

Obviously, “therapy animals” has applied mostly to dogs. However, horses who are part of specialized riding or equine-assisted counseling programs, such as the ones at Summit Equestrian Center, are also considered therapy animals.

Then there are the resident cats in hospice wings, the birds greeting nursing home visitors in the lobby, and other animals with no training or organizational affiliation whatsoever … but somehow they became therapy animals. But none of the above carry the legal status or rights of access that service animals have.

Emotional support animals

ESAs may be of any species, but are most often dogs, and receive no specialized training. Their use is supported (or prescribed) by a mental health professional stating that the animal’s presence is necessary to treat an impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities.

ESAs do not have the same rights of access as service animals. They can accompany their people into restaurants only with permission of the owner/manager. However, under the Fair Housing Act, they may live in housing with “No pets” policies and travel in the cabins of airplanes with whatever documentation the airline requires.

Interestingly, the Air Carrier Access Act seems to treat psychiatric service animals and ESAs about the same, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but many of the particulars are up to the airline.

Where the lines blur

I think there is better clarity now between therapy animals and service animals. However, the distinction between a service dog for someone with a mental or psychiatric disability and an emotional support animal seems murky, as does the distinction between an ESA and a companion animal. The result is misunderstanding and often fraud.

You can go online, pay a fee, and get your dog “certified” or “registered” as an emotional support animal — never mind working with a doctor or therapist — at any number of websites. You can buy official-looking service dog harnesses, emotional support animal cards, and the like online, too (including from the popular Chewy).

If you want to get around a landlord’s pet deposit or no-pets rule, take your dog onto a plane for free, or bring him into a place where pets wouldn’t normally be allowed — and you’re willing to lie about your need and the animal’s credentials — it’s pretty easy to do. That may get you what you want, but it does so at the expense of people who have worked through legitimate channels to address their needs. It inevitably does so at the expense of the animals, too.

There have been headline-making incidents of things going horribly wrong with ESAs, their people, and others, especially in air travel. Would these things have happened if the animals involved were properly trained service dogs? Some airlines are changing their policies as a result. New laws, including in Indiana where I live, are beginning to better define emotional support animals and crack down on misrepresentation.

Working with integrity

Official distinctions may be lost on animals, but many are wonderfully clear on what they are here to do, and for whom. We can help them carry out their missions, and support other animals in finding theirs, by using good judgement about what we ask them to do and listening from the heart when they tell us.

By staying informed about the above, and all the other capacities in which humans and animals work together, we can help create a world that is more fair to the animals, the people they would aid and accompany, and the animals and people affected by their presence. There is so much we humans and animals can do and be together. If we do our work with integrity, as the fourth Reiki precept puts it, we can go a long way in helping animals do theirs.

Oscar the ambassador

Oscar Tennessee Aquarium 05.18

Oscar, a green sea turtle, gets around at the Tennessee Aquarium. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

I first met Oscar in 2007. The green sea turtle at the Tennessee Aquarium was missing his right rear flipper and a good part of his left rear flipper. A boat propeller had cut through his shell. Like many turtles who survive trauma, he’d developed buoyancy problems and bobbed, bottom up, like a cork in the big multi-species tank that was now his home.

Florida’s Marine Science Center had treated him initially. Covered with green hair algae, he looked just like Oscar the Grouch from “Sesame Street” — hence the name. When it was determined he could not be released back into the wild, he came to live at the Tennessee Aquarium in 2005. He was then about the size of a dinner plate.

By the time I saw Oscar, he was about the size of a saucer sled. Clearly, he was growing and had found a home where he would be protected and cared for … but still, I thought. How sad.

It is sad when animals suffer, especially at the hands (or boat propellers) of humans, and when our actions result in species becoming threatened or endangered. We should feel sad and angry about all of this.

But it’s so, so tempting to get stuck in the awfulness, which is probably what I did upon first hearing Oscar’s story. I remember my thoughts veering off to the pain he must have experienced, the terror when he was picked up and brought to the marine hospital … and could I ever, in good conscience, ride in a motorboat again? Was there such a thing as turtle-safe boating? Shouldn’t there be a law about that? And on and on.

I was new to animal communication at that point, which is to say I was still pretty cautious about trusting the intuitive information I was getting. My experience as a journalist had taught me to listen with my ears and mind. Communicating with animals requires listening first with the heart and then using a calm, clear mind to translate. However, the voice of this sea turtle was unmistakable.

“Are you kidding me? I’m the luckiest guy in the world. How many other sea turtles get to do this?”

Well, I didn’t have an answer for that, so I just stood for a few minutes and watched Oscar cut through the water with his front flippers and partially wedge himself under a rock to keep him from bobbing back up when he wanted to sit a spell. His joy — at having another shot at life, at being in a place where he was loved and cared for, at figuring out how to get around and stay put, and at showing people of all ages and walks of life what is possible after things go seriously, horribly wrong — was palpable. It carried through the water, glass, and crowd, and wrapped itself around me. I thanked Oscar for clarifying what it meant to be him.

My animal Reiki teacher, Kathleen Prasad, would echo this lesson years later during our training at an animal sanctuary. She taught us to both consider and look beyond the exteriors of what has happened to an animal to see the bright, beautiful light that animal essentially is. All of us, humans and animals, are not our wounds. We are not our histories. They are part of us, but we are so much more. Honoring this in ourselves and others helps us all heal and get around a bit more gently in the world.

I must add here that Kathleen is not in favor of zoos and aquariums. Though I agree with much of what she says, I’ve seen too many good things happen to and for animals at places like the Tennessee Aquarium and other accredited and/or mission-based facilities to write them all off. That’s my current thinking, anyway.

When we allow ourselves to move from the awfulness into seeing who an individual such as Oscar actually is and what he can do for the thousands of people who visit the aquarium, we can much more clearly see the next right action. Then we have a fighting chance at solving the cause of the awfulness. People who meet Oscar might be inclined to use less plastic to protect turtles from the waste, support wildlife conservation efforts with their time and finances, volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, see their own injuries and limitations in a new way, or simply smile at his upside-down pluckiness. Any of these and more can have wonderful ripple effects for us and our world.

I visited Oscar this spring, and he is now at least as big as a saucer sled. He hangs out in his favorite spots among the rocks and plants, and as Emily Dickinson put it, dwells in possibility. He assured me he has plenty of work to do.