Service dog or emotional support animal? There's a difference
By Lauren Clark
22 November 2016

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) — Dirty Harry is a 7-year-old dachshund, who never leaves his owner CJ Anderson's side. The pair plays together, shops together and even exercises on the treadmill together.

Service dog
That's because Harry isn't just a pet--he's a service dog. Anderson sometimes gets absentee seizures, and Harry alerts her to them minutes before they happen.

"His service is to keep me safe, to warn me that I'm in impending danger," Anderson said. "Being somewhere safe is a big deal, I'm out of control, I'm unaware."

Describing her dog as an "early warning system" Harry is able to allow CJ to get somewhere safe and away from harm before she experiences a seizure.

Two years and $2,000 went into training Harry as a service dog. But despite his certification and gear, people still give them skeptical looks in public.

"He's not what people are expecting," said Anderson. "People question him, they question what he does."

She says that's partly because people are taking advantage of the system, and not understanding the laws.

"People are saying, 'oh ok, I need this dog because I have anxiety, therefore this dog is a service animal,'" said Anderson. "No, that's not true."

Emotional support animal
Instead there's another definition for that animal: An emotional support animal. And there's very notable differences between that and a service dog.

"An emotional support animal provides comfort for a specific person," said Devin Martin, a trainer for a Positive Pet. "They are not a service dog. A service dog will provide a task for a person."

Legally they are different
Legally there are very different factors as well. A service dog is given what's described as "full access" by the Americans with Disabilities Act; being allowed to go anywhere the public is invited. A service animal must be a dog, (with few exceptions to miniature horses), and must be specifically trained to preform a task to their owner's disability. A few examples include alerting their owner to a seizure, reminding them to take medicine, helping them get around, and more.

On the other hand, an Emotional Support Animal is only protected by the Air Carrier Act to ride on planes with their owners, and the Fair Housing Act allows doctors to write landlords a note to over-ride current laws of no animals in an apartment or condo. They are not granted full access, as a restaurant or business owner can ask that animal to leave.

An emotional support animal can also be just that---an animal. Ducks, chickens, cats, even pigs can fall under this title. And importantly, they are not trained to preform a task related to their owner's disability.

"Service animals have a little bit more of a strict regiment when it comes to training," Martin said. "They are working dogs."

Behavior in public is something stressed repeatedly in training, Martin says, while an emotional support animal doesn't need training at all.

Of course, there are many who legitimately need a support animals and play by the rules.

"To help them live their lives more calmly, they need a support animal. That's true," said Anderson.

But some may not understand the laws, while others don't even bother to train their animal.

"There's no one right now judging if your emotional support animal is a service dog or not," said Anderson. "That's the loop hole."

It's a statement that Martin agrees with, pointing out that there's no federal or state regulations for the certifications of service dogs.

It's only private companies like a Positive Pet who give out those certifications, as the government currently has no minimal requirements for service dogs. And with a lack of oversight, many find it easy to take advantage of the system. As a result, many think Anderson and Harry are doing the same.

"People say, 'oh you're just bringing your little dog! You just want to have your little dog with you," said Anderson.

Anderson and Harry have also faced discrimination in several locations, including once to her grandfather's funeral.

"I'm coming into the building, I'm grieving, and I get accosted telling me I can't bring my service animal in," Anderson said. "It was horrific."

Anderson says educating the public on these important differences is important.

"Even though I don't look disabled, when you see me, I am. So you can't judge a book by its cover," she said.

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