Most of us have heard of Seeing Eye dogs, guide dogs or service dogs — dogs trained to guide people with disabilities in their everyday lives. But people with physical disabilities aren’t the only ones that can be aided by an animal; sometimes, symptoms of mental health challenges can improve with the help of animals as well. These types of service dogs are referred to as psychiatric service dogs, and because of the nature of their tasks, sometimes they can be confused with emotional support animals.
An emotional support animal is an animal (usually a dog, but sometimes animals of other species) that provides emotional support and companionship to its owner, often to aid in treating the symptoms of a mental illness such as depression. However, this does not mean that emotional support animals and service animals are the same thing. The distinction is important because the rights differ for the two types of animals (and, by extension, their owners). While there are some laws that do grant emotional support animals special rights, such as 14 CFR 382.117(e), which allows passengers to be accompanied by their emotional support animals on airlines with specific documentation, the majority of special privileges for animal companions apply solely to service animals. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives a person with a disability the right to be accompanied by a service dog in a wide variety of public places other than airports, such as schools, stores and even hospitals.
There are three main differences between a service animal and an emotional support animal:
1. Emotional support animals can be used to help people with mental health challenges, such as depression or a social anxiety disorder. In contrast, only people are rendered unable to perform a basic daily function as a result of having a mental illness qualify for a service animal.
2. While an emotional support animal does not require any specific training, a service animal must be trained to perform a task that the individual it will be helping cannot do on their own. Furthermore, the inability to perform this task must be explicitly related to the disability.
3. Emotional support animals provide comfort and companionship to their owners sometimes by their mere presence alone. On the other hand, service animals must provide a service that they were specifically trained to do, not something they do naturally.
In other words, in order to qualify as a service animal (and receive all the benefits that come with it), an animal must be trained to do something that fulfills all three of the above requirements. This might seem clear cut at a first glance, but sometimes, it can be tricky. For example, while having a student bring a dog to school to help alleviate the otherwise crippling symptoms of a social anxiety disorder might seem like something that is protected under the ADA rules, the social and emotional support being provided by the dog is not something it needs to be trained to do, and indeed may have not been. Therefore, the school is not required by ADA regulations to allow the student to bring the dog into class for this purpose.
Even if an animal doesn’t qualify as an official service animal, some people argue that this animal may still be more than just an emotional support animal. For example, unlike emotional support dogs, therapy dogs do go through organization-specific training to provide psychological (and sometimes even physiological) assistance in certain types of animal therapy. Therapy dogs use this training to help in the healing process by visiting hospitals and nursing homes to provide affection, comfort, and joy to individuals in these facilities. However, neither emotional support dogs nor therapy dogs are eligible for the same rights as service dogs under the ADA, and they are often lumped together in other regulations that apply to non-service animals.
It is important to remember that some disabilities are not visible. Therefore, if you see a person whose disability is not obvious to you with a dog in a store, consider the fact that this person may have an invisible disability and needs the support/service of the dog to function in our society. Furthermore, although dogs are cute, refrain from petting a service animal “on duty” because you may distract the animal from the essential role it plays in someone’s life.