During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued Guidance for Handlers of Service and Therapy Dogs.
It is quite common for people to be confused over the differences between service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals. This information is offered to help you understand more about the work that dogs (and other animals) do for us humans.
The definition of a service dog comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed as Federal law in 1990. In 2016, the definition was amended as follows:
“Any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
The 2016 amendment restricted service animal species to dogs with an exception for miniature horses that meet the same training criteria as dogs.
I use the term service dog because that is the term used in the ADA. Some organizations use the word “assistance dog.”
A service dog works for a person with a disability, helping that person with his/her/their life activities. Life activities include things like caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. The dog must be trained to perform specific tasks to help the person with a disability. It is generally agreed in the field that service dogs must be trained to do at least three different tasks; most service-dog training organizations train their dogs to do 20 or more tasks and have exquisite manners.
The ADA protects the right of people with disabilities to have their service dogs with them in public. However, if the dog is out of control (causing a disruption) or not housetrained, the establishment is legally allowed to ask the dog to leave.
An important resource is the U.S. Department of Justice ADA Information Line, 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TDD) in Washington, DC. They can give you specific information related to your situation.
For good or bad, there is currently no national or state certification for service dogs. Unfortunately, this means that anyone can call any dog a service dog, whether or not the dog or the person meets the ADA’s definition. So if a person or public entity (like a grocery store, timeshare, library, restaurant, school, etc.) asks for a certification that a dog is a service dog, there is no such (legal) certification. The public entity must take the word of the person with the service dog. Under the ADA, the person inquiring may ask two things: 1) if the dog is required because of a disability, and 2) how the dog helps you (what work or tasks the dog has been trained to do). The ADA does not permit asking what your disability is.
Most people with disabilities who have service animals educate themselves on the law so that they feel as confident as possible when responding to an inquiry. There are numerous on-line organizations that will charge varying amounts of money to provide you an “official” document to prove your dog is a service dog without anything legal behind the document. In fact, a place of public accommodation may not require documentation of any kind.
It is not easy to do the work of a service dog. It can be particularly difficult for a dog to do the work of a psychiatric service dog when the human’s moods are involved. When a service dog’s work involves being aware of and tuning into a human’s emotional state, that means the dog is feeling the human’s moods and responding to the moods all the time. That can be draining to a dog. (Or to a human.) This emphasizes that not every dog has the stamina or the desire for psychiatric – or other – service dog work. Psychiatric/emotional work is harder than physical work for most dogs.
Many people ask what breed of dog is best for service dog work. Regardless of the role of the dog, what is most important is the personality or character of the individual dog rather than the breed of dog. That being said, there are certain breeds whose genetic heritage over generations is more likely to result in the characteristics that make a good working dog. At the same time, it is important to emphasize again that each Lab and Golden Retriever and German Shepherd and Poodle and . . . is as individual as each human.
Assistance Dogs International is a comprehensive resource for many aspects of the service dog industry. They use the term “assistance dog” instead of service dog. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners offers support to the humans partnered with service dogs.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) can be any kind of animal; it does not have to be a dog. ESAs do not require specific training because it is simply their presence that provides support. (The animal does not have to “do” anything other than be present.) The person who has the ESA must be considered to have a disability and have a disability-related need for the ESA.
An ESA is not considered to be a service animal, even though the person has a disability. This is partly because of the lack of required training. No breed, weight, or size restrictions can be placed on ESAs. However, ESAs may be denied if an animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or would cause substantial physical damage to others’ property.
There are currently only a few places where ESAs have legal standing:
- Through the Fair Housing Act with a landlord who does not otherwise accept pets in a residence. (Note: The Fair Housing Act uses the term “assistance animal” to distinguish an ESA from a service dog.)
- Through the Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act to protect students’ ability to have an ESA in public schools as long as the ESA is written into the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
- NOTE: Until 2021, the Air Carrier Access Act allowed an ESA to fly in the cabin with the human partner. This is no longer the case! Check carefully in advance with the individual carrier to determine their current policies.
A landlord and school are permitted to obtain documentation of the individual’s need to have an ESA (i.e., the person’s disability).
A person with an ESA is not given legal permission to have that animal with him/her in places of public accommodation (grocery store, church, movie theatre, etc.).
There is no legal definition of a therapy animal in the U.S. Many members of the public confuse Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) with therapy animals. The commonly used and accepted definition of a therapy animal is an animal who visits facilities (hospitals, schools, nursing homes, prisons, etc.) with his/her owner.
Unlike a service animal or ESA, a therapy animal is handled by one person who may or may not have a disability, but a disability is not a determinant of the handler. Instead, the focus is the animal’s work to assist many clients in their therapy or therapeutic activities. There is no law similar to the ADA that gives therapy dogs (or therapy animals of other species) the right to public access.
If you have a therapy dog, please do not attempt to pass your dog off as a service dog! Not only is that unethical, it also can complicate the lives of people with legitimate service dogs who struggle with public access. Please do not make their lives harder through your desire to have your dog with you in public.
Please act responsibly with your therapy dog.
Traveling with Your Pet
This site offers helpful information about traveling with your pet.