Don’t Fake It: Therapy, Emotional Support, and Service Animals

An older golden retriever wearing a harnessOur pets have taken a place in our hearts and lives that their predecessors would hardly recognize. For the most part, pets today live in the house and enjoy many luxuries, such as daily toys and treats, and heck, many of them even sleep in bed with us (guilty!).

Many people today look at their pets like their children, and so it’s no surprise that we would love our pets to accompany us everywhere we go. You may have seen service animal vests if you’re out and about, and it’s easy to purchase one online. You can then hop on over to your favorite restaurant or store with your pet. But should you?

Unfortunately, the rise in these fake service animals has costs for those individuals whose independence and even lives depend upon their four-legged companions.

Service Animals, Therapy Animals, and Emotional Support Animals

There are a few distinctions between these hardworking animals, and we’ll lay out the definitions here:

Service animals – Service animals are those who are trained to do a specific job or set of tasks for a disabled individual. These dogs go through intensive and time consuming training in order to be given this distinction.

Therapy animals – These animals also have training, but rather than specific tasks, they are trained to provide affection, comfort, and love to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas. They aren’t allowed in places with a no-pets policy, and only receive access when agreed to in advance by the facility.

Emotional Support Animals – To legally be considered an emotional support animal, a pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. Although these pets may be needed for the mental health of the patient, they are not service animals, and they don’t have the same rights.   

The Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was legislated. It requires that state and local government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that provide goods and services to the public must make reasonable modifications to accommodate individuals with disabilities.
This includes allowing service animals into establishments with a no-pets policy.

Under the ADA, a service animal is one that is trained to do work or perform specific tasks for an individual with disabilities. Therapy and emotional support animals are not considered service animals under the ADA, and are therefore are not entitled to the same rights.

The problem with the ADA definition is that it doesn’t give any guidelines for service animal training, licensing, or documentation of service animals. It also prohibits individuals and  businesses from asking for proof that a pet is a service animal. This was intended to protect the privacy of individuals with disabilities, but has caused other problems.

Problems With Fake Service Animals

Fake service animals can cause many problems, such as:

  • Fake service animals can be disruptive in public, since they have not received the real service animal training.
  • Fake service animals pose a risk of distraction or injury to real service animals.
  • A distracted service animal could miss performing their duties for their handler, and inadvertently cause harm to that person.
  • The disruption caused by fake service animals has caused business owners to put pressure on the ADA, which could result in problems for disabled individuals.
  • The rise in fake service animals has caused those with real service animals to be viewed with suspicion.

These problems have inspired legislation in 19 states, to enact laws cracking down on people who pass off their pets as service animals. Virginia and Colorado are the two most recent states to do so, with Massachusetts following close behind.

Service dog handlers have daily challenges in leading an independent life that their service animals help them overcome. Fake service animals diminish the challenges they face, as well as the hard work and training that their real service animal has had to undergo to achieve the distinction.

Would you like to learn more? The team at Barton Heights Veterinary Hospital welcomes your questions about emotional support, therapy, and service animals.