Opinion: Assistance Animal Misconceptions

“I see all the time that people don’t realize the difference between emotional support and service dogs and the laws that pertain to them. “


Karen Jesch raises Guide Dog puppies for the blind and aspires to be a professional service animal trainer. Credit: Karen Jesch

Often, when I tell people that I raise guide dog puppies and aspire to be a professional service animal trainer, I get a response that I dread: “I want to buy a vest online, so I can take my dog everywhere!” What most people don’t know though, is that faking a service animal is illegal in most states, including my home state of California and here in New York.

I see all the time that people don’t realize the difference between emotional support and service dogs and the laws that pertain to them. At this point, I believe it is safe to assume that everybody knows that service dogs and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) exist and are allowed certain privileges under the law. But did you know that the misconceptions regarding these distinctions are causing harm to people with disabilities every day as they struggle to keep their rights and live a safe life?

Today, three main laws protect assistance animals, which is an umbrella term used for service dogs and ESAs. The first of these laws is the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), which allows for access rights in the cabin of an airplane for persons with disabilities who have assistance animals – this applies to both service animals and ESAs. 

Two years later in 1988 the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHA) prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of a dwelling based on disability, and also applies to assistance animals. The Fair Housing Amendments Act allows college students to have assistance animals in the dorms. 

Finally, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) provided access rights nationally for people with disabilities and their service animals. However, this law provides rights only to service animals – not ESAs. So what does this mean? First, you should know the difference between ESAs and service dogs, which I consider easily explained by one question: how does the animal help? 

ESAs are prescribed by a doctor to help their person with a psychiatric disability simply by being there for them. They are not trained in any way. For example, they may notice when their anxious owner is having a panic attack, but they have not been formally trained to respond. They may provide their owner with company, a reason to get up in the morning, and unconditional love — all very important jobs. However, they are explicitly denied public access under Titles II and III of the ADA.

Service dogs are task-trained. They have been formally trained to do something that directly helps their handler with their disability. Guide dogs do this by guiding their handler around obstacles. A psychiatric service dog may interrupt a panic attack or self-harm behaviors. A diabetic alert dog lets their handler know when their blood sugar drops.

Neither ESAs nor service animals need to be registered or have any identification, including vests. In order to gain access to housing or airplanes you may need proper paperwork, such as the prescription or a veterinarian’s statement — but anybody saying that an assistance animal needs identification such as a special card or to go through a registry is misinformed.

ESAs are allowed in non-pet housing and in the cabin of airplanes. Service animals are allowed the same rights, but are also allowed public access in places such as restaurants, stores, and more, so long as they do not change the fundamental way a business runs.

Misunderstandings of these laws inevitably led to abuse of them, such as people insisting their ESA be allowed in a restaurant or people with service animals being denied access because they don’t have an ID card for their dog. Some of these misunderstandings result in people with disabilities being discriminated against, or their dogs being forced to retire as a result of non-service animals being in places where they aren’t supposed to and interacting with their service dog, often in a negative way. Nearly half of service dog handlers have to plan alternate routes and schedules in order to avoid known problems.

By educating ourselves and others regardless of our own personal experiences with assistance animals we can hopefully make the lives of people with disabilities that utilize assistance animals easier as we clear up confusion and become advocates. If someone you know is talking about representing their pet as a service animal, hopefully you can explain that this is not only harmful, but also illegal.

If you see somebody trying to argue that their ESA be allowed in Tim Horton’s, maybe you can speak up and mention that without being a service dog, they’re not legally allowed in. Perhaps you can share with your co-workers the two legal questions to ask of an assistance animal team – “is that a service dog?” and “what tasks is he trained to perform?” — and explain that service dogs don’t need ID. Simply by clearing up these misconceptions, we can make life easier for everybody involved.

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