Assistance Animals

Hello, dear readers! Here’s an entry that was voted on unanimously by my Patreon supporters: ESAs vs. therapy animals vs. service animals. Note: this entry is going to be US-centric, since that’s where I live and what I know.

I’ll start with service animals. According to the ADA, only dogs can be service animals (as of March 2011). Service dogs have to be individually trained to assist Disabled people, and the training has to be specific to their human’s disability. For example, a service dog might be trained to comfort a person with PTSD during a flashback, or they might be trained to guide a Blind person, or they might be trained to alert bystanders when their human is having a seizure. According to the ADA, “This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of ‘assistance animal’ under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of ‘service animal’ under the Air Carrier Access Act.” More on those later.

As you probably know, the ADA allows service dogs in public establishments that don’t usually allow dogs. Another stipulation of the ADA, though, is that service dogs must be controlled. A lot of people seem to forget that. (Most places seem to think that “I have a service dog” is unassailable. If a dog is not controlled with a leash, harness, or some kind of tether, it’s not a service dog. And people who bring their non-service dogs into establishments knowing they won’t get hassled for it because the workers will assume their ill-behaved pet is a service dog need to Not Do That, please. It just makes things harder for people with actual service dogs.)

Therapy animals are Exactly What It Says on the Tin: animals that are trained to specifically help with therapy. So, like service dogs, they are trained, but they receive a different kind of training. Also, instead of providing therapy to their handlers, they provide a service for their handler’s therapy client(s). Therapy dogs may also visit hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, etc. When I worked in a public library, we had a program that involved shy and/or LD kids reading to therapy dogs to build their confidence.

Therapy dogs do not have the same legal protections as service dogs. The Air Carrier Access Act no longer considers therapy dogs service dogs as of a few years ago (December 2, 2020), and they only allow service animals on flights. I’m a little less clear on how therapy dogs function under the Fair Housing Act, which stipulates that “An assistance animal is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability.” That could apply to a therapy dog, but therapy dogs normally provide assistance to people other than their handlers/owners.

Finally, emotional support animals (ESAs). ESAs do not require training, but they do require accreditation from a licensed mental healthcare professional. I had to pay for my psychiatrist to write a letter denoting that my cat, B’Elanna, is an ESA for my CPTSD. (B’Elanna also trained herself to be a seeing-eye cat when it’s dark—yes, really—but that’s because she’s freakishly smart, not because she’s an ESA.) ESAs do not have the same legal protections as service animals. Under the Fair Housing Act, ESAs count as “assistance animals” if they are properly accredited. Specifically, the Fair Housing Act requires a housing provider to allow a reasonable accommodation involving an ESA in situations that meet all the following conditions (this is a quote; please excuse the PFL):

  • A request was made to the housing provider by or for a person with a disability
  • The request was supported by reliable disability-related information, if the disability and the disability-related need for the animal were not apparent and the housing provider requested such information, and

The housing provider has not demonstrated that:

  • Granting the request would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider
  • The request would fundamentally alter the essential nature of the housing provider’s operations
  • The specific assistance animal in question would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others despite any other reasonable accommodations that could eliminate or reduce the threat
  • The request would not result in significant physical damage to the property of others despite any other reasonable accommodations that could eliminate or reduce the physical damage

So for example, an ESA might be allowed in a building that’s usually pet-free, or a pet deposit or pet rent could be waived for an ESA; technically, ESAs are not pets.

ESAs are not afforded the same legal protections as service animals. So, fellow Disabled people with ESAs, please don’t bring your ESA into a public establishment going “this is my service animal.” That’s not your service animal. Trust me, I WISH I could bring B’Elanna into crowded places where I could pet and cuddle her when I get overstimulated, but she isn’t trained for that and she should stay home.

I think that’s all I have on that topic for now. Sorry this entry is so late! I will try to get out the rest of my February entries before the month is out, but…ugh, yeah, we’ll see.

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