Written by Corry Hawkins, Clinical Director for KPS
The use of animals to support people physically and emotionally is nothing new, but the use of certified animals has been increasing over time as evidence for their effectiveness increases. If you think you or someone you know would benefit from a support animal, it’s important to know the different types of support animals and their uses.
Service animals are dogs, and in some cases miniature horses, that are specifically trained, registered, and certified to perform tasks a person with disabilities cannot perform independently. To qualify for a service animal, a person must have a disability that impacts their ability to perform major life tasks. Examples of these types of service animals include guide dogs (seeing eye dogs), hearing or signal dogs, psychiatric service dogs, social signal dogs, and seizure response dogs. Due to the specific training required to provide these specialized supports, service animals are certified and regulated.
Additionally, service animals and their handlers have rights and responsibilities that protect their right to have access to public facilities that typically would not allow animals. This is only possible because the service animal is trained to behave appropriately in a variety of situations to better support their person. If you are interested in learning more about the protections given to service animals by the American Disabilities Act (ADA), please visit the ADA National Network website.
If you believe you or someone you know qualifies for a service animal, please begin this process by contacting your treating medical provider. Various organizations may exist in your area to pair you with the right service animal or train your current pet to meet your needs. However, these organizations will likely require confirmation of your condition from your physician, so a referral from your medical provider is the best place to start.
When a person with a service animal enters a public facility, the animal's handler cannot be asked about the nature or extent of his or her disability. Only two questions may be asked and asked only if the animal's tasks are not obvious:
1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
A public facility cannot ask for documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. A facility can ask the two questions above and can ask the animal's handler to pay for damage the animal causes, as along as they would charge any individual without a disability to pay for damage they caused.
Therapy animals are often dogs (but can be other animals) that are primarily used at facilities and by professionals to provide additional support and affection to those they serve. These animals have significant obedience training and are screened for loving and tolerant temperaments. In other words, they are particularly well-behaved and love to make people happy. These animals must be registered, but unlike service animals, they do not have the right to visit public facilities without permission.
If you are a professional seeking to use a therapy animal in your place of work or to support the care and comfort of a treatment process, you should pursue professional training and registration of your animal. This is typically done through certified trainers in your area. There are many different organizations that provide this type of training, so look for formal organizations in good standing. The Alliance of Therapy Dogs is a good place to start for more information.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
ESAs are animals that are “prescribed” by a mental health professional when it is determined that the presence of the animal will support the treatment and wellbeing of a person with emotional or psychiatric disabilities. The presence of an ESA in a person’s daily life provides comfort and companionship. They do not support the performance of major life tasks.
Unlike service animals, ESAs are not specially trained or certified. ESAs may accompany their person in some public facilities, but this right is not as thoroughly protected and only prevails within reason. For instance, an airline is likely to refuse to allow you to wear your emotional support snake around your shoulders.
As mentioned above, if you are seeking an ESA, you will need an official letter prescribing the use of an ESA to support your emotional or psychiatric disability from a mental health provider. Because ESAs are not well regulated, obtaining this letter can be complicated. Ideally, you would receive a letter from a medical or mental health provider that you know and work with. However, many therapists will not write ESA letters. (More about that below.) There are organizations that will provide you with a letter online.
The Problem with ESAs
If you have looked into ESAs for long enough, you’re probably aware there is some conflict about them. You may have even asked your therapist or doctor for an ESA letter and been turned down. Or perhaps your ESA has been denied access to public places, despite an official letter. If ESAs do not require special training or certifications, why is it difficult to get an ESA letter and why do so many places turn ESAs away?
The problem is there are far too many fake online registration services that will provide an ESA letter to anyone for a fee. While that may sound nice, this loophole has essentially ruined the system for everyone else. As you can imagine, there are multiple reasons a person may fake a need for an ESA. For example, someone may find an apartment they like that will not allow animals, so they get an ESA letter online so they can keep their pet. Remember that ESAs are for people who are disabled, not for those who would be sad or nervous without their pet at their side.
And therein lies the bigger hurdle: ESAs are for the emotionally or psychiatrically disabled. While some therapists write ESA letters for their clients without a second thought, there is good reason for professionals to be cautious. Determining a person’s ability or disability status requires specific training, which can be out of a therapist’s scope of practice. Additionally, if a therapist writes an ESA letter and that animal causes harm to their owner or someone else, the therapist may be considered at fault. Since ESAs do not require specialized training, there is no way for a therapist to confirm the temperament or behavior of the animal, if they were even qualified to do so.
If you would benefit from an ESA and have encountered difficulty getting a letter, these are likely the reasons why. Talk with your therapist openly about your concerns and other options for support and treatment. You may also consider pursuing a psychiatric service animal if your needs are great enough. While this process is far more intricate, it may suit your needs better and be more reliable than an online letter that could be turned away.
Where can I learn more?
Different states have different rules and regulations regarding support animals. Additionally, the process of certifying and registering your animal could vary. Rules for service animals are more clear than rules for ESAs. We recommend starting with the links below.