Emotional support or service animals: miseducation causes harm that policy alone won’t fix

Courtney Woodman

In early 2019, Joli Assumma, an advanced handler for nonprofit Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities, and Taco, her service dog-in-training, were going about their usual errands when they were asked to leave their local Stop & Shop in Boston’s Mission Hill. Assumma and Taco had been shopping there since he was first assigned to her without any issues — until that day.

While a group of employees had doted over the well-behaved retriever puppy, a well-dressed man, presumably the store’s manager, approached the team informing Assumma that the dog was not allowed inside the store. Despite explaining that Taco was a service dog and was permitted by federal law to be with her, he continued to push, asking what physical disability required her to have him.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly protects disabled persons, as well as service animal handlers or trainers like Assumma, from being denied entry into businesses and other areas of public accommodation. This includes businesses, housing, public transportation, restaurants, hospitals, schools and more.

Not only are businesses restricted from refusing entry to a service animal, but they are restricted from asking questions about the disability the animal is used for — though if they do, the patron is not required to answer in order to gain access. In fact, business owners and employees may only ask what task the animal is trained to perform.

Despite knowing her legal rights, Assumma felt compelled to answer the man and disclose her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, instead of trying to explain that a service dog-in-training has the same rights to access as a fully-fledged service dog. 

“Sometimes it’s safer to just go with that when I’m being questioned than to say ‘oh, I’m training a service dog,’” said Assumma.

Like many people, the Stop & Shop manager did not understand the difference between service animals and emotional support animals, claiming that PTSD was not a qualification for a service dog and that Taco was just an emotional support animal. 

Unlike emotional support animals, psychiatric service animals like Taco are used to assist people with psychiatric disabilities. They have specialized training to perform specific tasks such as creating space between their handler and other people, monitoring their handlers heart rate for signs of a panic attack or emotional triggers, and removing their handlers from high-stress or triggering situations.

Emotional support animals on the other hand, are not service animals — they are not trained to perform tasks or do work — but many people confuse the two or use the terms interchangeably. Many don’t understand these key differences, and that is the problem.

Photo via Scott 97006, Flickr, CC by 2.0.
Photo via Scott 97006, Flickr, CC by 2.0.

The lines between emotional support animals and service animals have become increasingly blurred. There is a huge gray area that exists with public education on emotional support animals and service animals. Without strong education on service animals’ rights, more and more people are abusing the system, leading to confrontations like the one Assumma experienced in Stop & Shop.

Not only are people not abiding by the laws that already exist, but many business owners and employees are woefully unaware of the rules that exist to protect service dog users. This lack of education leads businesses to follow one of two paths: avoid approaching anyone with a dog for fear of being sued, or refusing to allow any dogs and in turn, discriminating against service animal users.

There needs to be better education, not only to inform the general public and people who are abusing these laws which provide protections for people with disabilities, but to help businesses and employees decrease the incidents of discrimination and access issues for people who rely on service animals to perform essential daily functions. As it stands, this lack of education is causing a lot more harm than good.

How misrepresentation of service animals affects the system

The ADA defines service animals as specially trained dogs, or miniature horses, that are able to perform a specific task or tasks to aid a person with a disability. These disabilities can include physical, psychiatric, intellectual, sensory or mental disabilities and require the animal be trained to do work or perform tasks.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) or comfort animals are not service animals. ESAs are categorized by the ADA as support animals that relieve loneliness, provide companionship and in some cases, aid in alleviating symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias. Because they lack specialized training to perform tasks, they do not have any of the rights service animals do. In fact, ESAs do not even require any minimum behavioral training and oftentimes have no training at all in public. A doctor’s note stating that a person has a disability and needs an animal for emotional support does not make a service dog.

In March of 2015, Megan Kennedy was at LaGuardia Airport preparing for a flight when she was approached by the gate agent who asked if her dog was a service dog. Kennedy, a lawyer with a background in service animal and disability law, is deaf and relies on her hearing dog for assistance.

“I said yes, expecting that to be the end of the conversation,” said Kennedy. The gate agent said there was no record of any service dog on the flight and informed Kennedy that she and her dog would be barred from flying because she couldn’t verify that they were a legitimate team.

Federal law does not require passengers to notify the airline ahead of time when using a service animal. However, with the rise in fraudulent service animals and emotional support animals, it has become strongly encouraged to avoid discrimination. More and more airlines are restricting access to certain animals or requiring paperwork to prove authenticity of service and emotional support animals — something that is not always available because there is no official registry.

“ESAs aren’t required to have the level of public access training that service animals are because ESAs don’t have public access rights,” said Kennedy. 

Emotional support animals have no legal right to be in places of public accommodation. The exceptions to this rule are aircrafts and housing, areas in which emotional support animals do have legal protection under the ADA. People are permitted to bring their emotional support animals with them on flights, at no additional cost, with written documentation from a mental health physician. Additionally, the Fair Housing Act restricts landlords from denying tenants the ability to have their emotional support animal despite any no-pet policies, nor are they allowed to require an additional cat or dog fee to have the emotional support animal in the home.

Because of their legal status on aircrafts and in housing, under the Air Carrier Access Act and Fair Housing Act, people can easily confuse where these companion animals are and are not allowed.

As a service animal handler, Kennedy is all too familiar with the gray area between emotional support animals and service animals . “More times than I can count, people came on board [planes] with [pet] dogs wearing ESA vests or markings that should have not been allowed to fly,” said Kennedy. Not only can this abuse of the system be dangerous to service animals and their handlers, it can put animals in uncomfortable situations that can become dangerous.

Although emotional support animals are permitted to fly under the Air Carrier Access Act, not all animals have the behavioral training or are comfortable in these situations. “Frankly, it’s unfair to the animals to throw an unsocialized, terrified dog into a five-hour flight and expect it to behave the entire time,” added Kennedy.

More and more, people are seeing these policies as a loophole, a way to bring their pets on airplanes or to avoid no-pet policies and pet fees in apartment buildings. Not only does passing household pets off as emotional support or service animals pose a threat to public safety by having untrained animals in public, it perpetuates abuse of the system and creates more obstacles for people with disabilities who truly rely on service animals. 

Katy McLaughlin, a certified professional dog trainer and owner of The Clever Canine in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, said that she has worked with handlers who have been turned away from businesses because of how difficult it is to prove a service dog is authentic. 

“They demand to see some kind of authenticity or to see that these dogs are registered and that just isn’t part of the program,” she said. There is no registry or certification that exists which makes it hard to weed out the frauds from the authentic service animals. “[People with disabilities] end up being discriminated against because all these other people brought their dogs in [to businesses] when they didn’t have to,” said McLaughlin.

When it comes to emotional support animals and fake service animals in public, she added that people are taking advantage of the public’s lack of understanding of the system just to bring their untrained dogs out in public. As a result, service dogs are getting attacked and being “washed,” a term used when a dog is no longer able to perform its service dog duties. Dogs can be “washed” for several reasons: if they are left traumatized from an attack and too nervous and distracted to work, or if they are physically injured. In both of these scenarios, service animals are put into early retirement because people are abusing the system and putting these animals at risk.

“I don’t think the majority of these people understand that they are just flagrantly abusing the ADA,” said McLaughlin of the increase in people trying to bring their emotional support animals out in public. “It is becoming a big problem. “It’s becoming rare that I go to a big box store and I don’t see some kind of obvious fake service dog or emotional support animal.”

Photo via Texas A&M University Libraries, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo via Texas A&M University Libraries, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Melissa Hogle, a Rhode Island native currently training her own service dog, has also experienced the effects that fake service animals and untrained emotional support animals have had on the system. 

“Anyone can buy a vest on Amazon, put [it] on any dog and say it’s a service dog,” says Hogle. With the current lack of registry or federal registration process, there is no way to prove a dog is in fact a service dog. “It’s at the point where there’s at least one animal in a facility that it’s a fake service dog,” said Hogle.

Whether a person is falsely representing their dog as a service dog just to bring their pet into business, or taking their emotional support animal into public spaces without understanding that the animal has no right to be there, both perpetuate the same problem. While some people know what they are doing is illegal or wrong and others don’t, both cases discredit legitimate service animals and perpetuate people’s skepticism of service animals’ rights to access.

Indications of a larger problem?

Service animals are an amazing resource for people with disabilities. These animals provide a better quality of life with increased independence for those who are eligible for a service animal. However, not all disabilities qualify for a service animal. Furthermore, even for people who are eligible for service animals, not everyone can afford the costs associated with having a service animal. The law views service animals as a piece of essential medical equipment, yet insurance companies rarely cover the costs or even contribute to the costs.

Some people really need a service animal but just don’t qualify or simply can’t afford it. As more people are being told they don’t meet the requirements to get a service dog, more people are using their pets or emotional support animals without getting the right training or going through the proper channels because they are desperate.

While they might be doing it for the right reasons, they aren’t going about it the right way which only blurs the lines more and perpetuates the problem.

Whether you get your service dog from an organization or choose to train your own service dog, the costs can total to thousands of dollars. The dog itself can be thousands of dollars, then you have added cost of extensive, specialized training ranging up to $30,000, and specialized healthcare and health insurance that the dogs require because they are out in public so often. If that dog is then “washed” handlers have to start from scratch

Despite the costs and obstacles, service animals provide a tremendous boost to a disabled person’s quality of life. 

“I am able to leave my house. I am able to be in school, I am able to be incredibly independent, can drive, I am able to do a lot of things I haven’t been able to do in years because of [my service dog],” said Hogle who has been training her service dog for almost a year.

Service animals are, in the eyes of the law, a vital piece of medical equipment, so we need to find more accessible ways for a person with invisible psychiatric illness to get a service dog without so many obstacles. We need insurance companies to make service animals more accessible to people with limited financial means by helping to defray the expenses of getting a service animal. Many people who benefit from service animals are partially if not totally homebound which only makes it harder to afford all of these expenses.

With that in mind, any person with a service animal will tell you that it is well worth the cost. “My dog was thousands and thousands of dollars, but I don’t regret spending any dollar on her, because it gave me my independence,” said Hogle, “and that right there is priceless.”

New policy falls short of addressing the problem

On January 18th, 2019, Massachusetts Rep. Kimberly Ferguson (R-Holden), filed bill H.3657 which would make it a civil infraction to intentionally misrepresent a dog as a service dog or service dog-in-training. First offense violators of this bill would be subject to fines up to $500, up to 30 hours of community service with an organization serving people with disabilities, or both, with penalties doubling in severity for repeat offenders. The bill was heard by the House judiciary committee on Sept. 17.

To enforce this bill, police officers and animal control officers would receive training from an accredited service dog organization and the Massachusetts Office on Disability.

However, this solution is not without flaws. Training does not eliminate implicit biases surrounding disability and without a national registry of legitimate service animals, there is no way to truly prove that an animal is legitimate. Additionally, it does not address the larger issue — lack of accessibility of service animals.

While this bill may be a well-intentioned step in the right direction, it may have unintended consequences for people with disabilities who rely on service animals. On the surface, the bill acts as a deterrent from misrepresenting service animals. Digging deeper, it opens the door for service animal users to face further skepticism and scrutiny.

Education, education, education

At the end of the day, we need to protect service animals and their disabled handlers through education. With more business owners and employees growing skeptical of legitimate service animals, the chances that a person with disabilities will be confronted or face discrimination increases. For people with psychiatric disabilities, such as PTSD or social anxiety, confrontations exacerbate their symptoms. As these symptoms worsen, situations can quickly become more dangerous for service animal handlers.

“I was scared, I didn’t know what to do,” said Assumma when the Stop & Shop manager confronted her about the legitimacy of her service animal. “I wasn’t going to fight him on it. I could have called the cops, but in that moment, I just couldn’t.” 

In the end, the manager invited her to take the matter up with the board of health. Meanwhile, Assumma left to avoid further confrontation in a situation had left her overwhelmed and shaken. This was the first time she’d ever had an access issue in the eight years she has been training service dogs.

“[Service animals] are protected under the law everywhere they go, it shouldn’t have been a problem,” said Assumma. “That is exactly where people don’t understand the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal.” When Assumma called Stop & Shop to follow up on the incident, no one would acknowledge that this had happened to her.

We need to progress toward change and also toward education of access laws. Without better education, we can’t prevent Assumma or Kennedy’s experiences from happening to someone else, nor can we better address the lack of accessibility of service dogs.