By Marian Firke
MCASA Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education)
For many sexual assault survivors, the impact of trauma can include long-term psychiatric consequences, including psychiatric disabilities. Increasingly, psychiatric service animals are being trained to respond to symptoms of psychiatric disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other disabilities associated with trauma. These service animals perform tasks specific to the disability, such as providing tactile stimulation or distraction during flashbacks, interrupting self-injurious behaviors, or helping handlers maintain consistent sleep-wake patterns by waking handlers up at a consistent time of day. For other survivors, milder symptoms are sometimes alleviated by Emotional Support Animals, which are untrained companion animals that provide a reassuring presence and structure for their owners. Therapy animals have also been increasingly popular choices in clinical settings as an additional support for trauma survivors.
Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs, have been making headlines a lot in the last year. Much of the coverage has been lighthearted and focused on outrageous situations, as in the case of a miniature pig making a ruckus on an airplane
. In response to reports like these, some local jurisdictions have expressed interested in cracking down on owners who misrepresent their pets as service animals. For example, Florida passed a law
this summer that makes using a fake service dog a criminal offense.
Most stories about this issue have focused on cases, such as the aforementioned pig, in which ill-behaved or poorly trained animals created public nuisances or disturbances. The trivial nature of much of this coverage undermines the important role that service animals play in the lives of people with disabilities. Therapy and emotional support animals, while distinct from service animals, are also working animals and provide real relief to their handlers.
In order to understand how some pet owners are exploiting current access laws to misrepresent their pets as working animals, it is essential that the differences between service and support animals be understood.
Generally speaking, service animals are trained dogs (or, occasionally, miniature horses) that assist their disabled handlers with tasks related to that disability. Both the handler’s disability and the disability-specific training of the animal are necessary for an animal to be considered a service animal. For example, a person with a disability may take comfort in holding a pet, but unless that pet is trained to perform particular disability-related tasks or services, it cannot be seen as a service animal.
Legal obligations for accommodating “service animals” are defined differently in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act. However, the broad themes that emerge are (1) that service dogs should be considered similarly to a wheelchair or other implement needed for accessibility, rather than considered as a pet, (2) that it is not permitted or necessary to “verify” the service status of an animal to accommodate it, and (3) that there should be no penalty, financial or otherwise, for a disabled handler to be accompanied by their service dog. Broadly speaking, service animals must be permitted in all areas of an establishment that a member of the public would have access to. For instance, they are permitted in restaurants even if animals are prohibited, but would not need to be given access to the kitchen.
Business owners may only ask handlers two questions pertaining to a service dog: (1) if the dog is required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task the dog is trained to do. It is important to note that it is not permitted to request documentation (of either the disability or the training), nor is it acceptable to request a demonstration of the trained tasks.
Under ADA, only dogs and miniature horses can be considered service animals. This means that legally, there is no such thing as a “service cat,” “service llama,” or “service miniature pig.” Some examples of service dogs include guide dogs for the blind, hearing or signal dogs for Deaf or hard-of-hearing handlers, seizure response dogs, and psychiatric service dogs that perform a variety of tasks related to psychiatric disabilities. For more information about how the ADA defines service animals, please click here
Therapy and Support Animals
Therapy or support animals are not limited to individuals with disabilities. Therapy animals generally work with an established program or institution, frequently in a clinical setting. They can offer comfort and solace to patients in hospitals, provide opportunities for skill-building through caretaking, or allow patients to benefit from an unusually mellow and well-trained animal. Some examples of therapy animals are dogs that visit hospital wards and ponies or horses trained for use in therapeutic horseback riding lessons.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are less clearly defined than service animals. Most significantly, the Air Carrier Access Act
includes a provision that ESAs be permitted in the cabin of airplanes, as long as there is some form of documentation that the ESA is medically necessary. The provision is intended to ensure that passengers who require the presence of an animal—for example, to cope with anxiety—have that access. In large part, this has grown problematic due to unscrupulous pet owners and an unregulated commercial marketplace of vendors eager to cater to them by selling ESA “registrations.” From these practices, much of the tension surrounding ESAs, including the conflation of ESAs and service dogs, has grown. Passengers are increasingly sharing close quarters with animals, many of which have not been appropriately trained.
Online companies see the loopholes and confusion around ESAs and service animals as an opportunity to turn a profit. There are now countless official-looking but meaningless vests
, certificates, and ID cards
available for purchase. Multiple companies now offer service dog or ESA “registrations,” despite the fact that animal registries are not required, are not regulated by the government, and have no legal standing. (See examples here
, and here
.) Because pet owners are often over-eager to keep pets with them on flights, there are also now online businesses churning out doctors’ notes specifically to permit their family pets onboard as “ESAs”. (See examples here
, and here
.) One writer with the New Yorker demonstrated the absurdity of these online services
, purchasing doctor’s notes and meaningless certifications for various absurd species. While this lighthearted coverage is entertaining, the burgeoning trend of capitalizing on the public’s previously increasing acceptance of service animals is hugely problematic.
Commercializing service and support dog status is a disrespect to the people who require these animals to conduct their activities of daily living. As the “service dog” or “ESA” label becomes something for purchase rather than indicative of medically necessary training, the general public’s response makes daily life increasingly difficult for handlers with disabilities. People may be more inclined to pet service dogs or otherwise create dangerous distractions if they do not understand the gravity of the animals’ role. Similarly, if they are increasingly interacting with dogs wearing “service” vests that are not in fact working dogs, they may be more likely to treat genuine service dog handlers with suspicion or disrespect, assuming that the dog is simply a pet or that the handler’s disability is not “real”. Untrained pets in unexpected places also creates a safety risk for service dog handlers. For example, a blind handler with a guide dog may avoid a dog park in order to prevent dangerous distractions that might interfere with their working dog’s concentration. But it is neither possible nor appropriate to expect that handler to avoid office buildings, doctors’ offices, or airports that should either be free of all animals except for well-trained, working service animals. As more and more of these places begin to have untrained animals present, the threat of distraction and interference from another animal grows and poses a hazard to handlers who require service animals for their safety.
It’s true that many sexual assault and other people with disabilities genuinely take great comfort in their pets. This role needs to be seen, regardless of who the handler is, as being distinct from assistance with a disability. It is highly unethical and disrespectful to exploit access laws simply to be accompanied by a pet. Most importantly, however, it is disturbing to see how many companies are seeking to profit from both this exploitative tendency and the public’s goodwill towards service dog handlers. “Service dog” status is not for sale, and never has been.
Victims/Survivors Who Use Service Animals: A Background Paper and Sample Program Policy for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Programs.
Developed by Wisconsin’s Violence Against Women with Disabilities Project.
Revised Americans With Disabilities Act Requirements for Service Animals.
Issued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
This article was featured in the Fall 2015 issue