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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Stone, LMHC

Service and Therapy and Support Animals, Oh My! Understanding the differences between service, thera

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

This is an expansion of the overview provided in my Lake Mary Life column.*

*Note: Since the original publish date, the Air Carrier Access Act has had a Final Rule (Dec. 2020) which no longer requires airlines to permit/accommodate Emotional Support Animals as reasonable accommodations for air travel and also institutes certain paperwork requirements for flying with trained Service Animals (dogs) as well as other requirements.

Have you been out and about and seen animals sporting service, therapy, or support animal badges or heard someone refer to their animal as a service, therapy, or support animal? Are you unsure what that means? If you answered, “yes,” I can assure you that you are not alone! It is becoming more and more common to see animals in places that they used to not frequent.

You may be wondering why we are seeing more animals in public places nowadays. Special classifications of animals have been expanded over the years, animals which provide a service or support to those with whom they serve. To do their jobs effectively, there are laws in place to protect them. Federal laws (e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act) outline specifics about service, therapy, and support animals, including particulars about types of animals, locations they are permitted to go, and the rights and responsibilities of the handler. In addition to the federal laws, each state may outline additional laws pertaining to these different classifications of animals.

Service Animals

A service animal is an animal which has received specialized training to perform a specific task or set of tasks for a person with a disability. You have likely noticed service animals who perform overt tasks, such as guide dogs for someone with low vision or blindness. Service animals may be trained to perform all sorts of different tasks (many covert), such as sensing blood glucose levels and alerting people with diabetes, sensing and reducing symptoms of panic attacks for people with anxiety or panic disorders, or alerting to early symptoms and ensuring safety of a person with a seizure disorder.

Federally, service animals must be dogs only; but, in Florida, service animals can be dogs or miniature horses (they’re about the same size/weight as many dogs and a great hypoallergenic option!). The most common dog breeds are Labradors or Border Collies; however, any size or breed of dog may be trained as a Service Animal. Service animals may be trained by the individual with the disability or a training center.

Service animals are permitted to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go (e.g., restaurants), but may not be permitted in places that may pose a health or safety hazard, such as in a public pool although they must be permitted on the pool deck. In cases of hotels, etc., the handler and animal cannot be required to stay in a pet-friendly room; they should be permitted to stay anywhere in the facility.

Typically, you’ll see a service animal wearing a vest or a special harness. However, special gear or identifiers are not required if it impedes the animal’s ability to perform its tasks. These are working animals and, while on the job, they typically ignore other people, animals, or stimuli in the environment.

Service animals are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the ADA indicates no specific registration or documentation can be required for service animals. Some facilities may have a voluntary registry, however; for example, a school may ask a student to register their service animal to ensure the animal is accounted in an emergency. Legally, if it’s not readily obvious that the animal is a service animal by identifiers, behavior, or otherwise, there are only two questions can legally be asked to determine if an animal is a service animal: 1) Is the dog (or miniature horse) a service animal which is required because of a disability? and 2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

Therapy Animals

A therapy animal is an animal which is used within a therapeutic setting by a health or mental health professional or by an individual who is trained to handle therapy animals. Therapy animals that are permitted indoors are typically dogs or cats. Generally, therapy animals are only permitted in facilities (e.g., retirement homes) or specific areas within facilities (e.g., common areas of in a hospital or a therapy office) after review and invitation by the facility owner/operator. The facility owner/operator has to consider things like facility cleaning needs, insurance coverage, and allergies/fears of other people in the facility. There should be times where therapy animals are not in the facility to ensure everyone can access the facility/services.

Therapy animals typically have behavioral training. In many cases, they are certified through an Animal Assisted Therapy program. They typically wear vests with that say “Therapy Animal” on them. Therapy Animals, due to their training and temperament, are typically calm yet people-friendly animals. They are usually less interested in other animals, obey commands by their handlers, are well-behaved, and have become accustomed to being petted anywhere, often by more than one person at once.

Emotional Support or Comfort Animals

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA), sometimes referred to as a Comfort Animal, is an animal which is prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to an individual with a disability. The ESA’s purpose is to alleviate one or more identified symptoms or effects of an individual’s disability (e.g., reducing depression symptoms by the handler having to get out of bed and walk the dog in the morning). The ESA does not carry out tasks associated with daily living and is not required to accompany a person with a disability at all times. Ideally, the person with the disability should have an established relationship with a mental health provider prior to being prescribed an ESA, and the person should be receiving some sort of ongoing treatment (e.g., therapy, medication) in addition to the use of an ESA.

Any type of animal could be considered an ESA – a dog, cat, rat, snake, etc. They do not have any special training and there is no centralized ESA registration (no, that listing that appears in your search results is not required and is not a valid way to claim your animal is an ESA!). Legally, ESAs are only permitted within the owner’s dwelling per the Fair Housing Act; however, airlines may permit only certain types or sizes of animals to travel with their handler on an airplane, and only to certain locations. On a college campus, the student's primary dwelling could be considered their residence hall room and the college/university may request that the student and their animal be housed in a pet-friendly room and may require appropriate documentation and registration of the animal. Because ESAs are only permitted within the handler’s residence, vests or badges are not necessary. Of course, if a business/facility says it is “pet friendly,” ESAs may also go there. Animal behaviors range based on any training its owner has established. In most cases, ESAs that you see out and about are typically interested in other people, animals, or other stimuli, and they may or may not follow its handler’s commands.

You may be wondering, “What is different between pets and ESAs?” Not much really. Many animal owners have experienced the mental health benefits of having an animal in their life. Emotional Support Animals are essentially pets that have been prescribed to be able to live with, or potentially travel with, their handler. In cases where there are animal restrictions in housing, ESAs may be allowable due to the prescription.

How are these animals similar?

While there are many differences between service, therapy, and support animals, there are some important similarities.

  • All animals are subject to vaccination, licensing, and registration requirements.

  • Animals must relieve themselves in appropriate areas.

  • The animals must be under control of their handler at all times. “Under control” may mean leashed, under verbal command if the harness/leash impedes their work, or similar.

  • If any animal presents risk of harm to others (e.g., aggressive behavior), they may be asked to leave the premises.

  • In cases where damage occurs, the handler may be responsible for damage fees. For service animals, standard cleaning fees cannot be considered damages.

What to keep in mind

When you find yourself encountering an animal of any type out and about, it’s important to remember:

  • These animals may be working, so it is important not to interact with or approach them unless you have asked and been invited to do so. Of course, you assume any risk if you do interact with the animal.

  • These animals are important to their handler. Service, support, and therapy animals have special relationships with their handlers.

  • We don’t know what we don’t know. We can hope that the person with the animal is following appropriate laws and rules and is representing their animal accordingly. We should try to reserve judgement or speculation. Keep in mind the laws pertaining to these different classifications of animals.

  • For those with animals, it is important to be aware of the laws, rules, and rights pertaining to your type of animal.

  • You may be wondering, “Can I just buy a vest or sign my animal up on a registry?” If you do not have a disability and a trained Service Animal, a prescription from a licensed professional for an ESA, or the credentials to have a therapy animal, the answer is no. If you do not follow the appropriate procedures, not only would you be undermining the foundational purpose of these disability accommodations or animal assisted therapy services, but you may also be subject to potential legal consequences such as jail time, service work, or fines for fraudulent representation of your animal.

Interested in learning more?

Some fantastic resources are available online!

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