The Difference Between Emotional Support and Service Animals

On one airline’s website, which I checked before booking a flight, the text differentiates between emotional support animals, “psychiatric service” animals, and service animals for more obvious needs such as sight and hearing assistance.  The webpage grouped emotional support and psychiatric service animals together.  This troubled me, because according to the ADA, there is no difference between an animal that provides a service to someone with a psychiatric concern and an animal that provides a service to someone who is blind.  Both kinds of animals must be trained.  What they are trained to do will differ, but they are both able to accomplish the tasks they are trained to do.  Granted, it may take more training to make a dog a service to a person who is blind, but I don’t know. I’ve never trained a seeing-eye dog.  The website is legally incorrect in placing “psychiatric service” animals along with emotional support animals.  Either an animal is emotional support or it is trained to provide a service.

Why the airline makes this differentiation must reflect what the company has faced among their customers.  But instead of setting the record straight, the airline is only confusing the matter.  So, I write this post to remove confusion.  If we all get it straight, we can encourage acceptance and accommodation wherever we go.

What the ADA says about service animals

The ADA is very clear on the requirements of a service animal.

  • For one, since March 15, 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals.
  • The handler must have a disability, or medical condition, and
  • The animal must be trained to do a specific task that aids the handler’s disability or condition.

Businesses are allowed to ask two questions: Do you have a disability [or medical condition]? and What task is your animal trained to do [for the disability]?  The ADA also states that it doesn’t matter who trains the animal.  The handler may train the animal or a professional trainer may train him/her.

Training your pet for service

If you have a medical condition and you have an animal you want trained to serve you, you must be able to answer the second question.  Otherwise, the animal is an emotional support, not a “service” animal.  There should be no gray area.  Certainly, some dogs naturally provide a service without being trained.  You can still train such dogs by rewarding them in order to reinforce their servicing behaviors.

Dogs must still be trained to behave as desired in public. For example, a dog should not urinate or defecate inside.  This might seem obvious, but there are people who have let their animals do their business inside a building.  Thanks to such people, we have strict laws against pets.

When I began training my dog to serve me, I constantly had the second question in my mind.  My dog was an emotional support animal and I had letters from my therapists stating this.  But in order for her to be a service dog, I had to get her to do something specific that would accommodate my PTSD symptoms.  Many people have big dogs that are trained to physically block a potential threat from their handlers.  I rarely had trouble being near other people, so I didn’t need this service.  But I have had trouble shopping for food.  Often, I’ve stood in front of a section at the store for minutes before realizing I was dissociating.  Since my dog naturally is hyperactive and tends to be in constant motion if not napping or told to sit or lie down, I trained her to nudge me to move when in a store.  She is little, and so she stands up on her rear legs and pushes me with her front paws.  She has saved me countless minutes of dissociated lingering.  (In dissociation, one can forget why he or she is someplace.)  Penny’s nudging has helped me return to the present.  It still helps me remember to eat.  I also trained her to rest her head on my arm, which brings my heart rate down, especially helpful in the presence of anxiety.  She became my sleep aid.  There are other things she does, some of which I trained her to do and others she does on her own.

Sometimes, when someone asks what she is trained to do and I don’t feel like answering, I say she calms and alerts me.  This answer is not really the best way to answer, but if you have PTSD, I’m sure you get the sentiment.  With PTSD, a service animal does many things.  Other times, when I feel an authority asks respectfully, I say that she nudges me when I’m dissociated among other things.  While I don’t dissociate nearly as often as I used to, there are still days where my brain simply doesn’t function properly (like three days ago).  I never know when a day like this will come, so Penny remains my service dog for now.

It’s best to be very specific when someone asks that second question.  I would have saved myself a lot of energy from getting annoyed or angry if I always answered, “My dog is trained to nudge me out of dissociation.”

Be clear of the difference

Though company websites may not be clear on ADA law, you can be sure of the difference:

Emotional Support Animal = Not trained to accomplish a specific task related to a medical condition

Service Animal = Trained to accomplish a specific task related to a medical condition

An emotional support animal needs a recent letter from a therapist or other medical professional to travel and stay in hotels.  Service animals must have a handler with a disability or medical condition and do not need any letter or “certification.”  The service animal, however, needs some kind of mark, such as a badge.

How My Service Dog Helps While Flying

I fly between New York and San Francisco quite often and have been considering a different airline.  Since 9/11 I’ve had trouble being in airports where waves of grief would overcome me and I’d suddenly find myself weeping uncontrollably usually on the TSA security line in spite of practicing sensory emotional regulation on the situation.  Perhaps I grieve each person whose loved one or colleague I spoke to on the hospital hotline that night, one at a time.  Just a few dozen more to go.  While weeping in a queue doesn’t really require a special service provided by an animal, I do have my service dog with me.  Her tag allows me to point to it if someone asks if something is wrong.  In those moments of weeping, I’m unable to speak clearly.  The tag helps.  It says “PTSD Service Dog.”

Penny took to training so well, that her behavior when we travel is stellar.  I can remove her leash and she stays near me.  Getting her to heel probably took the most time in training, but doing this has helped us be confident wherever we go.  Because she behaves so well while on the road, rarely does anyone question us.  The worst has been entering grocery stores, ironically where I tend to need her help the most.

Consider other disabilities

One more thing: Be mindful and respectful of establishments that cater to people with severe allergies to animals.  I have left Penny outside such an establishment.  Better to go outside to be with her than be cause someone with a severe allergy to go into anaphylactic shock.

Link to ADA.gov

For information about service animals from the ADA, see this page on ada.gov (https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm).

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