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March 21, 2019

The Murky Waters of the World of Assistance Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs Animals

The Murky Waters of the World of Assistance Dogs and Emotional Support Dog Animals

written by Sally Irvin, Ph.D., Founder/ICAN

Sally Irvin, Ph.D.


In 2019, with over 22,000 working assistance dogs in the United States, one would think the legislators and the public would have a good understanding of the access issues and rights of people who are partnered with an assistance dog. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Over 29 states have enacted laws making it illegal to pretend that you have a disability and pretend that your pet is an assistance dog. Similarly, about 25 states have enacted laws that address fake emotional support animals. Indiana has a law regarding “emotional support animals” that was signed into effect in July 2018. This law makes it illegal to misrepresent your pet as an emotional support animal.

Let me try to clarify some of the confusion. Terminology and agreement with what the terminology means are critical. There is great misunderstanding created with the misuse of words. In one article, they interchange assistance dogs with emotional support dogs. In another, they speak of psychiatric support animal in another they refer to a psychiatric service dog. There are big implications regarding public access for people based on the “type” dog they are partnered with.

According to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), an assistance dog is a dog who has been specifically trained to perform a task on cue that directly mitigates their partner’s disability. Additionally, assistance dogs have had hours of instruction and assessment regarding their behavior in public. The ADA defines the behavior requirements of an assistance dog when in public. The ONLY other animal the ADA recognizes as an assistance animal is a miniature horse who has been trained to guide a person who is blind.

Assistance Dog is the umbrella term for all types of assistance dogs. Under assistance dogs are:

  • The term “service dog” is used for dogs that assist with mobility issues, medical alert ( i.e. Diabetes), autism, Psychiatric; PTSD.
  • The term “guide dog” is used for dogs that provide guidance and direction to people with poor vision.
  • The term “hearing alert” is for dogs that signal a sound to their partner

According to the ADA, a person with a disability, who is partnered with their assistance dog, has the right to be in public places that typically do not allow pet dogs.  What is not talked about very much is the responsibility of the user of an assistance dog; just as there is little discussion of the responsibility an establishment has in giving partnered teams access.

To protect the rights of the person with a disability and the business owner, the business owner may ask two questions:

  • Is that an assistance dog for a disability
  • What is the dog trained to do? They cannot as the dog to perform the behaviors.

The ADA clearly describes the expectations for how assistance dogs are to behave in public. The dogs should remain calm beside their partner, no vocalization, no solicitation of attention from others, no lunging on leash, remain within 20 inches of their partner, always have all 4 feet on the floor, no savaging off the floor, etc. IF a dog is behaving in a way that contradicts these expectations, the proprietor of the business has the right to ask the person to remove the dog from their business.

The ADA also clearly describes what proprietors of businesses can and cannot do. There are reasonable accommodations that a person partnered with an assistance dog is entitled.

The expectations and access issues of Emotional Support Animals fall under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). People with Emotional Support Animals ONLY have access to areas/places where pet animals are allowed.  The Fair Housing Act allows people with an emotional disability to have the right to have their pets live in their rental as long as the person has the right documentation form their physician or health care provider.  Likewise, to fly with an emotional support animal, the passenger must provide documentation from a licensed health care provider who documents that the passenger requires the emotional support animal because of their disability and veterinarian documents that the animal is healthy and current on vaccinations. Emotional support animals have no expectation of training or that their behavior is suited to be on a plan.

Education and empowerment are critically needed – for people with disabilities and their assistance dog and for people with disabilities and their emotional support dog.  This education and empowerment needs to extend further – to the rights of business owners, airline personnel, schools, and other public entities.

Partners of assistance dogs and emotional support dogs have a duty to the public to ensure that their dogs are safe, unobtrusive, and exhibiting the best fundamental obedience. The business owners, airline personnel, and other public entities need to know their rights as well. They should be encouraged to ask the two questions that they are allowed to ask a person partnered with an assistance dog. Until all parties engage in more dialog and hold one another accountable to their respective rights and obligations, the problems we see of people faking a disability and a fake service dog will only increase.

To learn more, visit https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html