There’s a lot of confusion about the many names for the different types of animals that help people with disabilities. Assistance dogs (including guide, hearing, and service dogs) are protected by their human partner’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Then there are psychiatric service dogs, emotional support animals (ESAs), and therapy dogs… it’s no wonder some people are a little unsure what’s what.
Here’s an overview of these different types of animals and some of the most important legal distinctions:
Psychiatric Service Dogs
These dogs, like guide and hearing dogs who assist the blind, deaf, and others unable to fully navigate on their own, and like other service dogs, are a type of assistance dog. Psychiatric service dogs help individuals with potentially debilitating psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A service dog is trained to perform certain tasks to mitigate limitations related to their human partner’s disability. Because of their thorough training, which typically lasts up to 2 years, and because of their essential, specific responsibilities, psychiatric and all other service dogs may be taken to any place where the public is allowed. Their partners’ rights to equal access and equal treatment are protected by Federal law, and the disabled individual cannot be required to provide documentation confirming their dog is a service dog.
Service dogs and other assistance dogs are not considered pets; they are working animals. This is an important legal distinction.
Emotional Support Animals
ESAs are often dogs or cats, but they can be just about any type of pet—and unlike assistance dogs, they are considered pets. They provide emotional support, but they receive no special training and perform no specific tasks to help their disabled owners. Their owners must, however, be disabled.
To have an emotional support animal, a person must have a confirmed diagnosis (usually of a mental illness) and be given a prescription for an ESA by an overseeing doctor who believes the pet will be of benefit to the patient’s mental health.
The ADA does not make provisions for emotional support animals. A disabled individual with an ESA does not have the same legally protected rights to take their pet into any place the public is permitted access; owners must receive permission from someone authorized to grant it at any property or facility prohibiting pets.
However, under the US Fair Housing Amendments Act, ESAs cannot be barred from any housing, even if pets are otherwise not permitted. Owners cannot be charged a pet deposit for an ESA either. Emotional support animals are also allowed to ride uncrated and at no extra charge with their owners in airplane cabins under the Air Carrier Access Act. In both instances, the owner may be required to produce proper documentation from their doctor.
These too are usually dogs, sometimes cats, and occasionally another type of pet, and these too are classified as pets. Therapy animals are trained, tested, licensed, and insured to provide emotional support to people coping with the effects of illness, injury, or aging. Generally, their owners aren’t the ones using the therapy dogs; rather, owners have their pets trained for this purpose and bring them to hospitals, rehabilitation or assisted living facilities, or other places.
Therapy animals have no protections under law. They may only be brought into facilities or any place prohibiting pets with the express permission from an appropriate party.
Were You and Your Service Dog Discriminated Against?
Again, only assistance dogs (including psychiatric service dogs) have entry rights wherever the public is allowed; ESAs and therapy dogs do not have these legal protections. Also, the hearing, guide, or service dog must be clean and remain well behaved, otherwise she may be asked to wait outside. However, the person must still be permitted to finish the business they are conducting.
If you believe you and your service dog were discriminated against, read Filing an ADA Complaint with the US Department of Justice.