What’s the difference and how does that affect me?

Second grade student, Kade Daniels reads as Shelby Imel and Lindsey Autry listen and interact with Buddy. Buddy is a certified therapy dog who visits schools, hospitals and nursing homes. U. S. Air Force photo by Sue Sapp

By Claudine Wilkins and Jessica Rock, former prosecutors and founders of Animal Law Source.

Animals play important roles in our lives as companions, and for some of us, as invaluable assistants necessary for physical assistance or emotional support. There is a difference between service animals and emotional support animals, and different rules and laws apply to each. It can be confusing and, sadly, some non-disabled people are taking advantage of these labels simply to have their dog with them wherever they go. It is a crime to “fake it” in most states.
Service animals are individually trained to perform tasks and work as a team with their disabled partners, such as someone who is blind or deaf or physically challenged, to help them attain greater independence and safety than they might otherwise be able to achieve on their own. Service animals are also used for mental disabilities. A service animal is also not required to wear any type of special identification and does not require certification.

Atlanta, GA, Aug. 31, 2008– Rescue dog, Buster, of Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One, of Ohio, relaxes briefly after a long journey with his team at the Hilton Hotel. Four task forces have arrived in at the hotel during the last 24-hours and are awaiting deployment to help with relief efforts for Hurricane Gustav. FEMA News Photo/Amanda Bicknell

There are a number of acts, both federal and state, that protect the rights of those with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dog under a wide variety of circumstances.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are allowed in businesses and organizations that are open to the public, such as restaurants, taxis, hospitals, grocery stores, department stores, theaters and parks and in any area where customers are normally allowed. Businesses that sell or prepare food must allow service animals even if state or local codes prohibit animals on the premises.

Georgia law states that disabled individuals “are entitled to full and equal accommodations” on all public conveyances and forms of transport and public places, “subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all persons.”  Disabled persons cannot be charged extra just because they have a guide or service dog.

Under Georgia Code, there is another type of animal called the “assistance dog” which is identified as a dog that has been trained by a licensed or certified person or agency to perform physical tasks for a physically challenged person. Assistance dogs include those that guide individuals who are legally blind; that alert hearing-impaired individuals to specific sounds; and service dogs trained to perform a variety of physical tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair, lending balance support, picking up dropped objects, or providing assistance in a medical crisis.
Persons engaged in training service or guide dogs have similar accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges.  Service animals may only be excluded if accommodating them would alter the nature of the facility or the service it provides, when the animal is a direct threat to health and safety or if the animal is not housebroken or out of control. Any person or firm who denies or interferes with a person who has a right to be present with his or her service dog in violation of the Georgia code will be guilty of a high and aggravated misdemeanor and could face up to a $2,000 fine and up to 30 days in prison, or both.

If it is necessary to determine the status of an animal as a service animal under the law, there are certain things that can and cannot be asked. For example, it is possible to ask a disabled person what task their service animal is trained to do for them, but it is not possible to ask what disability the person has, or for the person to provide proof of training or a doctor’s note about their disability.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are not required to undergo specialized training; their companionship may relieve depression and anxiety as well as help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress. This benefits many conditions, such as debilitating depression, dementia, autism, PTSD and more. These animals are not granted access to establishments that do not allow pets.

An exception is the Fair Housing Act, which does permit ESAs in housing that has a “no pets” policy. Persons who are seeking a reasonable accommodation for an ESA may be required to provide documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health professional that the animal provides support that alleviates at least one identified symptom or effect of the existing disability. Housing providers may request verification that the person requesting an accommodation has a disability, and an explanation of the nexus between the requested accommodation and the disability. A housing provider may not ask an applicant or tenant to provide access to medical records or medical providers or to provide detailed or extensive information or documentation of their physical or mental impairments.

Another type of service animal is the therapy animal, which also receives extensive training but has a completely different type of job from service dogs. Their responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers. These dogs have stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personalities.  It’s typical to see them visiting institutions such as hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, schools, day care facilities and group homes or rehabilitation centers.  Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize and interact with a variety of people while they’re on duty. Despite thorough training, therapy dogs do not have the same level of access as service dogs to places where pets are not permitted.

All dogs are subject to the same requirements for vaccinations; rabies; animal-at-large; and dangerous dog laws, and the owner is subject to liability for any damage done to the premises or facilities by any such dog. If a service animal or ESA’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others and its owner takes no effective action to control the animal’s behavior so that the threat is mitigated or eliminated, that animal can be removed.

For a more in-depth discussion of all kinds of service animals and the law, please visit www.animallawsource.org