What Defines a Service Dog?

What defines a service a Service Dog? What is the difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog? These are questions we, as trainers, deal with all the time. In an era where assistance animals are being "prescribed" by doctors for so many ailments, it is extremely important to know the difference and what rights you will have as an owner. In order to provide you with the specialized training these animals require, we must first learn what your needs are as an owner. These questions aren't meant to degrade, demean, or validate your need, they are simply asked to understand what role your dog will play in your daily life.

What is a Service Dog?

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The ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act, defines a Service Animal as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or complete tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks completed must directly correspond to the disability. Examples for these Service Dogs are Guide Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs, or other specifically trained dogs to handle tasks that make independent life possible for disabled persons. Service Animals can go into public places and are most commonly seen wearing a vest or harness with Service Dog decals, writing, or patches. These animals are not to be touched, pet, or otherwise distracted from their job. They are allowed to accompany their owner anywhere the person is allowed including restaurants, shopping centers, and grocery stores. These dogs are maintained to an extremely high level of training and grooming.

Emotional Support Animal Defined

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The ADA defines Emotional Support Animals, therapy, comfort, and companion animals as animals that provide comfort to a person by just simply being present. Examples of these dogs are dogs that calm down a person with depression, anxiety, or other mental conditions that can be assisted by the presence, weight, or touch of the animal. ESA dogs are common for persons suffering from PTSD and are often prescribed for people with anxiety because the dog can be trained to lay on top of their owner much the way we use a weighted blanket. Touching, petting, or being laid on by these dogs have a calming effect, which helps relieve the immediate issue. They do not perform a specific task, therefore do not qualify under the ADA definition of a Service Animal. While Emotional Support Animals are often allowed in apartments or dorms where no pet policies exist, these animals are not allowed in most public places. A letter from a licensed physician is required for a person to be allowed to keep an ESA in a housing facility that doesn't allow pets and also to fly with the animal.

Knowing the Difference

Knowing the difference between an ESA and a Service Dog will help prospective trainees examine the type of training needed. A Service Dog requires extensive training, often costing thousands of dollars, to perform the tasks required by the disabled person. Emotional Support Animals should be obedience trained, require a prescription from a doctor, and are not allowed in public anywhere a pet cannot go. Because State and Local laws vary, some areas allow these animals in public places. Please contact your local government offices for a list of acceptable spaces before taking your ESA in public. Knowing what defines a Service Dog can also help finding a trainer that can meet your training needs. Trainers should be able to answer questions based on your specific need, as well as ask questions pertaining to the types of training required for each type of dog. The trainer should be asking what the disability is that the dog will be responsible for assisting, as well as know the difference between a Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal. If you have any questions about whether your dog qualifies, or need assistance finding a qualified trainer in your area, feel free to contact Joyful Dogs. Our mid-Michigan branch offers some Service Dog training so be sure to contact us!