Emotional Support Animals are Not Service Dogs: Why You Should Leave Your ESA At Home

There are currently four guide dog teams on my university’s campus.  Three black labradors and one yellow, all highly trained, well-socialized, well-behaved, and pretty darn good at their jobs.  All four of we handlers attended a 14 to 26 day intensive to train with, and learn how to care properly for these amazing animals.

And they are amazing.  Here are just a few examples of the tasks Oleta does every day to make my life a little easier.

  • Obstacle Avoidance

She is trained to walk in a straight line, but if there are obstacles in our path (trash cans, strollers, people) she can take us around them to continue on our line of travel.  I feel her movements through the harness and harness handle and am able to follow.

  • Object/Landmark Identification

She can locate stairs, curbs, doors, empty chairs, trash cans, pianos, and even one of my best friends by name if they are in the vicinity.

  • Intelligent Disobedience

This isn’t so much a task as it is a decision making process, or, an anti-task.  If I give Oleta a command that would be unsafe for her to perform, she will refuse.  For example, if there is a car coming that for some reason I do not hear, and I tell her to proceed forward into the street, she will refuse the command.

Other service dogs perform tasks like bracing for people with balance issues, alerting to various health related episodes, such as a drop in blood sugar or an oncoming seizure, object retrieval for people with limited mobility, as well as grounding, behavior interruption, reminders, guide work, etc for people (especially veterans) diagnosed with PTSD.

So, what do all these dogs have in common?

They are all trained to perform a task, or, as in most situations, a series of different tasks to aid their handicapped human handler.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, that is the definition of a service dog.

An emotional support animal DOES NOT fall under this category, and is not protected under the ADA to access all public areas.

Why is it, then, that I have met at least five animals on campus recently, inside of buildings, at least three of which I know are proclaimed “Emotional support animals”, and the other two I suspect may be the same.

One of these animals is an emotional support cat.  You should know that cats are not considered service animals in any context, and an emotional support cat is no more legally protected to enter most public accommodations than is an emotional support dog or turkey.

But the other four are dogs, and, if they are not service dogs trained to perform a task or tasks to mitigate their owners disability, they do not belong inside our campus buildings any more than the cat.

Why Do I Care?

  • Unruly behavior (especially gone unchecked) reflects badly on service dog teams.

If an emotional support animal behaves badly in public due to their lack of training and socialization, it casts a shadow upon highly trained service dogs, and may make it more difficult for service dog teams to access public areas in the future.

  • My dog may be distracted.

My dog is, to an extent, responsible for my safety.  I’m depending on her to find stairs, keep me away from the edge of platforms and stages, move me out of the way of obstacles, as well as oncoming people or doors that open into our path, not to mention finding doors or other landmarks that I may be looking for.  All of those things can be easily interrupted by the presence of another dog.  Of course, we have techniques for dealing with distractions, but   it only takes a second for my dog to lose focus at the wrong time, and for me to lose my balance on the edge of a stage or staircase.  Beyond that, I would just rather not deal with dog distractions at all if I do not have to, and an ESA that shouldn’t be there in the first place is one of those distractions that I (and other service dog users) could do without.

  • My dog may be in danger.

My dog has been specially bred and socialized all her life to be friendly with other dogs.  That may not be the case with an emotional support animal.  Even if your ESA is friendly with other dogs at dog parks or in your back yard, it does not follow that they will behave the same way in a stressful environment such as a crowded college coffee shop, hallway, or elevator.

  • ESA’s are not legally protected in most public areas.

It is simply disrespectful, both to service dog users and business owners, to take advantage of people’s ignorance of state and federal laws concerning service animals and ESAs… and if you think you can get around it by putting a service dog vest on your ESA, don’t.  There’s a little word for that… fraud—an act which in some states is considered a crime and punishable by law.

So what am I saying?

All that said, I am not writing this article to belittle those with emotional support animals or even the idea of having one.  I do wish to highlight some of the practical issues that arise when a person chooses to bring their emotional support animal into a public area where they are not generally permitted.  I have an incredible bond with my guide dog, and certainly understand the emotional benefits (and drawbacks) of having an animal, but for a service dog user, it’s about more than emotions.  Whether it be to alert us to a seizure, guide us to safety in the midst of a disorienting episode of PTSD, or keep us from walking off the edge of a stage, we are putting our very lives in our dogs paws.  Please don’t put us or our rights at stake merely because you want to bring your dog/ESA everywhere with you.

Thanks for reading, and a happy new year to all our two-footed and four-legged friends.

One thought on “Emotional Support Animals are Not Service Dogs: Why You Should Leave Your ESA At Home

  1. worthobbs says:

    Shea: This is a very good and well expressed article. I do hope those who will be receiving it, will understand about those, such as you, who have service dogs and count on them without reservation and distractions. Good for you to take the leadership in writing this article to let others know of the danger of having less trained dogs in the area of service dogs etc etc. All the best, Elizabeth Hobbs

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