PTSD – Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Dogs

US Navy 101118-F-5586B-144 Marine Sgt. Brian J...

US Navy 101118-F-5586B-144 Marine Sgt. Brian Jarrell pets his dog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past couple of years I have read many articles about veterans with PTSD that have been denied access to businesses with what have been described as service dogs.  On the surface I found this to be very disturbing that our veterans would be treated this way so I decided to do some research into the issue.   Based on information I found through the Department of Veterans Affairs I found that there are two distinct categories for these dogs.  The first is classified as a Service Dog.

A service dog is a dog trained to do specific tasks for a person that he or she cannot do because of a disability. Service dogs can pick things up, guide a person with vision problems, or help someone who falls or loses balance easily. For example, a service dog can help a blind person walk down the street or get dangerous things out of the way when someone is having a seizure.

Protecting someone, giving emotional support, or being a companion do not qualify a dog to be a service animal. To be a service dog, a dog must go through training. Usually the dog is trained to:

  • Do things that are different from natural dog behavior.
  • Do things that the handler (dog owner) cannot do because of a disability.
  • Learn to work with the new handler in ways that help manage the owner’s disability.

Because the handler depends on the service dog’s help, service dogs are allowed to go to most public places the handler goes. This is the case even if it is somewhere pet dogs usually cannot go, like restaurants or on airplanes. But there are a few exceptions. For example, service dogs can be asked to leave if they are not behaving well.

The second is classified as an Emotional Support Dog.

An emotional support animal is a pet that helps an owner with a mental disability. Emotional support dogs help owners feel better by giving friendship and love. These dogs are also called comfort dogs or support dogs.

An emotional support dog does not need special training. Generally, a regular pet can be an emotional support dog if a mental health provider writes a letter saying that the owner has a mental health condition or disability and needs the dog’s help for his or her health or treatment.

In most states, emotional support dogs do not have special permission to go to all public places like service dogs do. But, emotional support dogs are sometimes allowed special consideration. For example, the owner may be able to get permission to have an emotional support pet in a house or apartment that does not normally allow dogs. Or, the owner may be able to get permission to fly on a plane together with the dog.

To get special permissions, the dog owner needs to show the mental health provider’s letter to the landlord or airline. Sometimes, the landlord or airline will also want to see information about the mental health provider, such as a copy of their professional license.

While a dog’s companionship may offer emotional support, comfort or a sense of security, this in and of itself does NOT qualify as a “trained task” or “work” under the ADA, thus it does not give a disabled person the legal right to take that dog out in public as a legitimate service dog.  Setting up a realistic training plan to transform a dog with a suitable temperament  into an obedient, task trained service dog is the only way to legally qualify a dog to become a service dog [service animal] whose disabled handler is legally permitted to take the dog into restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, medical offices and other places of public accommodation.

The key to the issue with dogs is knowing which category the dog is in and having the proper documentation to show what category your dog fits in.  Education to the public and business owners is also very important so that there is more tolerance given when situations arise concerning our veterans and their service dogs.

My personal belief is that when in doubt that the veteran should be given the benefit of the doubt.

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