Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

In addition to medical marijuana evaluations, San Diego Evaluations offers evaluations for the use of a service dog and emotional support animals.

What is a service dog?

A service dog can be looked at as a living, breathing assistance device for someone with a disability. Service dogs are sometimes compared to wheelchairs in their ability to help their disabled partners live more independent lives. Since service dogs are not primarily kept for companionship, they are not considered pets.

The Americans with Disabilities Act essentially requires three things for an dog to be a service dog. - First, the person helped must have a life-limiting disability. - Second, the dog must be trained to recognize and respond to the handler’s disability by doing either work or tasks. - Third, the animal must not cause a disruption in public, otherwise the animal can be legally excluded. Service dogs must be both housebroken and leashed (except when the dog needs to be off-leash to provide disability-related work or tasks).

In July of 2015, the Department of Justice released an excellent nine-page FAQ document about service animals and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). DOJ Service Dogs FAQ July 2015 Revised:

What does the Americans with Disabilities Act say about the use of service dogs?

Service dogs are generally allowed with their disabled users wherever the general public is allowed. This includes grocery stores, theaters, restaurants, non-sterile hospital areas, and public transportation. In addition to these rights, service dog handlers have the responsibility to make sure their service dogs are housebroken and otherwise under control.

Service dogs are not considered the same as pets. A service dog user cannot be charged extra fees to engage in an activity any other individual without a pet would not be charged for (assuming the service dog does not somehow cause property damage).

What is an emotional support animal?

Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their owner, to legally be considered an emotional support dog, the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. After an evaluation, it must be determined that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety or give him a focus in life.

Emotional Support Dog vs. Service Dogs

Service animals can only be dogs, but ESAs can be any common domestic animal including dogs, cats, or ferrets, and more. To qualify, the animal must be reasonably well behaved by typical pet standards, such as being toilet trained, and can’t be a nuisance or danger to others.

Although ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias, they are not service dogs and do not have the same rights. While a service dog, such as a guide dog, is generally allowed anywhere the public is allowed, ESAs are not. So they cannot accompany their owners into restaurants or shopping malls, for example. The key difference between a service dog and an ESA is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, alerting a hearing-impaired person to an alarm or guiding a visually impaired person around an obstacle are jobs performed by service dogs.

Although they are not service dogs, ESAs do have certain rights in terms of housing and air travel. The Fair Housing Act includes ESAs in its definition of assistance animals. Under the act, people cannot be discriminated against due to a disability when obtaining housing. Therefore, rules such as no pets, species bans, or pet-size limitations do not apply to people who have a prescription for an ESA, and they cannot be charged a pet deposit for having their ESA live with them.

The Air Carrier Access Act allows service animals and ESAs to accompany their handler in the cabin of an aircraft. The airline might require specific documentation so if you intend to travel with an ESA, contact the airline ahead of time to ensure you can provide the appropriate paperwork.

ESAs perform a critical role in the life of a person with a disability. It is important to realize that attempting to take advantage of the category so your dog can fly with you or live in no-pet housing is an abuse of the system and makes it harder for people with a legitimate need. On the other hand, if you are legally disabled, limited in at least one area of your life, and you believe a dog or other pet would provide you with mental health benefits, give us a call and we would be happy to set up an appointment for an evaluation you can reach us on 858-215-0039.