Service, Emotional Support, PTSD, Therapy Dogs: What’s the Difference?

Three calls from last week went like this:"Where can I buy a vest so I can take my dog places?" (And by "places," she meant anywhere she wanted.) "I want my dog to be a therapy dog so he can fly on the plane with me when I go on trips." I started explaining the differences in therapy and service animals to a third caller. I said, "And then there is an Emotional Support animal," at which point she said, "I know all about that. Those are PTSD dogs and I haven't been in a war."

Here are some clarifications related to service animals. The information below on service dogs and ESAs (Emotional Support Dogs or animals) can be found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Canine Good Citizen

CGC gives a dog (or the handler/owner) no special access privileges. CGC is a test of good manners. Find a dog trainer near your location and take the Canine Good Citizen test for your dog. While passing the CGC test is a prerequisite for many therapy dog organizations, CGC is not a therapy dog test.

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs (along with their owner/handlers) have no special access privileges in public places. These are dogs that with their human teammate (usually the dog’s owner) volunteer in settings such as hospitals, assisted living schools, etc. to help other people.

Service Dogs

Service dogs have full public access rights. Actually, to be technically correct, the rights are given to the person -- the service dog user who has a disability. If the dog were being handled by a non-diabled person, public access rights don’t apply. Service dogs are dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service dogs have specialized training. Examples include guiding people who are blind or alerting a person who is deaf to a sound.

PTSD dogs are service dogs. There is a category of service dog that is gaining a lot of attention and that is the PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) dogs who are working with people with PTSD.  PTSD can result with any major trauma; this is not only military veterans as the caller above thought. PTSD can be the result of war, rape, witnessing a violent crime, being the victim of  a violent crime or abuse, etc.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

ESAs do what their title suggests. They give emotional support in the way of comfort, the ability to calm the person, and to provide company. ESA's do not have full public access rights. They have only two legal protections which are

  1. to fly with a person who has an emotional or psychological disability, and
  2. to qualify for no-pet housing.

Airlines and housing authorities may request a letter from a physician or mental health professional that prescribes the ESA for a specific mental disability that limits one or more life activities.

The guidelines for ESAs have become more restrictive because so many people abused the ESA category by alleging their pet dogs were service dogs. As time goes on, an increasing number of agencies are requiring letters from a doctor or mental health professional stating that the person with an Emotional Support dog has a diagnosis.

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