November tends to be a hard month for me. Between day light savings time, the changing weather, and NaNoWriMo, I frequently end up feeling a bit worse overall. This is where my emotional support dog, Princess Buttercup Puppers III, helps a lot. She can help calm me down when I’m feeling overstimulated, be a companion when I’m hurting, and help brighten my day with her presence. This prompted a discussion with my child about service animals and why I don’t have one, along with what my dog being an emotional support animal actually means. I realized there are a lot of myths and misinformation about service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals and how they differ so I looked at some of the most common myths around service animals and emotional support animals and explain the truth behind the myth.
1) Service animals must wear a vest
It’s incredibly common to see animals with vests acting as service animals these days. Some of that is people trying to pass off pets as service animals so they can take them everywhere. Some of that is legitimate service animal owners trying to show that their animals are at work when they go out, so random people don’t distract or pet their service animal. But legally, a service animal doesn’t need to wear a vest to show they are a service animal. This is just a shorthand for the community to show that a dog is working and helps others know what to expect. It’s not a requirement, but it is a helpful tool. This tool is becoming less useful now as people who are putting their pets in vests and taking them out everywhere. It lumps in the service dogs with people trying to abuse rules for their own convenience.
2) Service dogs don’t bark
While service dogs are incredibly well mannered because of their training, many service dogs are trained to bark as part of the service they provide. Some dogs bark when their diabetic owner has blood sugar changes. Other service dogs are trained to bark to alert people around their owner to a medical emergency happening with their owner. While service dogs don’t normally bark without cause when they are working, barking can be an important part of their job as a service animal.
3) Only Dogs Can Be Service Animals
This is a myth I’ve been seeing as people wonder why cats can’t be service animals. Many people will respond that it can only be dogs because only they can get that level of training. While this is partially true, another animal can reach the level of training. Service horses exist but are significantly less common because of the cost of horses and the upkeep of the animal. With many disabled people struggling to afford a service dog or to cover their myriad of other medical expenses, it becomes clear why we really see dogs at the center of the conversation. They are more workable and accessible for most disabled people, so they become the focus as horses just aren’t within many people’s means.
4) Service dogs and emotional support animals must be certified or registered
There is no magic list for emotional support animals or service dogs. Odds are that if you run into a program that will register your animal as a support animal is likely just trying to make money off of you. There is no official service animal vest you need to get. There is no card or certificate you show off. For an emotional support animal, you need to have a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that such an animal provides emotional support. Usually, this is best to get through a family doctor or psychiatrist. This letter will grant you some protections under law but it also doesn’t extend as far as people think (more on that in another point).
For a service dog, there are two questions that businesses can ask you that, as long as there are satisfactory answers, clarify that your dog is okay with being there. These questions are “Do you have a disability that necessitates the service animal?” which is often assumed to be yes by bringing your pet in and the second shows the training the service animal has and the need that the animal fulfills, “What job or task does your service animal provide?”. For that question, they can ask for a demonstration of the ability under some circumstances. This should address most concerns for business owners, though business owners can remove service animals that pose a health risk (like not being allowed in an operating room) or if their behavior isn’t in line with where their training should be. If a service animal is posing a threat or destroying the property around them, then they may be removed. It’s a factor in why there is no formal paperwork as the animal acting as a service animal for you will show with their behavior and with your answer to the questions above whether they are legitimately a service animal. And as a person with an emotional support animal who has looked into getting a service animal, I know I can spot the difference between a real service animal and a service animal that someone certified online without doing the training.
5) Service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals are all the same thing
This is profoundly false. Each of these types of animals has distinct purposes and rights that go with each designation.
A service animal is an animal trained to help a disabled person to function better. A common example is a guide dog. This animal helps a disabled person have a sense of what is happening in the world around them when they can’t see and makes it possible for a disabled person to exist more independently in society.
A therapy animal is an animal trained for therapeutic purposes that usually serve multiple people. This might be the dog that is brought onto a college campus during finals week to help stressed out students get through finals. They serve a therapeutic purpose for multiple people and not a particular individual. They also know techniques that can act therapeutically, like being able to put weight on someone to help calm them down.
An emotional support animal is a pet with some extra protections. They rarely have any special training and aren’t allowed in most public spaces. Many people try to use an emotional support animal like a service animal and take their animal everywhere. However, businesses don’t need to allow your emotional support animal in and your letter from your doctor won’t mean a lot to most places.
Because people misunderstand that these are 3 different tiers for disabled users to get help from animals, many people try to take the rights and protections of service animals and therapy animals and apply them to their pets, which just hurts everyone. It’s created a lot of skepticism for people who need service animals and made the public look negatively on those animals because people try to pass off their pet as a service animal because they confuse emotional support animals and service animals.
6) Businesses Can’t Ask About Service Animals
I already outlined the two questions that businesses can and often ask of service animals. This has become a requirement for many businesses because people believe they can’t be asked about their service animals and so they push back with those responses when the pet they are trying to pass off as a service animal gets asked about. While you don’t need to go into your full medical history to answer those two questions, businesses may ask those questions and may refuse your animal if you can’t appropriately answer those questions. Be prepared to answer those questions and keep your answers to what will appropriately satisfy those questions.
7) Emotional Support Animals Can Go Anywhere
This is one of those myths that has been fueled by companies that sell emotional support animal registration and vests. When people pay those companies and get a vest for their emotional support animal, they feel it becomes permission to use them as a service animal. This is not the case. The two areas where emotional support animals differ from your average pet are in public transportation and in renting. You can have an emotional support animal in normally pet free apartments and without paying pet rent. However, you are still responsible for any damages. Along with that, your pet may travel on an airline without having to pay a fee. With a lot of the rule abuse around service animals, many emotional support animals will need to ride with the cargo, but the airline should waive the fees with those protections. This is an important misconception as the more confusion there is with emotional support animals and what actually is legally protected, the more bizarre expectations people have from both service animals and emotional support animals, which create situations that make things worse for everyone.
8) Service Dog Owners Need a Doctor’s Note
This myth stems from a lot of the confusion people have between service animals and emotional support animals. Many businesses have become used to seeing a doctor’s note showing that a person needs the service dog because we have people who don’t understand the rules of pushing to get their pets allowed in public spaces because they provide emotional support. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the questions, “Do you have a disability this animal assists with?” and “What job or task does this animal perform to help with your disability” become the only proper questions businesses are legally allowed to ask. Service dogs don’t come with certificates or doctor’s notes but because people bought their emotional support animal certificates online and then pushed that the certificate made their animal accepted, there has been a lot of confusion around the rules. Some businesses will ask for things that aren’t covered in the law because of experience with people pushing their purchased paperwork as the right way and a person who actually depends on and understands the laws hasn’t come up to challenge these notions. Until as a society we can get clear on what the requirements actually are for service animals and the rights for emotional support animals, we will continue to have these myths causing problems.
9) Anyone Can Get An Emotional Support Animal
Certification sites for service animals, and emotional support animals strike again for this myth. With many sites having a simple paid process to register your pet as a service animal, people believe anyone can easily get an emotional support animal. I know for my particular case; I got a letter from my psychiatrist about the recommendation for an emotional support animal to take to my landlord because she believed it would support my mental health and physical health. Some friends have had their family doctors who oversaw conditions like ADHD and depression write the letter for their emotional support animal. Regardless of which provider writes the letter, a doctor needs to sign off on an emotional support animal and recognize that they would benefit your life. These protections should protect the rights of vulnerable people whose only companionship may be those animals so they don’t have to lose them just because they move into an apartment that doesn’t allow pets or they move across the country and can’t afford to take their animal with them. For me, when I was given my letter, I was also told about certain traits and breeds I should look at for my emotional support animal. I have a rat terrier because my psychiatrist recommended me to rescue an adult house trained poodle or terrier. She recommended me a dog with decent intelligence to encourage me to get out of the house more often (talking my dog on a walk) and to be trainable for therapeutic techniques. But like a diet change or exercise routine, the responsibility for the dog was ultimately up to me. She is a pet with some extra legal protections that help me live better. But just like many of my medications, I earn those protections through working with a health care provider on a health plan meant for me. And like medication, an emotional support animal isn’t a good fit for every person. It’s why it’s important to have that conversation with your doctor, who helps with your mental health, to determine if it is right for you and your life.
These are some myths I came across about emotional support animals and service animals. Were there any myths that surprised you? Are there any myths I missed? Do you agree about the confusion between emotional support animals and service animals hurting us all? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.