You Want A Service Animal?

I’m a little slow, I guess. It took me a long time to reconcile that there are many, many dog aficionados, yet relatively few have a deep and abiding love for dog training.

Many of the people that urban dog trainers work with are very, very busy and have difficulty integrating dog training into the flow of their daily lives. It seems to be especially challenging to, in an organic manner, put it all together in the face of competing life activities. Understandable. Most of my clients are New Yorkers.

Many of the New Yorkers we speak to about Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals are additionally challenged by physiological and/or psychiatric issues – their impairments make activities (like getting dressed, walking or doing laundry) difficult or impossible without assistance. Hence, the interest in securing support d’animal – an Emotional Support Animal or a Service Animal.

Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals are defined in numerous online sources, but for our purposes, I’ll quote Wikipedia, here:

In part, “An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of the disability, to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act definition of a service animal: “Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” See this excellent document:

Bald person’s note: A miniature horse can also be a Service animal. For some reason, these are not as popular as dogs in our urban centers. Go figure.

In the perfect world of my imagination (won’t you join me?) we’d all have wonderful, well balanced and trained dogs that would be welcome, in places of public accommodation. Folks around us wouldn’t have phobias, allergies, and children (and their adults) wouldn’t be conditioned to jump off sidewalks and scream in the presence of dogs. and, everyone would ask permission before they’d seek audience with any wundercane, especially if they also have a dog. Alas, this is not the time and space for my fantasies.

Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, text messages and phone  calls about emotional support animals and service animals are popular around here. Of late, many people have shared that they’d like to discuss the option of living with an ESA. Often the inquiry is from a person diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder – this makes perfect sense, as being in close proximity, petting or other physical interactions can be beneficial. At present, Federal guidelines pertaining to ESAs impose no particular training requirement on handlers of ESAs. The Air Carrier Access Act hasn’t addressed specific behavioral training requirements for emotional support animals, but airlines can and sometimes do take steps to remove disruptive animals from commercial flights. The writing is and has been on the wall, for many years that being a member of a protected class is not carte blanche armor against misbehaving ESAs and Service Animals. No federal, state or local civil rights law that I’m aware of relieves a handler of their responsibility to manage their dog’s behavior.

I’m very happy to support disabled people in their desires to partner with ESAs and Service Animals, wherever possible. However, I am required to inform prospective clients that trained dogs without handlers who ar going to diligently maintain such training will be unreliable and may develop undesirable habits, especially where their handlers are not conscientiously striving to maintain their dog’s healthy work ethic. This is especially important with task trained Service Animals. I think it important for dogs, generally. When a dog’s training is neglected, it is only a matter of time before reliability falters.

It is common for disabled callers to be unclear about the difference between ESAs and Service Animals. Often, there’s a desire for a dog that’s appropriate for a dog that benefits a person with a psychiatric diagnosis, but there’s no interest in a dog that would be taken into public accommodations (stores, restaurants, public venues, etc). This is the realm of the ESA. When people want an ESA, yet they want to have such an animal available at their medical appointments and at BINGO in their local community center, we have a situation. Some state of local protections may provide a disabled person with access with their ESA, but Federal law does not currently provide such protection – a person with a qualifying disability can have an ESA in their housing and during air travel.

One current client is a disabled person with an emotional support animal. It saddens me that this animal is not yet appropriately house trained (and has developed the unenviable habit of ONLY toileting indoors. The dog’s handler is somewhat obstreperous and, is insistent that it is appropriate to take the 50+ into public accommodations. The dog’s indoor elimination habits and lack of basic obedience training are frequently discussed. It seems that there are a number of places that have asked this client to not return with this unruly and poorly trained dog. This same client has medical documentation (from multiple licensed healthcare providers asserting disability and that there would be a benefit from both an emotional support animal, and a service animal. Said client has elects to believe that these letters provide sufficient protections for the choices being made.

This is not indicative of the reasoning or choices that most of my valued clients make. Most are responsible and don’t typically run afoul of the rules. When the question surfaces, “How do I keep my emotional support animal with me, when I go to medical appointments and other places, where emotional support animals are not allowed?” I always refer back to members of their healthcare support team. These professionals are positioned to give informed feedback about possible ways that a dog may be useful in mitigating a person’s disabilities. Where a healthcare professional is not knowledgeable about dog interventions, I suggest that we set up a time for their medical support person, the client, and I can meet and brainstorm. My client can provide written consent to my participation in such a conversation involving protected healthcare information. This type of dialog is usually helpful to the medical provider and may lead to a gear shift from an emotional support animal towards partnering with a service animal.



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