Service and support animals explained

Peacocks on planes. Guide dogs in diners. Therapy horses at hospitals.

Animals that assist people in public have been making news lately — and making airlines, federal regulators and lawmakers take notice. But behind all the hubbub about critters flying free in coach is ample confusion about what roles these animals serve, where they’re allowed and what the laws say.

Here’s a primer on some common misconceptions.

Misconception 1

Service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals are all the same thing.

Service animals have jobs. They’re trained to work or do tasks for people with disabilities, such as alerting deaf people to doorbells, guiding blind people down a sidewalk, pulling a wheelchair or protecting people who have seizures. This category includes psychiatric service animals, which might turn on lights for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Under federal law, service animals are not pets — they’re working animals.

Emotional support animals, which are sometimes called “comfort animals,” provide their owners with companionship, a calming presence or a sense of security. But they are not necessarily trained in basic obedience or to perform tasks related to a person’s disability.

Therapy animals typically have more training than emotional support animals, but they’re trained to interact with lots of people, not to help an individual. They’re often deployed as calming, furry stress-relievers in such places as hospitals, airports and college campuses during finals. They’re also sometimes used in “animal-assisted therapy” to help improve cognitive functioning in nursing home residents or build rapport between therapists and children. But their access to these places depends on prior agreements, not rights under federal law.

Misconception 2

Service animals are always dogs.

Nay. The Americans With Disabilities Act defines service animals as dogs. But it also says miniature horses can meet the test. A small number of miniature horses have been trained to guide blind people, pull wheelchairs or provide balance support. Some are the size of large dogs, and they’re a better match for people who are allergic to or uncomfortable around dogs. The Air Carrier Access Act, which applies to air travel, is more liberal. Regulations say “any animal” can be a service animal, but it allows carriers to nix spiders, snakes and other unusual species.

Misconception 3

Emotional support animals can go anywhere service animals are allowed.

Not at all. Service animals enjoy broad access to public places, transportation and housing, even where pets aren’t allowed. The animals must be under their handler’s control, and they usually must be harnessed or leashed.

Emotional support animals, however, are not covered by the ADA, so no restaurant, subway or store is obligated to let them in. Some exceptions: Federal regulations allow ESAs on planes, but they permit airlines to ask handlers for a letter from a mental-health provider and to reject unusual species. Federal housing law also requires landlords or dorms to let people live with emotional support animals.

Misconception 4

Airlines can demand a letter from a doctor for service animals.

No, airlines can’t require this. Carriers cannot even ask about a passenger’s disability. They can ask only whether the animal is a service animal and what tasks or work it performs.

There’s one exception. Airlines can require people with psychiatric service animals to show documentation from a mental-health professional. That’s because the federal air travel law, unlike the ADA, views psychiatric service animals as akin to emotional support animals. Some service-dog organizations and lawmakers say this is unfair, and they want the regulations changed.

Misconception 5

Real service animals have been certified, registered and professionally trained.

Far from it. There’s no national certification or registry for service animals. Some legitimate training programs offer certificates or ID tags, and plenty of shady websites will “register” a service or support animal for a fee. But these have zero legal significance.

And while many service dogs undergo months of training, it’s not required. Professional training is expensive and lengthy, making it a barrier for some people. So handlers may train their own dogs (or mini horses). What’s important is that the animal is trained to do tasks that help a person with a disability.

Misconception 6

A service animal or emotional support animal vest is a sign of legitimacy.

False. It’s true that many service dogs wear vests or harnesses. It’s one way these trained animals know they’re on the clock, so to speak.

But anyone can purchase a service animal vest — not to mention tags and collars and leashes — online. People with trained service animals say actions, not attire, distinguish the real ones from pets. The former are well-behaved, focused on their handlers and respond to commands or specific situations.

Misconception 7

If you’re sitting next to an emotional support Great Dane on a flight, you’ll just have to suck it up.

You could try to challenge this. Service or emotional support animals are supposed to sit on the floor in front of the handler or on the person’s lap, and they’re not allowed to block aisles or passage.

Federal regulations also allow carriers to turn away animals that are too large or heavy or that present a direct health or safety risk. But airline employees decide these things on a case-by-case basis.

What’s next?

Recent controversy over service and support animals on planes hasn’t gone unheard.

Several airlines have expanded documentation requirements and limited permissible species. A bill in Congress would bar emotional support animals from plane cabins and would make it illegal to misrepresent a pet as a service animal. It would also require the Department of Transportation to create a “standard of service animal behavior training.”

DOT, meanwhile, is reviewing its Air Carrier Access Act regulations. For now, it says it is focused on making sure airlines allow “commonly used” service animals — dogs, cats and miniature horses. But new rules are expected.