Service and emotional support animals make living an independent lifestyle a possibility for many people with disabilities and mental health challenges. 

For people with disabilities, the right to bring a trained service animal out in public is key to living an independent life. 

“When you have a service animal it’s like you are one. When I put my hand on his harness it’s like an extension of my arm,” says Katherine Moore, who is legally blind.

With the help of her service dog she is able to work, commute and live a full life like she did before she lost her sight. The right to have his guidance is invaluable. 

“That’s like putting a value on your freedom. How do you do that? How do you say what your freedom is worth? It’s worth everything,” she says.

The training that goes into a service animal is extensive. Smoky Mountain Service Dogs is one of the few organizations in Tennessee specialized in training service dogs. Their specialty is dogs for wounded veterans. 

“Every dog that we have we will take to Harley Davidson and have them start up the motorcycles. We will take them to the baggage area at the airport. Revolving doors. They have to be so environmentally stable because the intent is for that dog to be able to accompany that veteran wherever he goes,” says Mike Kitchens, chairman of Smoky Mountain Service Dogs. 

There are other animals that do provide comfort to people but don’t fall under the same federal protections. 

“Emotional support animals, these are pets… designated by mental health professionals. They are there to alleviate symptoms of a condition that that person might have,” says Dr. Zenithson Ng with the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. 
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “While Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.” 

“It’s major issue for us because we see it all. We really do. You can Google ‘service dog access’ and you will come up with multiple organizations that for $69.95 we will send you a service dog certification. Well, there is no such thing,” says Kitchens.

There are dozens of websites, where for a fee, they will send you a vest to show your animal is a certified service, emotional support or therapy animal. For some it’s a way to try and bend the law to bring their favorite animal with them in public places. 

“I am a member of the steering committee on human-animal interaction with the AVMA, The American Veterinarian Medical Association. Currently, because of the onslaught of the recent problems that we’ve had, we are discussing with the authorities about how to safely govern these sorts of regulations,” says Dr. Ng. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act is quick to point out there is no national registry for any service, emotional support or therapy animal.    

“We are so lucky in this society to have this term of emotional support animal and that we really should designate that for the people who need them and the animals that are well behaved in public settings. So when people are taking advantage of the system that’s really hard, it’s disappointing,” says Dr. Ng. 

If you are a business owner or worker you can ask only these two questions if you have concerns about an animal in your business.

1. Is the animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
The ADA goes on to say:

“These questions should not be asked, however, if the animal’s service tasks are obvious. For example, the questions may not be asked if the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision, pulling a person’s wheelchair, or providing assistance with stability or balance to an individual with an observable mobility disability. A public accommodation or facility is not allowed to ask for documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal. Local laws that prohibit specific breeds of dogs do not apply to service animals.”

The same rules don’t apply for emotional and therapy animals according to the ADA

“Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.”

The rules are different for air travel. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to travel with their companions on flights in the cabin. However, the rules are tightening regarding emotional support animals after a number of newsworthy incidents. “Emotional support and psychiatric service animals – Individuals who travel with emotional support animals or psychiatric service animals may need to provide specific documentation to establish that they have a disability and the reason the animal must travel with them.

Individuals who wish to travel with their emotional support or psychiatric animals should contact the airline ahead of time to find out what kind of documentation is required,” according to the ADA. It is recommended that you check your airline’s guidelines before attempting to bring an animal of any kind on your flight. 

The Fair Housing Act’s protection against disability discrimination and also gives some provisions to people with service and emotional support animals.