Staff of Service Dog Trainers

This blog post was written by Erin Purgason, Founder and Owner of Highland Canine Service Dogs. In this article, Erin outlines the difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs – and why a wider understanding of this is vital for those who really need service dogs. 

Let’s face it – the majority of pet owners love their dogs to the moon and back. Dogs have become family members, and for some people, dogs have replaced having human children. There has been a significant shift in dog-friendly areas over the last twenty years, making it possible to take your dog with you almost anywhere.

… But here is where the “almost” in that last sentence gets tricky.

Some dog owners have unfortunately begun abusing the power that a trained service dog has to go into most public places with their handlers (with the exception of needing permission in places of worship and schools).

A recent publication from the Department of Transportation proposes that airlines will no longer need to recognize emotional support animals (ESAs) – in part due to pet owners who have fraudulent ESA credentials. In some cases, the unruly behavior of these ESAs has led to the endangerment of passengers, cabin crew and even those traveling with legitimate service animals.

human and dog holding hand

The stresses of modern life

Many of us would say that we live a fast-paced life, filled with information overload due to the internet and social media channels. Quite often, we run on anxiety, insomnia, and chaos. Whether you are running your household, starting your own business or building a career, the constant multi-tasking of everyday life can be quite overwhelming.

When I get home, I can’t wait to see those cute faces anxiously waiting for me at the front door, with nothing but love and attention to give to me. Instantly, I feel so much better, loved unconditionally by the precious creatures running excitedly around as if they have been anxiously awaiting my arrival all day.

I understand the comfort that dogs can bring. In fact, research in Australia has proven that when you are truly bonded with your dog, your heart rhythms can actually beat in sync.

But does that mean I need to take my dog everywhere with me, simply because it makes me feel better? I am an able-bodied person with high stress levels, but I am not disabled by any means.

So where do you draw the line?

Defining a service animal and an emotional support animal

The key to understanding the differences between these types of dogs is studying the definitions of each.

  • A service animal is a highly trained, socialized animal that performs multiple tasks for one person. Service animals are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

  • An emotional support animal simply provides comfort through companionship. Emotional support animals are not covered under the ADA and there is no required training or socialization.

There is no doubt about the strong bond between humans and dogs, and the benefits which arise from dogs providing comfort and emotional support.

The problem arises from poor judgment of some owners, which leads to a community nuisance and possible endangerment of people and other animals when there is no oversight for behavior.

Service Dog Candidate Selection

Our job in the canine community

For those of us in the canine community, it is our job to educate the public. We need to host free evaluations to prevent people getting bit by undersocialized or untrained dogs. The media is awash with stories of members of the public suffering bites from emotional support animals. This is unacceptable.

We need to report websites which allow you to register your dog as a service dog for a fee, but with no proof of training. They will also provide a vest if needed. This, in my opinion, is a total scam to take your money. From a liability standpoint, if your registered service dog bites someone, these companies will not back you up in court.

There are days where I want to be selfish and take one of my pets with me everywhere I go. But then I remember the stories behind the fully-trained service dogs my staff and I have delivered over the years.

When you have met people who suffer from horrific seizures, have lost limbs while serving in the military, have been mutilated by a shark, have been in a terrible car wreck, have a degenerative disease that bounds them to a wheelchair, or have autism and struggle every day to interact in the world, and countless others – you understand how shallow it is to lie about your own dog and situation.

When you see the pain and torment these families go through – trying to find a magic wand to improve their lives – you understand how selfish it is to strap a service dog vest on your pet dog.

As a canine community – and to all dog owners across the nation – let’s come together. We should not, and cannot, ruin this for the people who truly require and deserve a fully-trained service dog.

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