Service vs. Emotional Support Animals

The confrontation happened just days after I had to retire my second guide dog in 2005 when I lived in Santa Barbara, California. I was riding the city bus from my home to teach computers at our local affiliate of Braille Institute. The driver’s voice jerked me from a brief nap, but he wasn’t announcing my stop.

It turned out that he was locked in a heated argument with a passenger who wanted to bring her little dog on the ride. Now, the riders’ guide for local transportation made it clear that only service dogs could accompany a passenger.That passenger claimed she needed the dog to help her stay calm around loud noises. Ironic? I thought so. The driver saw no markings, harness or leash indicating that her pet was trained to perform a specific task for someone who’s physically or psychologically disabled.

After turning the woman away, the bus driver asked me if he’d handled it well and I let him know his back-and-forth dispute made sense but it wasn’t needed. I still had my card from Guide Dogs of America listing a number of Federal and California laws pertaining to what a service animal is. Showing that information with the driver helped him be further informed.

Seventeen years later, the emotional support animal movement has gained some social traction. After all, who doesn’t benefit from that cute face and set of four furry paws sitting nearby. Dogs are called man’s best friends for a very good reason. But, anyone can have such a service animal and many are not even trained for performing a given task that compensates for some degree of loss or limitation.

That is the first major contrast between service animals and emotional support animals. While neither need registered with the local City Hall, the definition and responsibilities distinguish whether a dog can accompany someone in public places like restaurants or movie theaters or airplanes.

Service animals-guide dogs, hearing ear dogs, wheelchair assistance dogs-undergo several rigorous months of training to gain the skills necessary for being of help to their handlers. Watch two videos and you will get a glimpse at the work guide dogs do prior to being matched with their blind or visually impaired teammate.

And check out this one.

On the other hand emotional service dogs don’t receive such specific training at all. Instead, they are little more than well-behaved darlings who’ve gone through basic obedience classes and have a calming demeanor. A person in need of one gains more of an understanding of how to react to the dog’s reactive cues. After all, when someone triggered by an anxious thought or acted-upon fear, the dog will exude a predictable behavior. The trick is for the person to coordinate his or her responses to the dog’s reactions.

That’s much different than the discipline that guide dog must learn in order to make those street crossings while keeping his person walking in a straight line. He’s got to have the self-control so as not to morph into a vacuum cleaner when leading the way through a food court. And though many people out in public love dogs’ cuteness and want to pet them, they rightly get embarrassed or grossed out if a dog of any kind excessive licking, loud barking, relieving themselves while wearing the harness, or becoming aggressive in public.

Yes, perception matters as it should. Handler and trained service dog are a team functioning as one single unit. Emotional support animals, however, vary in their individual relationships with their caregiver. Since they are primarily present to support someone’s emotional needs, their actions may give mixed messages to bystanders watching them. Service animals, by the very nature of their harnesses and leashes convey the fact that their handlers call the shots.

That’s why, for instance, I always emphasized with people that met Lali that he was a guide dog, not a guard dog. His job was taking me where I commanded him to lead, not get all nasty at the first impulse of danger. In fact, if a guide dog does feel danger in the air, his learned reaction is to back his handler away from harm as best as possible. Of course, perceptions to the contrary do arise. Many cab drivers are still fearful of transporting a service animal due to the fear of messing up their car’s back seat. In those instances, what ought we handlers do? Call the cab companies and advocate for our rights. That’s true for any access problems we who work service animals experience. If difficulties with a certain driver or company exist, we do well to follow the proper channels of complaint as far as we need in order to gain equal rights when traveling with our guides.

How can we who are also blind but do not handle guide dogs help? Every State has laws in places according to the Americans With Disabilities Act designed for the protection of service animals rights and privileges. Rather than see ourselves as different or more independent than guide dog handlers, we do well to advocate alongside them. That’s why Guide Dog Users Inc. is open for anyone having an interest in supporting the public use of service animals. Check it out. There you will find the association of schools for training guide dogs and matching them with their people. Podcasts on the website inform you about anything from vet care to new laws that arise due to some trends or challenges  in society.

While emotional support animals do serve as comfort and calm for their owners, they remain pets acting according to their natural disposition. Service animals, however, are trained to meet specific needs experienced by their handlers due to a specific disability.

Sure, when out of harness, guide dogs are as much dog as the next yellow lab over, especially as they rest after a day’s work. Yet, the playing, snoozing, and friendship they provide complement the loyal service they give while working.

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