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Do emotional support animals delegitimize working service dogs?

Almost anyone who knows or owns a dog can attest that dogs bring happiness. Even merely watching videos of cute dogs can reduce stress levels. It is no wonder having a dog as an Emotional Support Animal is gaining popularity.

However, ESA’s have different standards than working service dogs, and some public spaces are hesitant about welcoming any service dogs for fear they are not legitimate.

According to the National Service Animal Registry, an ESA dog is not considered a “working service dog.” The purpose of an ESA is to enable a handler to function normally on a day-to-day basis and does not require specific training. In fact, most ESA dogs can simply be registered online.

ESA’s are allowed to accompany their owners on public transportation and are permitted to live in housing that otherwise prohibits pets. Restaurants and other public places are not required to accommodate ESA’s.

On the other hand, working service dogs provide necessary services for their handlers. These services include guiding the blind, working as a hearing aid, medical assistance, mobility assistance, and psychiatric assistance.

While ESA dogs provide basic emotional comfort, working service dogs for psychiatric assistance help people whose mental disabilities, such as PTSD or schizophrenia, keep them from performing major life tasks. A licensed therapist or psychiatrist must write a letter for a dog to register as a psychiatric assistant.

Working service dogs undergo extensive training to perform their tasks. Service dogs are required to be allowed anywhere their handler is. Non-compliance in permitting entrance to a service dog can result in hefty fees from $55,000-$100,000.

The possibility of being fined makes many business owners weary of asking questions regarding ESA and working service dogs. If someone brings their untrained ESA into a public space and that dog misbehaves, it causes potential conflict and discrimination against working service dogs that may enter that public space in the future.

Parisa Amirpour, a senior English and biochemistry double major at UMBC, states, “service animals serve to alleviate the extra stress that people with physical impairments struggle with. Emotional support animals serve the same purpose but rather for mental disabilities. One form of disability shouldn’t take high priority over another.”

Just as one disability should not take priority over the other, one type of service dog should not require less training than the other. Consider if an untrained ESA and a working service dog were both to accompany their handlers to a restaurant. The working service dog will be trained to lie beneath its owner’s chair quietly. An ESA is more prone to engaging in mischievous behaviors, such as begging for scraps or disrupting other guests.

Dylan Schwabe, a senior psychology major at UMBC, supports ESA’s being permitted in the same public spaces as working service dogs on the premise that, “every little bit helps when you struggle with anxiety or depressive disorders and anything that you can do that does not hurt other people or their rights should be doable.”

An ESA who has not had behavioral training could cause harm to other people and service animals. Emotional disabilities are as legitimate as physical handicaps, so dogs who are assisting mentally impaired people should be required to undergo training just as dogs who service physically impaired people.