Service Animals and Support Animals

Service Animals and Support Animals


After the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, a local bookstore owner found that many people came into the shop to pet the store dog. They’d spend long minutes petting and talking to the dog, take a quick turn around the store to look at books, and leave feeling better. The dog was helping the visitors to feel better after the shock of the event, but he wasn’t a specially trained animal. In fact, unless he was just closing his eyes to concentrate better on providing emotional support, he was asleep through most of the important work he did that day.

You might call him an Emotional Support Animal.

The number of animals providing this kind of service seems to be increasing, and the owners of these animals are demanding the same kind of treatment for their Support Animals as Service Animals receive. What’s the difference?

You probably know a service animal when you see one. The dog in a harness helping a blind person cross the street? That’s a service animal. Psychiatric service animals are, like service animals trained to help people with physical disabilities, specifically trained to perform specific tasks that are not natural tasks done by these animals.

For example, a psychiatric support animal could help someone who gets disoriented by panic attacks to find his way home on command. Such an animal might be trained to recognize when her owner begins pulling out her hair or eyelashes, and help redirect the owner to groom the animal instead. They might be trained to wake someone who uses strong sleeping medications when they hear a fire alarm, or to search a room for someone with PTSD.

That’s very different from emotional support animals.

These are animals that have no special training, and may have no training at all. They don’t perform any special tasks. They behave like ordinary pets. In the eyes of the Department of Justice, they don’t have special standing unless a particular state or city has passed a special law on the subject.

There are organizations that register emotional support animals and provide legit-looking IDs that may convince business staff to let you bring your animal into their establishment. One of the most popular is the National Service Animal Registry.

The NSAR is a for-profit business. Your first step with them is to check a box affirming that you have a psychological disorder. They helpfully list some examples, and they provide this paragraph for guidance:

The ADA defines “emotional/psychological disability” very broadly and does not limit the type of disability for which an emotional support animal can be used. The essence of the law states that if you have any emotional or psychological condition that prevents you from performing normally on a day to day basis, then you are qualified.

Next step is to check a box saying that your animal is well-controlled in public, as evidences by its ability to sit when told, come when called, and similar common behaviors. You must also confirm that your animal is not aggressive “when unprovoked.” You can define “provoked” for yourself.

Having checked those boxes, you pay $64.95 (plus additional fees for any other merchandise you might like to add), and you have a support animal.

In 2011, according to the New Yorker, the National Service Animal Registry signed up 2,400 emotional-support animals. In 2014, it signed up 11,000.

One of the results of this surge in the number of Emotional Support Animals is a backlash against service animals. The hostess at a restaurant who has had bad experiences with ESAs may begin to turn away service animals. Other diners may complain about service animals because they’ve grown understandably confused about the difference between service and support animals.

It’s time to remind people about that difference.

“People” in this case might include ourselves. It’s wonderful if your pet can provide you with emotional support. It’s not the same as having a service animal.