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Debunking Common Myths about ESA and Service Dogs

Service animals are becoming a more common sight in society. Many people benefit from service animals for both practical and therapeutic reasons. For those who suffer from a range of debilitating conditions, service animals can help restore quality of life and provide peace of mind to those who use them. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of those who use service animals, and as a result of federal regulations, service animals are more accepted now than ever before.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still myths, misconceptions, and inaccuracies present when it comes to service animals, the regulations that govern their usage, and the people who benefit from their service. Whether you have a service dog who performs specific tasks for you or an Emotional Support Dog (ESA dog) whose presence helps to mitigate the effects of psychological or emotional issues, you may encounter some of the following myths as you navigate the world with a service animal. Read on to learn more about some of the most common misconceptions pertaining to service animals and the best ways to debunk them.

Myth 1: All Service Animals Are the Same

While it may be convenient to lump all service animals into one category, they actually fall into three distinct categories that are determined by the type of service they provide to their owners. Service dogs are canines that receive special training to perform tasks that their owners may not be able to complete themselves due to a specific disability. Emotional support animals (ESA) aren’t trained to perform tasks but are instrumental in helping those who suffer from emotional and psychological conditions function in society. While not considered service dogs, ESAs can be legitimized with a letter from a licensed health care provider and ESA registration. Therapy dogs represent yet another class of service animal. They are similar to ESAs in the function they fulfill. However, instead of being assigned to a single owner, they are often used in group settings so that their benefits can be enjoyed by many people rather than a single owner.

Myth 2: Anyone Can Get an ESA

While it may be true that anyone can have a pet that brings emotional support and psychological benefits, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog or other animal qualifies as an ESA. For a pet to truly be formally considered as an ESA, a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychotherapist, psychiatrist, or licensed mental health social worker must determine that an ESA will benefit you. Once the determination is made, the care provider issues a letter to legitimize your ESA. Those letters must be renewed each year to remain valid.

Myth 3: Only Service Dog Owners are Protected from Discrimination

Numerous pieces of legislation protect the rights of those who must use ESAs from being barred from public transportation, housing opportunities, and public facilities. For example, the Air Carriers Access Act protects the rights of ESA owners to take their animals on planes provided they have the proper documentation and meet a few requirements. Not only are air carriers required to allow an emotional support dog on a flight, but there is no charge for the animal.

Housing is likewise protected for those with ESAs by the Fair Housing Act, as landlords can’t discriminate against those with emotional support dogs and can’t charge additional fees for the animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of disability and are required to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled. Those clauses extend to those who use ESAs, and employers can’t use emotional support animals as a reason to discriminate against job candidates or employees. However, hotels and restaurants aren’t required to grant access to those with emotional support dogs, though they are required to do so with service dogs.

Myth 4: ESA Dog Rules Vary by State

Service dog and ESA rules aren’t set at the state level but are instead governed by federal law. While there may be state regulations in place that augment or enhance access for those who use service animals and ESAs, the core rights of those who use both categories of animals are protected at the federal level by legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carriers Access Act.

If you think you could benefit from the use of a service animal or ESA, consider these myths when making an informed decision. To learn more about misconceptions surrounding service animals, visit the National Service Animal Registry.