A lot of people with disabilities rely on their dogs for support. However, the support they require can be very different. To accommodate those differences, the laws define two types of therapeutic animals for personal assistance: service dogs and emotional support animals. Service dogs have to complete minimum of 120 hours of costly training that proves they behave well in public and fulfill a specific medical purpose, whereas ESAs are not forced to receive training. Because of their different training and role, emotional support animals and service dogs have different rights — ESAs are protected only for the purposes of housing and air travel while service dogs also have public access. Unfortunately, this system is frequently abused: people fake their disabilities to get ESAs, or they illegally bring ESAs to public places. As a result, the general public and legitimate owners of service animals are suffering the consequences.
In order to qualify for an ESA, a person needs to receive a letter from a licensed professional outlining the owner’s disability and the therapeutic purpose of the animal. However, there is a loophole in the law: one does not have to visit a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist in person to get the letter. On top of that, many online businesses recruit a number of licensed mental health professionals who issue ESA letters without even seeing a patient in person. For every letter a patient pays a fee, around $120, which means that the company’s licensed psychologists have all the incentives to approve as many requests as possible. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that those professionals will not be liable if an untrained ESA goes to someone who does not need it since providing the accurate information is legally the sole responsibility of a client. The ease in playing the system has led to an abundance of ESAs — a problem that is causing the public a great deal of trouble.
Many people are actually breaking the law by bringing their ESA to public places. By pretending that they have a service dog rather than an ESA, they assert the right to have bring the animals into nearly any public place. There are numerous problems with permitting this though. First and foremost, untrained animals, ESAs or otherwise, in public places endanger and disturb people. They might jump on people, steal food in a restaurant, or break property. In addition, untrained dogs are health and safety hazards since their waste might contaminate food and other wares. An ESA’s presence in public places also puts service dogs in danger. Many Service Dogs owners have complained that ESAs attacked their service dogs, and some even say that their service dogs could not serve them in public since then.
The fallout from so many illegitimate claims for ESA protections is eroding the rights of those ESA owners who actually have a history of mental disability. One by one, landlords and air carriers, such as Delta and Alaska Airlines, are tightening their regulations, asking for additional proof. The process for proving the need for a service animal is becoming especially convoluted and draining, especially for those who find it hard to talk about their disorders outside of their mental professional office. However, such changes are understandable – there are many problems associated with transporting a zoo on every domestic flight. But the solution is not to restrict accessibility of service dogs for people who actually need them.
In brief, the system protecting the rights of the therapeutic dogs had crumbled under numerous abuses. Even though it will take a long time to change the laws regarding the animals, something can be done now. It is a responsibility of every student not to break the law by getting an ESA letter without having a disability or by bringing their dog in a public place. It is also our responsibility, as people who might make decisions on whether to let a dog into a public place or not, to stay educated on which types of dogs are entitled to which accommodations. It is also always important to remember that even though dogs may be of a minor consequence to us, they might be a matter of life and death to others.