Laws differ regarding emotional support animals

by Sue on March 6, 2014


Friday, January 17, 2014

A steady increase in the number of people who rely on emotional support animals adds to the confusion about service dogs and their place in public.

Emotional support animals are not granted the same public access guaranteed to service dogs, but many people don’t know the difference between the two designations, said dog trainer Pam Murphy.

“It’s kind of a gray area,” she said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog (or miniature horse) individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Emotional support animals, while they may help their owner stay calm and feel comfortable, are not trained to perform tasks.

“Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as a service animals,” the act states.

That said, there are some federal protections for the owners of emotional support animals. The Fair Housing Act, for instance, states that a person with a disability cannot be denied access to housing because he or she relies on an emotional support animal. The Air Carrier Access Act allows the animal to ride in the cabin of an airplane with its owner.

But both airlines and landlords are allowed to require a signed letter from a licensed mental health professional that states that the person has a mental health disability that requires a support animal.

Meanwhile, an incident at a local shelter in 2012 illustrates just how confusing — and to some degree, contradictory — the regulations can be when it comes to emotional support animals.

When Christy McNerney and her 9-pound spaniel-bichon frise mix, Scruffles, showed up at the Craig’s Place shelter, staff were unsure whether the dog should be allowed. She insisted the dog should be treated like a service dog and the police were called, at her request. A police officer read a letter from McNerney’s psychotherapist that said she needed an emotional support animal and the officer told shelter staff they must let the dog stay.

Kevin Noonan, executive director of Craig’s Doors, the organization that runs the shelter, said he contacted Disability Services at UMass and was again told that the dog must be allowed. “Our worry was that someone here would be afraid of dogs,” he said.

In the end, McNerney and Scruffles stayed at the shelter for a few months and Noonan said Scruffles was a very well-behaved guest. They have not had anyone ask to bring in an emotional support animal since, he said.

The Fair Housing Act states “a housing facility, program or service must permit the assistance animal as an accomodation,” and issued a memorandum in 2013 specifying that shelters and other housing that receives public funds are required to comply.

Another difference between service and emotional support animals is that while the former is limited to dogs or miniature horses, emotional support animals can be any species, from ducks to pot-bellied pigs.

That’s what troubles Ellen Kennedy, a JFK Middle School teacher who has a service dog. People may feel that they need their snake to be with them for emotional support, she said, but you can’t train a snake to behave appropriately in all situations.

“I’m sure the animal does provide support, but I’m not sure that can be justified if they’re not trained properly,” she said. “I do think ultimately we’ll see legislation limiting it to dogs and miniature horses.”

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