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Helpful Canines: Service or Support?

June 12, 2017
Source: The Pueblo Chieftain, Colorado

[They are] seen frequently with their owners in public places and in businesses, such as local stores and restaurants.

Furry, four-legged friends have been faithfully accompanying and providing support to people for years.

But are the canines Puebloans encounter in public spaces service dogs used by those with disabilities or emotional support dogs? And what is the difference?

There is a clear distinction between the two, based on how [they are] defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]. And as of [January] 1, it is a crime in Colorado for an individual -- after having been warned -- to intentionally misrepresent a dog as a service animal.

The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.

The tasks performed by service dogs can include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication or pressing an elevator button, among other things. They can include guide dogs or seeing eye dogs, hearing or signal dogs, psychiatric service dogs, seizure response dogs and sensory signal dogs, or signal dogs trained to assist a person with autism.

Service animals are often trained by an official training organization, but individuals may train their own service animals. There are no requirements for such training, nor are there any licensing or certification requirements, according to a resource guide published by Disability Law Colorado. The only requirement is that they meet the ADA definition of a service animal.

Emotional support animals -- or comfort animals, as [they are] also known -- are not recognized as service animals under ADA guidelines because they are not limited to working with people with disabilities and, therefore, are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals.

"The ADA does not recognize dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support as service animals, because emotional support, well-being, comfort and/or companionship do not constitute work or tasks," said Sarah Joseph, public information officer for the Pueblo City-County Health Department. "Although emotional support animals can be very valuable, it is primarily their presence for comfort or security that is beneficial to the person."

Emotional support dogs do not have to have any kind of formal certification, according to Jan McHugh-Smith, president/CEO of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region.

"Usually people will have their doctor write a prescription for an emotional (support) pet they can carry with them in case they get questioned," McHugh-Smith said.

Many service dogs are licensed or certified by a state or local government and wear something -- such as a vest -- to indicate they are a service dog. But, according to the ADA, any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability is considered a service animal regardless of whether [they have] been licensed, certified or wear anything to indicate their status as a service dog.

So, where are these types of dogs allowed?

For service dogs, the answer is straightforward, but with emotional support dogs its less clear and typically handled on a case-by-case basis.

A service animal must be allowed to accompany handlers to any place in a building or facility where members of the public, customers or clients are allowed, according to the ADA National Network. Even if a place has a policy stating it doesnt allow pets, it may not deny entry to a person with a service animal, because service animals are not considered pets.

When a person with a service animal enters a public place, the person cannot be asked about the nature or extent of their disability. Persons can be asked if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform, and thats it.

Where emotional support dogs are allowed is trickier.

McHugh-Smith said it is typically handled on a case-by-case basis by businesses and other public venues.

"Businesses, I think, are uncomfortable trying to determine the difference between (a service dog) and an emotional support dog because [you are] talking about (Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act) at that point," McHugh-Smith said, referring to the federal law that safeguards medical information.

At the Pueblo Mall, the policy is that no pets are allowed except service dogs, according to General Manager Timothy Schweitzer.

That means if someone brought in an emotional support dog, it wouldnt be allowed.

The problem is, the difference is hard to differentiate.

"So many people come in with dogs, and we can only ask so many questions and they dont have to have paperwork or identification, so its a mixed bag," Schweitzer said. "You have a lot of people who violate that, so we stick with the ADA requirement. I wish they would require (service dogs) to have some type of coat or something to identify them, and we wouldnt have this issue. It can make it very confusing."

When it comes to restaurants, the Colorado Retail Food Establishment Rules and Regulations state service animals are limited to areas that are open to customers, such as dining rooms and sales areas. The handler must be with the service animal at all times and may not go anywhere that food is prepared.

With air travel, the situation is a little more clear-cut for both types of dogs.

According to the ADA National Network, the Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the cabin of the aircraft.

Airlines may ask to see identification cards, written documentation, presence of harnesses or tags or ask the individual with a disability for evidence that an animal is a service animal.

The ADA National Network said individuals who travel with emotional support animals or psychiatric service animals may need to provide specific documentation to establish that they have a disability and the reason the animal must travel with them.

Different airlines have different requirements, and it is advised to consult with an airline about their policies before flying.

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