The Role of Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals in Our Lives

By: Andrew Lopez, CPS

People seem to be becoming more aware of the role of service animals and emotional support animals. While it is good that many business owners and employers are becoming more aware and tolerant of their use, unfortunately there is still a lot of misinformation about the roles and rules of these animals.  I’m writing today to provide some useful information on these supports to clear up some misconceptions.

First of all let’s outline what a service animal is and what an emotional support animal is. They have very important differences.

A Service Animal is either a dog or a miniature horse and can be no other animal. This animal has to be trained to do a specific task and used by a person with a disability. The task that the service animal does must be done in order to overcome a barrier created by the person’s disability. Service animals have rights in the general public as well as housing. Their protections are covered under both Americans With Disabilities Act and fair housing law. A business owner or manager of a location may ask if the owner of the animal is a service animal and what task does it perform for the individual. If the individual states that the animal is not trained to do any specific task the owner or manager can treat the animal the same as any other normal pet. The training that was given to the service animal could come from a service animal training academy but may also be done by the owner themselves or other entities. There is no official license or identification card for service animals at the current time. An owner may choose to carry a card provided for them by a training Academy to make this conversation go smoother.

An Emotional Support Animal (also referred to as a therapy animal) can be many different types of animals.  These animals need not be trained to do any specific type of task. Emotional support animals are protected under fair housing law but are not protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Their rights extend to a person’s own residence but not to public accommodation.  In order to claim an animal as an emotional support animal the tenant must communicate with the landlord or building manager and provide a letter from their doctor or therapist verifying that the individual has a disability and that the animal is necessary for the individual to overcome challenges created by their disability within the residence. Ideally this should be done before the animal moves in with the resident. Service animals have the same rights and requirements as emotional support animals within residences.

Some things that are common between both service animals and emotional support animals are that it is illegal for a landlord to charge an extra rent or security deposit for the animal as it is not a pet but instead a tool used by the individual with a disability. There are limitations on both service animals and emotional support animals. Both animals must be well behaved and can lose all of their rights under ADA law or fair housing law if they harm other people are intrusive or destructive. A service animal may not bark or bite or otherwise pester other individuals and if it does so the owner manager is well within the rights to require the animal and its owner to leave.  Reputable service animal training academies understand this and socialize the animals that they train to be comfortable around  other humans and do not interfere with the business of other people. Similarly an emotional support animal may not cause damage to the residence, harm other residents of the building or make intrusive noises that affect the well-being of others in the residence.

We are fortunate to have two members of the Chrysalis community who have experience living with the aid of emotional support animals. Below are their statements about what the Emotional support animal brings to their life.

“Three years ago my life changed for the better. It wasn’t just the new apartment that I moved into–it was the fact that my doctor sent a letter to my new landlord citing that I qualified to have an emotional support animal according to Fair Housing Law in order to live independently.

I adopted a black cat from a shelter and my life changed for the better. Theo (the cat) seems to know and understand how to calm me when my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms flare up. He lays across my lap at such times until I can calm down. He also helps with my depression. When I want to give up on life and living independently he will want fed or attention and the thought comes to me “he needs me, I need to pull through this pain”. I rescued him from the shelter and now he is rescuing me from the dark hole of mental illness. He has been a positive force in my life–I rescued him and now he is rescuing me.

I believe that emotional support animals are the new necessary. Anyone who suffers from mental illness can testify to the fact that more and more medication although sometimes necessary, doesn’t always provide a better quality of life. Animals provide an alternative to a massive amount of medication that doesn’t always work.  I am grateful for a doctor who realized this fact and prescribed me a different kind of therapy.”- Tina Turvey

“Emotional support animals provide support and comfort to so many people in many ways, and I have been fortunate the last 7 years to have my dog by my side supporting me in all the ways he has. I have struggled with my mental health since childhood, and like for many who have experienced similar, it was extremely rough for me during my teen years. I have also had a profound love for animals since childhood, and at the age of 15 I started working at kennels, vet clinics and dog daycares. In these jobs, I always found an immense sense of tranquility and self fulfillment in providing care and forming relationships with those animals; this sort of healthy outlet and relationship did not exist elsewhere in my life. I struggle with forming and keeping relationships with people, and I had tried many forms of treatment and support to help manage my symptoms, but was still regularly struggling. So before my 17th birthday I asked my dad if I could get a dog for my birthday. It had already been a suggestion for me by therapists and others that were familiar with me and my struggles, so thankfully he also thought it was a good idea and agreed I could handle the responsibility. I think my best choice as a teenager was asking for that help, because he has saved my life more times than I can count since then. 

He gave me a reason to get out of bed everyday, I had something to live for and someone that lived for me, I had someone to embrace when I was struggling without judgement or question. When I struggle with my anxiety or depression or self harm urges or anything I could go to him. Often, I need that change of scenery and fresh air to help emotionally regulate, but often find myself paralyzed within myself. Having my dog be there to encourage me to keep regularly getting up to stretch my legs and out for some fresh air really helps me make sure I get that. In caring for him I was reminded and able to care for myself more, and that has built over the years. 

When I left my dad’s home, my psychiatrist made sure I had the paperwork showing that he was an ESA that was needed to make it possible for me to find housing with him. I have lived without people many times over these years but thanks to him, I never had to be alone. I had this unconditionally loving ball of fluff that needed me as much as I needed him. I had someone that looked at me with only love, that I could curl up with and cry into, that I could stroke and scratch to help me ground myself, a reason to live and feel love when struggling with suicidal ideation, a safe person to go to when battling components of my PTSD. 

A few years ago, I started facing some medical issues that expanded, I was diagnosed with EDS, an incurable genetic condition that causes chronic pain and a whole slew of other problems (varying widely person to person). I became overwhelmed by medical appointments and testing as well as trying to cope with my new diagnosis and how it drastically affected my overall quality of life and day to day passions. My mental health has taken quite the strain and many blows through this process, my feelings of helplessness, suicidal ideation and thoughts of self harm became more persistent, the world became heavier again and I was regressing.  But my dog was there for me, as difficult as my medical things made it to take care of him sometimes, my love for him fought my will to give in to the world that seemed to be suffocating me. I would come home from doctor’s appointments feeling scared and hopeless and don’t know what I would have done without my dog to be there for me to cry and to have space to feel those feelings. Having that support makes it possible for me to cope the best I can with the medical things I am enduring as well as even make it to that next step like calling to make an appointment with a specialist. My love for him has encouraged me to keep pushing to take care of myself and to get up everyday and do the things I need to in order to take care of both of us. 

When he came into my life I knew I needed him, I didn’t know just how much. I know this may sound cliche, but I would not be here today if it weren’t for my dog. There is nothing in the world I appreciate more than him and what he has done and been for me without even knowing he was doing it. There are a wide variety of reasons someone would benefit from an emotional support animal, and I know I found many I didn’t even expect in my own experience with mine.”
-Darby Gregerson

Below are some more resources from authoritative sources on service animals and emotional support rails. I’ve also included a few links to local service animal training academies.

“Service Animals: Disability Rights Wisconsin”

“Emotional Support Animals: Tenant Resources Center”

Custom Canines: Service Dog Academy

Occupaws: Guide Dog Academy

Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS)