The difference in doggy helpers

They all play important roles, but it’s best to play by the rules.

The author is animal-services manager for the city of Chico and founder of The Mustang Project.

Service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs) play an important role in helping individuals lead more independent lives. Unfortunately, anyone can buy a “service animal” vest or tag, believing that gives their ESA or pet unrestricted public access. This is not the case.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a “service animal” is defined as a dog that has been specifically trained to perform tasks for an individual with an ADA-recognized disability. The task must be directly related to the person’s disability, such as guiding a blind person. The ADA requires that service dogs be housebroken, well-behaved and under control at all times, and the handler can be asked to remove the dog if it is not.

ESAs can be any type of animal and are sometimes referred to as “companion,” “therapy,” “assistance” or “comfort” animals. They provide therapeutic support for a patient with a disabling mental illness, as determined by a doctor. They do not require any special training, and are not considered service animals by the ADA.

Under the ADA, service dogs are allowed in all public areas, while ESAs are not. A doctor’s letter stating a person needs an ESA allows that animal to be kept in “no pets” housing and travel in the cabin of an aircraft, but does not allow access to other public places, such as restaurants and grocery stores, that restrict animals.

There have been several incidents of these so-called “service” dogs behaving inappropriately, including attacking other dogs, biting people, riding in shopping carts and even eating off plates in restaurants!

Many merchants may not realize that they have the right to ask customers if they have an ADA-recognized disability and what task their dog is trained to do. They also have the right to ask someone to remove an animal that is not a true service dog, or is posing a health or safety hazard.

Passing an animal off as a service dog detracts from true service dogs and the important work they do for the disabled members of our community. And in California, it’s also a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months imprisonment.