What’s the difference?

Service dog: A dog that is individually trained to perform tasks to help a person with one or more disabilities. Service dog handlers have the right to be accompanied by their service dogs in places of business; on public transportation, including trains and planes; and in most hospital settings (with the exception of a very limited number of areas, including burn units and operating rooms).

Emotional support animal: An animal that helps a person with a mental or physical illness feel better, but isn’t trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate the illness. Emotional support animals don’t just include dogs — cats and other animals can be emotional support animals too. Owners of emotional support animals do not have the right to take these animals places where animals would not normally be allowed, with two exceptions. People with emotional support animals can have them in the cabin with them when they fly, if they have a note from the proper professional (doctor, mental health professional, etc.) and can keep their animals under control. And, with proper documentation, owners of emotional support animals must be allowed to keep these animals in their housing units, even if they are living in a place that has a “no pets” policy.

Therapy dog: A dog that helps people feel better by visiting facilities, such as hospitals, and providing comfort. These are typically pet dogs that have been trained to behave calmly, provide comfort measures or support, and accept situations that they will encounter on therapy visits. Owners of these dogs have to get permission before taking these animals into facilities. There are organizations that certify/register therapy dogs. Therapy dogs can do a plethora of things, from helping children learn how to read by being a nonjudgmental set of ears to providing comfort to people who are hospitalized or in hospice care.

—Rachel Crowell, The Oregonian

Max sits at Tabbie Roberts’ feet in a La Grande restaurant. He lies down, looking comfortable and relaxed, until Roberts drops her wallet on the ground. Max quickly picks it up with his mouth and waits for her to take it back.

Max, an American Kennel Club Brittany spaniel, serves as Roberts’ service animal. She’s undergone a number of operations on her spine and cannot bend over repeatedly, she said.

That’s where Max comes in.

Roberts trained Max herself, but there are businesses that will train service animals as well. She got Max when he was a puppy after already having three of the six spine surgeries, she said.

While people respect Max as a service animal most of the time, Roberts is finding more and more people taking advantage of the system, or not respecting the system at all.

A service animal, which is different than an emotional support animal or a seeing eye dog, is trained to do specific tasks for its owner. In Roberts’ case, she needs Max to “get things for her, because she can’t bend down.”

Roberts, however, said she has been kicked out of restaurants and grocery stores because of her service animal.

“When he has the jacket on, no one (questions him),” Roberts said.

When he doesn’t — it’s not required he wear one — that’s when Roberts has a problem. Her disability is not an obvious one, she said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all places open to the public, such as businesses, government agencies and entertainment venues, to give access to service dogs and their owners, according to an article published in USA Today. It permits them to ask only two questions: whether the dog is required because of a disability and what tasks the dog is trained to perform. It is illegal to request documentation for the dog or to ask the nature of the owner’s disability.

One local business asked for Max’s paperwork to prove he’s a service animal. There is no paperwork, and a business cannot ask that, Roberts told the owner, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Roberts was asked to leave the business anyway. She said that the owner said, “We have a right to refuse service to anyone.”

On the other side of the argument are people who take advantage of the system. There is no official service animal registry so there is no way to confirm that an animal is actually in a service role.

A Boston Globe story published in September reported that tolerance for support animals, which was a privilege extended by some businesses, is evolving into an assumed right, “at times undermining the needs of people who legitimately must have a service animal to navigate life.”

The article said many pet owners take advantage and purchase bogus vests, ID tags and certificates to designate their pet as a service animal.

“Pet owners are, consciously or not, exploiting such confusion when they insist on a right to bring pets into non-airline settings,” according to the article. “Compounding the situation is the lack of an official certification or national registry for legitimate service dogs; the ADA doesn’t even require them to wear a special tag. Unscrupulous pet owners can buy a service dog vest online for as little as $17.99 and bring him to a restaurant, even if his training amounts to little more than ‘sit.’”

USA Today published an article about states, including Massachusetts, that are cracking down on “fake” service animals. So far, 19 states have begun to enact laws focusing on those trying to pass a pet as a service animal to get them into businesses that prohibit them.

“Today, any pet owner can go online and buy a vest for a dog to pass it off as a service animal to gain access to restaurants, hotels and places of business,” said Republican state Rep. Kimberly Ferguson, who introduced the Massachusetts bill. “Their animals aren’t trained and end up misbehaving in these public places, which gives real service dogs a bad name.”

Service animals are also used by those who are in wheelchairs or have other impairment in mobility, people who are prone to seizures or need to be alerted to medical conditions, like low blood sugar, and people who experience autism or mental illness, according to the USA Today article.

Roberts said she’s had the experience at local stores of other people’s dogs escaping their owners’ cars and running up to Max, snarling and attacking him.

“I am appalled at the lack of consideration, not only for their pets but (their) total disregard for what is legally my personal space in a public place,” Robert said.

During times like these, she said, she’s grateful her disability does not impede her movements more than they do. Roberts has had to quickly get herself and Max into her vehicle to avoid confrontations with other dogs.

Though the service animals vests are easy to come by, a real service animal is often easy to spot. Trained service dogs don’t go off-leash, bark, knock things off shelves, jump on people, play or fight with other dogs or grab food off tables, trainers say, according to the USA Today article.

And actual service dogs aren’t carried in shopping carts or purses.

“The rule is four on the floor,” with all four feet on the ground except when a dog is performing a task, said Katelynne Steinke, a paraplegic in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with a yellow Lab service dog.

Roberts said she believes the solution to the misconception of service animals is to educate the public.

“I want to host a public forum or information meeting and speak about the exact rules for service animals versus therapy animals versus emotional support animals,” Roberts said. “I will include a piece on how people can help those with working animals by being good pet-owning citizens as well as respectful in general.”

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