It all comes down to action.
Service animals, therapy animals, emotional support animals...there are so many names for pets that help humans cope with the struggles of life, either physically or mentally. But not all of these animal helpers are recognized by the federal government, and it is important to understand the distinctions.
The Americans With Disabilities Act makes certain allowances for service animals, permitting them to accompany their owners to stores, restaurants, and any other public place, something that has unfortunately sparked numerous cases of fraud with pets that are not true service animals.
However, ADA provides a very specific definition of what it means to be a service animal, and while the criteria may be confusing, it can be simplified to this: service animals are trained to perform a specific action.
The ADA's full definition explains that service animals are dogs that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. These tasks must be directly related to the person's disability. In other words, the dog must be trained to take a specific action to assist the disabled person.
A person with epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect a seizure before it happens, and then keep the person safe during the seizure. A person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to recognize and alert its owner to dangerous changes in blood sugar. A person with depression may even have a dog that is trained to remind his owner to take his or her medication.
Because of this definition, emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and comfort or companion animals are not ADA-recognized service animals because they do not take a specific action or perform a specific job or task. Instead, they provide comfort through their presence alone.
However, the confusion surrounding the issue may stem from the fact that the ADA does make a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. For example, if a dog has been trained to sense an impending anxiety attack and take a specific action to avoid or lessen its impact, that animal would qualify as a service animal.
It all comes down to action, so recognize and appreciate those service dogs. They're more than just companion animals. They're pets at work.
Learn more about the ADA requirements here.