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Animal Assistance: A Cause for Paws?

Animal Assistance: A Cause for Paws?

Animals seem to be dominating the airwaves lately, and I am not just talking about the Puppy Bowl (anyone else opt out of the Eagles vs. Patriots matchup in favor of watching puppies showcase their athletic talents?). The most recent controversy that has had news outlets spinning centers on a peacock named Dexter. Dexter, an emotional support animal, was prohibited from boarding a United Airlines flight at Newark Liberty International Airport. The story has gained national attention and worked its way onto every social media platform, calling into question the need for and purpose of emotional support animals. It is evident from the feedback that this issue has ruffled some feathers, with advocates and critics flocking to defend their side of the argument. Bad bird puns aside, this is one example of many that has come out in the last few years about accessibility for animals that provide assistance to individuals with disabilities. 

The human-animal connection is nothing new. However, the increased awareness and utilization of animals for aid and support is raising a lot of questions. This article will examine the definitions, legal protections, and associated benefits of Dexter and company and explore how this hot topic issue can impact social service providers in their everyday work with clients.

Terminology: What’s the

The spotlight on using animals to improve an individual’s physical, social, and emotional functioning calls attention to the importance of terminology. Unfortunately, the language that we use to describe animals that offer assistance is often misrepresented, with several terms being used interchangeably. The lack of clarity around defined classifications muddles an already confusing conversation.   

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Are emotional support animals and service animals one and the same? If not, how are they different? What about animals used for animal-assisted interventions – how are they defined? Are there limitations on the types of animals that can be recognized? The answers to these and similar questions are necessary in understanding the intended purpose and goal of having animals provide assistance to individuals in their daily life.

Service Animals

We will start with service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) under Titles II and Titles III requires that covered entities make “responsible modifications” to accommodate people with disabilities; enter service animals. In accordance with the ADA, a service animal is “any 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 work or tasks must be directly related to the individual’s disability, the goal of which is to offer support and assistance in order to moderate the impairment and improve functioning and overall quality of life.  Examples include, but are not limited to: pulling a wheelchair, providing alerts to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, reminding a person to take medication, and guiding individuals who are blind or have severe visual impairments. Service dogs undergo training to meet the needs of the individual they are serving, but no specific license or certification is required. These animals are not pets nor companions; the work that they do is essential for helping their handlers navigate different environments and function day to day.

Under Title II and III of the ADA, service animals are limited to dogs. However, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revised regulations for the implementation of ADA which took effect in 2011 to also recognize the use of miniature horses for individuals with disabilities. The separate provision permits trained miniature horses to accompany and perform tasks for qualifying persons. This means that entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies, where possible, to accommodate requests and allow miniature horses in their facilities. Recognizing that there can be barriers to making such accommodations, the provision outlines specific assessment criteria that an entity can employ to determine the feasibility of offering such support. Guide horses, or equine service animals, are quite commonly used for assisting blind individuals or those with severe visual impairments. Horses are natural guide animals; their wide range of vision, calm demeanor, long lifespan, and focused determination are just a few characteristics that make them excellent in this role.

Emotional Support Animals

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Emotional support animals (ESAs), also commonly known as comfort animals, differ from service animals in a number of ways. First, ESAs are not trained to perform any specific disability-related task(s), rather their primary purpose is to provide emotional support through companionship. Animals may receive obedience training, but they are more passively engaged with their handler, serving as a comforting presence. The second distinguishing factor is that ESAs are not limited to dogs; any animal could fulfill the role, ranging from domesticated pets to the most exotic of creatures (tarantulas, snakes, monkeys, parrots, llamas…). Finally, ESAs are not classified as service animals under the ADA so they do not have the same rights to public access. However, ESAs are protected under other federal laws related to housing and transportation.  

Now to address the elephant in the room (so to speak)…the legitimacy of ESAs. This dispute can embody the old saying, “one bad apple can spoil the bunch” and ties back to who qualifies for an ESA and what the process is for recognizing the animal as such. To be eligible for an ESA, an individual must have a diagnosed mental disorder or psychiatric or emotional disability (e.g., anxiety, depression, certain phobias, etc.) that would benefit from an animal’s comfort and companionship. An individual must be prescribed an ESA by a physician or licensed mental health professional via a certified letter. Individuals in need of an ESA are encouraged to request the letter from their clinician directly since he or she will have been involved in the individual’s treatment process and aware of their history. However, websites exist where ESA certification letters can be obtained (for a fee) after a brief screening. This workaround, coupled with the absence of training requirements associated with the designation, has led to questions around the need for and authenticity of ESAs. That said, these issues should not discredit the impact that ESAs have on those who need them the most. 

Therapy Animals

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Therapy animal is another term that is often misconstrued and more difficult to pin down, as it is sometimes left out of the service animal versus ESA debate altogether. While there are similarities, therapy animals are really in a category of their own. Therapy animals provide individuals with therapeutic contact, offering comfort and emotional support to help improve physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. They are suited to interact with people in community-based settings and are often found in hospitals, schools, assisted living communities, or other clinically-driven environments. Even though dogs are commonly used as therapy animals, a variety of animals can serve in this role. Because therapy animals do not fall under the ADA – going beyond the definition of service animal per the regulations – accessibility is limited; they are only able to go where they are welcome.

Know Your Rights

Now that we defined the terms, let’s look at what legal protections are in place. Rules and regulations can be another barrier to understanding the difference between service animals, emotional support animals (ESAs), and therapy animals. The applicability of federal, state, and local laws for different types of animals can also add to the debate around what animals have access to where and under what circumstances. 

Below are three federal laws that are highly relevant to this discussion. (Needless to say this is not an exhaustive list.)  Many state and local government have laws that offer varying guidance and protections to qualifying individuals, particularly in relation to ESAs and therapy animals. Before you read on, it’s important to note that this is just the tip of the iceberg; what we’ve outlined is a high level overview based on readily available information.  More importantly, this post is not intended to provide legal advice. If you have any questions about related laws and how they may or may not apply to a particular situation or locality, please consult legal representation or consultation. 

What Does The Research Say? 

There is a lot of information – anecdotal evidence, case studies, and data-driven conclusions – out there that confirms the impact of animals on human wellness and functioning. In particular, research on the use of animal-assisted interventions (AAI) such as animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has shown positive findings of physical, cognitive, and psychological benefits that cut across a variety of service populations – survivors of trauma, children with developmental disorders, and individuals with dementia just to name a few. 

Some promising findings:

  • Service dogs have been found to promote self-confidence, independence, and a sense of safety among their handlers. Individuals with service dogs reported that they experienced decreased feelings of loneliness and are more comfortable in social situations. 
  • Children with autism engaged in higher levels of physical contact and verbal communication with peers and adults in the presence of animals. These outcomes can help children with autism feel more at ease in their environment and improve social behaviors
  • Reading to therapy dogs in different environments such as classrooms, library programs, and animal shelters enhanced literacy attitudes among children. 
  • AAI has proven associations with physical health benefits including – lowered blood pressure, improved heart rate, regulated breathing, and overall pain reduction.
  • For individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), AAI helps to evoke feelings of warmth and decrease social isolation. In addition, the literature emphasizes how AAI can reduce other symptoms associated with PTSD and traumatic life events such as suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety. 

While numerous studies conclude that animals can have many benefits, it is also important to be transparent about the limitations within the current research base. Small sample sizes, lack of controls, and overgeneralization (across different breeds of dogs, for example) are a few common flaws that call into question the validity of the findings. Another issue that has been raised is potential publication bias; studies demonstrating that animals have little to no effect, or a negative impact, are not likely to be included within the pages of peer-reviewed journals. While these concerns do not disprove the vast array of high-quality work out there, they demonstrate a need for more research moving forward. 

The Takeaways

Promote Accessibility

If you are a nonprofit organization, chances are that you are a covered entity under the ADA (though there are some exceptions), and therefore need to make reasonable modifications to policies, procedures, and protocols to promote accessibility for individuals with disabilities. To the greatest extent possible, service animals and the needs of their handlers should be accommodated. For providers who offer housing to clients, the provisions of FHAct and Section 504 should also be factored into organizational practices related to accessibility and assistance animals. To ensure you are meeting best practice, consult all applicable federal, state, and local requirements. 

Understand Your Role as a Clinician

As discussed, physicians and licensed mental health professionals can certify emotional support animals (ESAs) by providing a letter stating that the animal is needed to alleviate symptoms related to a diagnosed mental health disorder or psychiatric or emotional disability. If you are a licensed social worker or psychologist, for example, you may receive requests from clients for a letter to serve as documentation. This request can raise questions related to potential role conflicts, ethical guidelines, and legal risks. Seeking guidance from subject matter experts and consulting your professional code of ethics may be a good place to start. 

Explore Incorporating Animals into Your Work

Some organizations incorporate therapy animals or ESAs into their everyday work with clients. Most often, service providers may integrate animal-assisted interventions into their programming or service array. Pet Partners, whose mission is to improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond, is one resource to check out. In addition to providing volunteer opportunities and linkages to their pet therapy programs, Pet Partners has a wealth of information on all things related to AAI.  

Final Rebarks

While it is tempting to end this article with a picture of Fiona the Hippo – 2017’s social media breakout star – and call it a day, let’s continue the conversation…

  • How does your organization accommodate service animals?
  • What are your thoughts on the rise of emotional support animals (ESAs)? 
  • Do you have experience with ESAs? Therapy animals?
  • Is your organization employing animal-assisted interventions? Share your feedback in the comments below!
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