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Differences Between Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

service dog and emotional support animals

Dogs are not just “man’s best friend” but go by a range of names and perform a variety of useful functions, from service dogs or guide dogs to emotional support animals. Obtaining one of these animals can be a life-changing experience for a person who truly needs their specialized support, care, and services, and understanding the rules and regulations that apply to each classification of these animals is important. September is National Service Dog month; a time we recognize the animals that do so much for the people in their care. And in recognition of this month, attorney Tom Sinas reviewed some of the guidelines, regulations, and classifications of these animals on a recent Fox 17 “Know the Law” segment. Lansing personal injury attorney, Bryan Waldman, also covered the topic on WLNS 6 “Legal Edge.”

Service Dogs and the Americans with Disabilities Act

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an important federal law which, by its terms, encompasses service animals. The ADA defines a service animal as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be related to the person’s disability.” Service animals are not to be confused with emotional support animals. These are two different classifications of animals in terms of what they are, how they are regulated, and where they can go.

Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Regulations

Service dogs are animals individually trained to perform a specific task to help a person with a disability. For example, a service dog may be trained to alert its diabetic owner when their blood sugar reaches limits that are too high or too low. Another example includes service dogs reminding their owner who has clinical depression to take their daily medications. This is training specifically related to the individual’s disability and needs. Emotional support animals, also called therapy dogs, comfort dogs, or companion dogs, on the other hand, are not necessarily specifically trained for performing functions for a specific disability. The legal rules regulating these animals come back to the Americans with Disabilities Act. That Act has special protections for people who need their service animals because of their disability. The same is not true for emotional support animals.

Where Can Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Go?

The Americans with Disabilities Act says that service animals can go pretty much any place where their work in service to the disabled is needed, including public buildings. The same is not true of emotional support animals. While you may see one flying with its owner on an airplane, emotional support animals are not necessarily allowed to access all the public places a service animal is.

A Reminder of Dog Owner Liability

Whether it’s a service dog, emotional support dog, or your standard pet, in Michigan we have strict owner liability. Therefore, dog owners are liable if their dog bites someone else. It doesn’t matter the classification of the animal, or whether or not the owner knew that was going to happen. For instance, we hear regularly that the animal had no history of aggression or biting, but under the strict owner liability law, it doesn’t matter. Owners are responsible for injuries their dog causes to another regardless of a seemingly non-aggressive history. Having adequate insurance to cover the animal in the event of a dog bite is crucial. A dog owner’s liability (the financial repercussions they may be on the line for in the event their dog bites and injures another person) is extensive, including the other person’s medical bills, lost wages, and quality of life damages.

Bryan Waldman on WLNS 6 “Legal Edge.”

Tom Sinas on Fox 17 “Know the Law.”