EDITORIAL: ESAs are not service dogs

·3 min read

Aug. 19—There's always someone who ruins it for everyone else.

The Dominion Post recently profiled a veteran and his service dog and some of the challenges they've faced in public places, from being interrogated by staff members to being outright denied service. And there are many like him across the nation who have experienced the same things.

Legally, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is a dog that has been trained to perform a specific task to help its owner with a disability or mental illness. Tasks can include picking up items, guiding an individual, giving a signal before a medical emergency, interrupting self-harming behaviors, etc. And, legally, a service dog doesn't have to wear a special vest or ID to be identified as a service animal, and the owner is under no obligation to provide any certification or license to prove their dog is trained in order to enter a business. At most, businesses may ask, "Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability ?" or "What work or task has the dog been trained to perform ?"

That so many people with service dogs have been questioned at store doors or barred from entering restaurants may have less to do with employees' ignorance than it does with non-service dog owners taking advantage of accommodations.

Those who haven't experienced it for themselves have certainly heard the horror stories of people trying to pass off emotional support animals or pets as a "service " animal in order to bring them inside places they aren't normally allowed. (Google can find dozens of sites selling "service dog " vests online in less than a second.) But unlike actual service animals, ESAs and pets are not trained to perform a specific task to aid with a disability and likely not trained on how to behave in public. So when a fake service dog starts barking at patrons or jumping on waitresses or making messes on the floor, it's understandable that business owners and staff become reluctant to let any animal through their doors.

For the record, an emotional support animal is not the same as a service animal, and it is not afforded the same accommodations and protections. An ESA can be virtually any domesticated animal ; a service animal can only be a dog. The big difference between a pet and an ESA is that a health care professional has to write a prescription or letter saying that the patient needs the animal to help with a mental condition. An ESA doesn't have to be trained to perform any tasks (cuddling on command doesn't count).

ESAs are covered by the Fair Housing Act—not the ADA—so you can't be denied housing because of your ESA. For example, a landlord would have to allow an ESA in an otherwise no-pet apartment. However, businesses, airlines and other privately owned entities are under no federal obligation to allow ESAs—nor is an employer mandated to allow ESAs at work. (ESAs can fly as pets, but not as service animals.)

In a perfect world, people with real service dogs shouldn't and wouldn't have to present some kind of proof their dog is a service animal. Unfortunately, too many people are lying about their pets or ESAs, and that's causing problems for everyone.

Maybe it's time for the ADA to start issuing and requiring special IDs or certificates for service animals. (Things less easy to counterfeit than a vest.) Perhaps there should even be penalties for falsely claiming a dog and /or outfitting it as a service animal when it isn't.

Every rule exists because someone, somewhere, did something stupid or tried to take advantage. With the recent uptick in fake service animals, it might be time for some new rules to protect everyone involved.