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Helping paws: Animals provide service, emotional support and therapy

by ELENA JOHNSON/Coeur Voice Contributor
| September 28, 2022 1:00 AM

Chances are you’ve seen a service dog, probably sporting a vest and good manners.

Chances are you’ve also encountered a therapy or emotional support animal, given the increase in awareness, popularity, and uses of pets in therapeutic ways.

Therapy, service, and emotional support animals - not one and the same - tend to get confused for one another.

All three provide emotional and/or physical assistance to people in their lives, but they are not interchangeable, particularly where the law is concerned.

Service animals

According to licensed master social worker Keryn Richards, service animals are explicitly “trained to perform specific tasks to help with specific disabilities.”

“They can be physical disabilities or psychiatric disabilities,” Richards said. Common disabilities which service animals are trained to aid include vision impairment and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A seeing-eye, or guide, dog can alert the presence of a curb, or stairs, for example. A service dog could also help recognize situations or people who might make an owner with PTSD feel uncomfortable and alert them. They might also put physical pressure on their owner’s body, which can be grounding, Richards explained.

Because they must be trained and reliably perform tasks, most service animals are dogs. They must also be at least two years old; maturity makes for more ruly dogs.

Emotional support animals (ESAs)

“An emotional support animal provides companionship and emotional support, typically for mental disorders or disabilities,” said Richards. They do not need to perform specific tasks, and are not necessarily trained. “It’s [about] the relationship people have with that animal,” she said.

Unlike service animals, many species make good ESAs. In addition to animals that form stronger emotional bonds like cats, there’s no reason other pets couldn’t fit the bill. Even snakes, with their gentle, calming pressure could be beneficial for people with trauma who need help staying grounded, said Richards.

When distinguishing from service animals, the lack of training for ESAs is significant. They may also be involved in their owner’s therapy program.

Therapy animals

Therapy animals are unique for primarily providing assistance to people other than their owners, notably visiting places like hospitals or senior care facilities.

Kootenai Health, like most hospitals and medical centers, has an official Pet Therapy Program, in which volunteers bring pooches for hospital visits.

Hospitals can be stressful for patients and loved ones, as well as staff. Therapy dogs can alleviate some of that stress.

“Having a therapy dog brings comfort and familiarity,” said Communications Specialist Andrea Nagel, who is also a program volunteer. “(The dogs) are a good, positive distraction from whatever they’re going through.”

The staff benefit from furry faces too, she added. “They also bring comfort to families and people in waiting areas,” said Volunteer Services Manager Renee Langue, adding that the approximately four-year old program has been very well received.

The dogs must be trained in basic obedience with the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizenship Test, according to Lori Cuentas, a program volunteer and local dog trainer with Coeur d’Alene Dog Fanciers. They must also be well groomed. Langue said they now require grooming “within 24 hours of every visit.”

Legal distinctions: Service animals

Differing legal status, as well as differences in state versus federal law, create confusion.

Many know that animals like seeing-eye dogs are allowed in most spaces, but which spaces and which types of animals remain unclear to most people.

Idaho law only covers the right to be accompanied by a service animal assisting with physical disabilities, said Richards, confirmed by legal encyclopedia Nolo. However, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers all service animals, including those assisting with mental disabilities.

“What this means is that even in Idaho, because federal law trumps state law, in spaces open to public accommodation you can [also] bring your psychiatric service animal,” Richards explained.

‘Public accommodation’ encompasses many spaces between Idaho law and the ADA, including public transportation, taxis, hotels, service establishments, movie theaters, sales establishments, and restaurants or coffee shops, among others. Private clubs and religious spaces such as churches or temples are among the few exceptions.

This may be particularly significant for establishments which sell food or drink. Despite health code requirements, all service animals can accompany their companions in establishments which sell food and drink.

However, if a service animal misbehaves and becomes a nuisance, establishments then have the right to ask for its removal, Richards explained.

They may also ask two questions:

  1. Is your animal a service animal?
  2. What tasks does it perform?

“Anyone with a service animal should be prepared to answer those questions,” she said. However, proprietors can’t ask about the nature of a disability, why the animal is necessary, nor demand proof of the animal’s training.

Rights for ESAs

There are no protections for therapy animals and very few for ESAs, said Richards.

While ESAs do not have the same access to public accommodation, an ESA letter, such as one provided by a health professional, may ensure housing rights for ESAs regardless of homeowners’ pet allowances and may also allow owners the right to travel with them (although airlines may have other requirements, such as being able to fit under the seat).

To qualify for such a letter, Richards said the animal’s owner would have to be under the care of a therapist or other professional, and the animal has to be part of their treatment plan. “A lot of people don’t know that,” she said. That means that although a pet may otherwise fit the definition of an ESA, they may not qualify for a letter.

Making a difference

These special pets get great results. “Recently some of us have been doing counters, actually counting smiles,” said Cuentas. “It ranges from 50 to 75 smiles an hour.”

Cuentas also reported a patient who had recently had surgery tell her, ‘As soon as I saw your dog my pain went away.’

As for ESAs, Richards also has a patient with autism who has learned from his emotional support dog.

“Bandit has allowed Simon to tap into emotions he doesn’t normally tap into,” Richards said. “It’s almost like Bandit’s teaching him how to understand emotions.”

She said Bandit is even teaching Simon (both names changed for patient confidentiality) how to help loved ones. “When Simon’s sad, Bandit goes and cuddles him. So when Simon’s girlfriend’s sad, he’ll go and cuddle with her.”

Work vs. play

For some roles, there’s a change in the pups, as well.

When Kootenai Health therapy pet Juno puts her vest on, “She knows it’s work time,” Nagel said. “Her whole persona changes. They definitely learn that it’s a job.”

Richards noticed the same change in her service dog, Gypsy. “There’s a huge difference when I put the vest on and when I take it off,” she said.

These vests are also a signal to others, Richards stressed. While it may not always be obvious when animals are on the job, the presence of a vest is an automatic message to keep a distance, unless directly invited. “No matter how cute the vest is, look but don’t touch,” said Richards.

• • •

The ADA National Network (Adata.org) has more information on service animals and ESAs. Specially trained therapists and doctors may also answer questions.

For more information on Kootenai Health’s pet therapy program, visit Kh.org/volunteer or call Langue for questions at (208) 625-4645. Coeur d’Alene Dog Fanciers also offers Canine Good Citizenship training.

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