WBTV Investigates: Is it a service dog or emotional support animal?

Published: Feb. 1, 2017 at 5:24 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 2, 2017 at 5:55 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - What is the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal? The answer often confuses people and they interchange the terms. It is important to know they are two completely different classifications regulated under different federal laws.

Service dogs fall under the American with Disabilities Act and they can only be dogs.  You can't have a service cat or any other kind of animal and the dog has to be trained to perform a specific job. Federal law says they are allowed anywhere the public is invited. They get to live with their owner.

An emotional support animal is regulated under the Fair Housing Act. It can be any kind of animal and it does not have to be trained.

"It can be a ferret, it can be a bird, it can be a snake," said Mike Hunter. "There is no limit on what type of animal that can qualify as a support animal."

Hunter is a Charlotte attorney who often works with homeowners associations often facing questions about animal restrictions. Many condos, apartments, and neighborhoods have rules and covenants that limit what kinds and sizes of animals are allowed.  The Fair Housing Act takes precedent over those rules meaning emotional support animals have to be allowed to live with their owner. Hunter says he's even seen a case of a family allowed to have chickens in their backyard because they have been deemed to be emotional support animals.

"If (you) can provide a note, it doesn't even have to be from a doctor, it can be from a health care professional," said Hunter. "(It) can be a social worker, a registered nurse or any other type of person in the medical profession that can put in writing that the person does, in fact, have a disability and that the animal helps them deal with that disability (the animal is allowed) ."

Learn more about the American with Disabilities Act and service dogs here.   
Learn more about the Fair Housing Act and emotional support animals here

Emotional support animals are also allowed to travel on airplanes, but their owners do not have a federal right to take the animal into all public places. Also, airlines and landlords do have the right to see the paperwork proving the owner has a disability and the animal provides emotional support.

Proof of need is one of the main differences between support animals and service dogs. No proof is required that a person with a service dog has a disability. You can only ask if it is a service dog and what service does it provide. No certificates, letters or vests are required.

Debbie Lange is a dog trainer who owns The Dog Knowledge in Charlotte. Her business trains pet dogs while her non-profit trains service dogs. She points out service dogs are more highly trained than a support animal. Service dogs do specific jobs like opening doors, picking things up, bracing after a fall, alerting diabetics of blood sugar events. It takes hundreds of hours of training, but the verification of need is largely the 'honor system.'

"I get calls from law enforcement situations where people are abusing this," said Lange. "We tell our (service dog owners) to never go out without having the dog vested, but technically they don't have to have the dog vested, but we tell them to take all their paperwork. We never want these dogs to be a burden to any business so graciously allowing them in."

The frustration for Lange and others is some people claim to have service dogs or emotional support that they don't need and they haven't been properly trained.

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