Service animals mistaken for emotional support animals

Katie Devoe
Assistant News Editor
kdevoe@unca.edu

Rocket’s red vest emboldened with the words ‘Service Dog’ shows up clearly as she walks to class with her owner. The pair have been together for a year and a half.

Kayla Calbreath, a freshman political science student, owns Rocket. Calbreath said she sees a lot of confusion about service dogs on campus.

“A lot of people think emotional support dogs and service dogs are the same thing. I’m constantly asked what my emotional support dog helps me with,” Calbreath said. “I feel like a big difference between emotional support animals and service dogs are that it takes a lot of training.”

Service dogs go through extensive training to help an individual with a disability. Calbreath said Rocket received basic obedience training, then learned to retrieve medicine, identify migraines and predict the likelihood of passing out.

Kayla Calbreath and Rocket. Photo by Aiden Stewart.

Emotional support animals do not receive extensive training, but they might have some obedience training. Carolyn Ogburn, the director of accessibility services and ADA coordinator, explained another difference between service and emotional support animals.

“The reason an emotional support animal can be allowed into the residence hall is not through the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, but through the FHA, which is the Federal Housing Authority,” Ogburn said.

Many bring their dogs to the campus quad, but few can enter classrooms like service dogs. The ADA protects service animals and allows them to enter public establishments, housing, schools, hotels, businesses and restaurants.

Since the ADA does not protect emotional support animals, they cannot enter classrooms. Emotional support animals mostly spend their time in the residence halls, and their owners have to follow some policies from Residential Education. Only therapy dogs, when expressly invited,  have permission to enter campus buildings.

Therapy dogs train to give emotional support and comfort to multiple people, unlike service animals and emotional support animals, which are for an individual.

The Office of Academic Accessibility and Residential Education work together in the process of assisting a student if they apply for an emotional support animal. Not just anyone can qualify for an emotional support animal, Ogburn said.

“A letter has to be provided by a clinician who knows the student, meaning they’ve met, and they’ve known them for a little bit of time,” Ogburn said. “ It can’t just be, ‘I made an appointment one time to come in and get the letter.’”

Several steps are necessary within Residential Education when notified by OAA of a resident approved for an emotional support animal.

The Director of Residential Education, Melanie Fox, meets with residents to discuss the policies they must abide by.

Fox said residents need to understand they are responsible for containing the animal, keeping it on a leash and limiting damage to the dorm resulting from the animal.

Emotional support animals must be registered with the office of Residential Education. Service animals cannot be registered through the office because they are protected by the ADA, but there are instances when individuals with service dogs approach the office of Residential Education.

“We have had this situation where someone has come to us and said I have a service dog, are there specific things that would be beneficial for me to know?” Fox said.

The owners of service dogs can only be asked two specific questions by law. It is up to the discretion of the owner as to what they share otherwise.

“The two questions you can ask for a service dog are ‘Is it a service dog?’ and ‘What service does the dog assist you with?” Calbreath said.

People also cannot ask for documentation that the animal was trained as a service dog. The risk remains that dogs can be passed off as service dogs because vests like the one Rocket wears can be purchased by anyone. Sometimes there are repercussions for this, Ogburn said.

“In some states it’s a felony to try to pass off an animal as a service dog when it’s not a service dog. So it’s also important for the student or the individual to really be clear on what the law is when they are saying what their animal is,” Ogburn said.

According to North Carolina General Statutes, it is a class three misdemeanor to disguise an animal as a service dog.

Residential Education does not interact with service dogs unless they become a disruption.

“We have in the past had animals that were designated by their owner as a service dog, but they did not behave like a service animal normally does,” Fox said. “If they are violating otherwise already existing policies, then we can do some things to try to get that animal in a place where it is no longer a disruption and that it’s not causing problems in the residence halls.”

Overall, the presence of service animals and emotional support animals on campus is positive. Living with Rocket has been a great experience for Calbreath.

“I used to be afraid to do certain things because if I pushed myself too hard, I would pass out and no one would be there to help. But now, she warns me when it’s time to slow down and take a break,” Calbreath said. “I used to be very athletic before my heart condition, and I missed that a lot. With Rocket, I get a little bit of that freedom back.”

One thought on “Service animals mistaken for emotional support animals

  • February 7, 2018 at 3:59 pm
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    It amazes me that the people who write these SD articles almost always get the second question wrong. The legal definition of a service dog is a dog which is individually TRAINED to do WORK or TASKS that directly mitigate a disability. The second question under the ADA is , “What WORK or TASKS has the dog been TRAINED to do?” Notice that the question is written using specific key words to identify whether the dog meets the legal definition.

    If the people who supposedly did a bunch of research to write an article about service dogs can’t get the second question right, how are we supposed to expect the average minimum wage store clerk to get it right?

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