Meet America's New Breed of Service Dog: Emotional Support Animals

Kay Valente with her emotional support dog named Boots.

Emotional support animals (ESA) are generating both praise and protest across the country as they move into no-pets-allowed condo developments and gain free access aboard planes.

But one point is clear: They have the law on their side.

For people like Pat Picavet and Kay Valente, ESA designation has been a saving grace.

Picavet, of Ruskin, Fla., has stage IV breast cancer that's spread to her bones, and she recently won a battle to keep Marley, a 60-pound Labrador Retriever, in her condo at a development that has a 25-pound weight restriction on pets.

Valente, of Boca Raton, Fla., also won a lawsuit against her homeowners' association. She lives with Boots, a 47-pound Labrador Retriever-Shepherd mix, who tops the condo’s pet weight limit. Valente obtained a pet prescription from her neurologist, claiming Boots helps her with a seizure disorder.

“Boots is so sweet,” says Valente, who faced backlash from neighbors who yelled and even cursed at her. “I could be having the worst day, and Boots will come over, lean into me and I become relaxed.”

Dissent From Service Dog Groups

People like Carol Roquemore and Toni Eames are also barking in protest over the lack of standardized regulation in relation to ESA designation. Roquemore was diagnosed with polio as a child and is the founder of Canine Support Teams, a nonprofit group based in Menifee, Calif., that trains and provides service dogs to people with all kinds of disabilities. Eames is legally blind and serves as president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.

“These ESA dogs are untrained and some haven’t even had basic obedience training,” declares Roquemore. “They are hurting those of us who provide genuine service dogs. Unfortunately, people get confused and think these ESA dogs are service dogs. They are not.”

“The real problem is that three federal agencies — HUD, FAA and ADA — all have different regulations and that is just adding to the confusion," adds Eames, who relies on her service dog, Keebler, who was trained by Guide Dogs for the Blind. "Plus, there are websites where you can buy phony service-dog vests, ID cards and certificates. Owners of trained dogs are getting increasingly angry at pet owners who pass off their animals as service dogs by using phony credentials.”

Then there are folks like Maida Genser, founder of Citizens for Pets in Condos, a nonprofit group based in South Florida that educates landlords and condo association directors on the benefits of having responsible pet owners in their units.

“I don’t believe in size or breed discrimination,” says Genser, whose advisory board includes veterinarians. “With a lot of condo associations, it's simply an old way of thinking. Instead, it should be based on an animal’s temperament, how well trained he is and how responsible the pet parent is. It goes without saying that pets provide us with emotional support, and in today's stressful climate, having their emotional support is welcome.”

ESA Dogs Get Legal Backing

In the legal arena, attorney Cara Thomas, who's based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., represents condo associations in legal disputes with residents. Under the Florida and federal fair housing acts, Thomas says that a person is entitled to an ESA dog to “ameliorate a physical or mental impairment,” provided that the need is stated in writing by the individual’s physician.

“The difficulty we have is that we are not physicians and cannot diagnose any owner,” says Thomas. “If they can provide evidence to support that they do suffer from a disability and need that dog, we will work with the owner and the board. But a board will file a lawsuit if it feels that it is not a legitimate claim, that the resident is abusing the situation.”

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