Meet America’s New Breed of Service Dog: Emotional Support Animals
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.”
Attorney Marcy LaHart of Gainesville, Fla., represents people with ESA dogs, and she often wins decisions for clients without having to step foot in a courtroom.
“As lawyers like me win cases all over the country, homeowner associations are realizing that they need to be more understanding and accepting of people who have disabilities,” says LaHart, who operates a website called Florida Animal Lawyer.
A Push for Proper Training
An emotional support animal doesn't require any training. And, under the law, ESA dogs are not allowed in supermarkets, restaurants and other places of businesses that do not permit pets. Only service dogs are able to accompany owners into businesses and onto buses, trains and planes.
However, people sometimes try to pass ESA dogs off as service dogs. “Some restaurant and theater workers are too intimidated to ask the person whether his dog has been officially trained as a service dog,” says Eames. “Service dogs undergo extensive training to adapt to all kinds of situations.”
“There is no policing of these ESA dogs, and the law is very loosely written," adds Roquemore. "All someone needs is a prescription from their doctor. Physicians need to be educated, and ESA dogs need to be properly trained.”
Shay Maimoni, a professional dog trainer and owner of Boca Raton–based Woof Dogs, is also pushing for the standardized training of ESA dogs.
“An ESA dog must be confident and calm, good with all kinds of people and all kinds of dogs, and able to adapt to different environments,” he says. “I can tell you that some of these ESA pets are regarded as real treasures by owners who are coping with some form of emotional disability.”