LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - More and more often, people are using animals to help them cope with life's challenges.
From service dogs to emotional support animals to therapy pets, differentiating between these types of animals can be difficult.
Unfortunately, many people don't know the difference or try to take advantage of that, but the reality is each of these animals has a very different job from the others.
Seven-year-old Belle is a familiar face at Dr. Allan McKenzie's family practice in Little Rock.
“She makes the whole place feel more calm and homelike,” said Dr. McKenzie.
Belle is a certified therapy dog, trained to visit places like hospitals, schools, day cares and nursing homes.
“She really seems to have a sense of patients when they are anxious, worried or sad. She will go and sit with them and let them love on her all day long if they want to,” said Dr. McKenzie.
Dr. McKenzie said he sees many patients who benefit from the support the animals.
“PTSD. Anxiety disorder. Separation disorder. Grief. Bereavement. These are all conditions where we know that having an animal around can be very comforting and be therapeutic, just like medication and traditional therapy,” said Dr. McKenzie.
In some of these cases, Dr. McKenzie said he recommends an emotional support animal, or ESA, whose primary role is to provide their owners with emotional comfort.
An emotional support animal can include pets like dogs, pigs, cats, hamsters and more. While an ESA is not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, most are accepted in public facilities and living quarters that don't typically allow pets.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the cabin of the aircraft.
“Unfortunately, the doctor doesn't always get to know the animal and the circumstance, so when we are saying that the patient would benefit from an emotional support animal, we don't know whether that animal is going to be a nuisance to other people around or is really qualified to go into stores or is going to be calm and not disturbing to other residents like at an apartment,” said Dr. McKenzie.
A big difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal is that a service animal requires training.
“Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks for their person, to mitigate their specific disabilities. They are trained to perform at least three tasks to help their person with their disability and functioning in life,” said Rebecca Scissors, Executive Director of A Veteran’s Best Friend.
A Veteran's Best Friend is a non-profit in Cabot that provides service dogs to veterans free of charge.
“He is medicine for me. Instead of having a pill, I have him,” said veteran, Dave Grimm.
That is how Dave, who was diagnosed with PTSD two years ago, met and fell in love with Ringo, a playful golden doodle.
“He alerts if my adrenaline gets high and if I start to have a meltdown. He will alert on me and actually cause me to pay attention to him instead of any of the situations that I may be in,” said Grimm.
Service dogs like Ringo are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are allowed to go most anywhere their owner goes, but staff can ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what tasks has the dog been trained to perform.
However, Grimm said too many people take advantage of that and get fictitious paperwork online.
“You can go online and anywhere from $60 on up you can get quote paperwork and a vest that says your dog is a service dog,” Grimm said.
Scissors said that puts the work of real service dogs in jeopardy.
“When we see faux service animals or fake service dogs it does a disservice to the legitimacy of actual working dogs,” Scissors said.
As of now, the ADA does not "require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness," but many states are trying to fight the fake service animals.
Nineteen states have enacted laws cracking down on people who try to pass off their pets as service animals.
In Michigan, a state that just passed the law, it's a misdemeanor punishable by 90 days in jail and a fine. Arkansas is not included in that list.