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Animals can provide emotional support and service, but the two jobs are distinct

MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner
Tom Coleman, executive director of Pawsitivity, poses with Lexi, a dog he and his wife Julie are considering for their extensive service-dog training program.

Blame it on the peacock.

In recent years, the use of emotional support animals (ESA) has gained popularity among people living with mental illness, and, to some degree, acceptance from lawmakers in many states, including Minnesota, where legislation has been to allow ESAs to accompany their owners to school, stores and even on airplanes. But with acceptance of the real benefit that an ESA can bring to a person disabled by mental illness comes the reality that some people will try to bend the rules to fit their own needs, labeling a range of untrained household pets as ESAs and trying to bring them into places where animals aren’t usually allowed.

This problem reached a peak at the beginning of the year when United Airlines banned a woman from bringing an emotional support peacock on a flight. The story went viral, and led many people to the conclusion that labeling an animal an ESA is nothing more than an opportunity to go online, buy a cute “support animal” vest for your pet and take it wherever you want to go.

Stories like this one trouble people whose ESAs have made their lives much more livable. Just ask Bonnie Gallagher, co-founder and vice president of K9s From Carrie, an Anoka-based nonprofit that sponsors training for emotional support dogs for people struggling with mental illness.

“I think that because the idea of emotional support animals has been misused and abused, people do have a tendency to roll their eyes when they hear about the idea,” Gallagher said. “I would, too, if I hadn’t been through all this myself. A few horrible people can wreck it for everybody.”

Gallagher’s personal experience with ESAs began six years ago, when she and her husband purchased a Labrador retriever named Scout for their daughter Carrie. Carrie, who was sexually assaulted when she was 12 years old, struggled with anxiety and depression so crippling that she was unable to leave her family’s home. Scout soon became a lifeline for the teen; thanks to the dog’s steady presence, she began to feel more confident and secure. Scout stayed by Carrie’s side for months until she was eventually able to return to school, spend time with friends and even find a part-time job. 

Though Gallagher said the dog “made Carrie’s life livable,” for nearly two years, her mental illness eventually proved to be impossible to overcome. In 2014, Carrie died by suicide. Her family was devastated.

In the wake of Carrie’s death, Scout made himself Gallagher’s ESA, providing constant support and affection as she struggled to come to terms with her loss.

“After my daughter died I don’t know what I would’ve done without my dog,” Gallagher said. “Without Scout I think I would’ve followed her close behind. People who say he’s not an emotional support to me didn’t see me on the floor heaving and crying and that dog coming up to me, licking my face, whining, talking to me and lying there with me.”

Bonnie Gallagher shown with her dog, Scout.
Courtesy of Bonnie Gallagher
Bonnie Gallagher shown with her dog, Scout.

Gallagher said experiences like these convinced her and her family members that ESAs provide powerful support for people living with mental illness. They partnered with a dog trainer and founded their nonprofit in 2015. Since then, they have matched some 44 emotional support dogs with humans struggling with mental illness. All K9s From Carrie dogs work toward passing the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test.

Not all dogs — or all pets, for that matter — make natural ESAs, said Lynn Smoliak, owner of Dogs Way Dog Training, a Twin Cities-based organization that trains rescue dogs to support humans with mental illness, many of them veterans with PTSD.   

“Dogs can’t be trained to be an ESA,” Smoliak said. “They have to have the natural ability. You can train a dog to have the obedience, but they have to be able to weather the emotional storm of the handler. They can’t join in the storm. They have to be comfortable with who they are and confident that they can be the rock for their human. A lot of dogs need the human to be the rock for them.”

‘Barking up the wrong tree’: Support vs. service

Professional animal trainers emphasize that there is a clear difference between ESAs and service animals; while an emotional support dog from a program like K9s From Carrie or Dogs Way may spend weeks or months working with an obedience trainer, service animals have been painstakingly trained to perform specific tasks to assist a person with a documented disability. Training for a service dog can last more than a year. Their use is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Service animals are not considered pets and generally assist people with physical disabilities like vision and hearing loss. Some people whose disabilities are less apparent also use employ service dogs: Good examples are people diagnosed with autism and PTSD. In these cases, service dogs may provide emotional as well as physical support for their handlers. The dogs can be trained to provide stability and comfort for people disabled by anxiety; offer reminders to take psychiatric medications; anticipate and provide comfort during an anxiety attack or even lie on top of an anxious human to provide soothing, weighted comfort.

While service dogs usually accompany their handlers to public places like work or school, ESAs generally stay at home, offering comfort and support when their humans return from the outside world.

Gallagher said that people often confuse ESAs with service animals, thinking that the animals they turn to for emotional support should be able to accompany them wherever they go. Animal owners who do that make it hard for everyone who relies on their pets for physical and emotional support, she said.

“We reiterate that at least a thousand times that an emotional support dog is not a service dog. Your emotional support dog doesn’t go with you when you leave the house. He stays at home and is there for you when you get back. If you need more than that, you are barking up the wrong tree.”

Kevin Lindsey, Minnesota commissioner of human rights, said that it is important to make a clear distinction between animals that provide emotional support and animals trained to provide physical support.

“If you feel like you need your support animal at your side 24 hours a day, then you’re talking about a service animal,” Lindsey said. “This is a different kind of animal that needs a different kind of training.”

That confusion may be at the heart of recent legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, and Sen. Justin Eichorn, DFL-Grand Rapids, and passed in regular session at the Minnesota State Legislature. The new law, which goes into effect on Aug. 1, will make it a crime to knowingly misrepresent an animal in one’s possession as an assistance animal in a public place to obtain rights or privileges available to someone who qualifies for a service animal under state or federal law.

Dawn Brasch, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, said that her son Jake, who has autism, relies on their family dog for emotional support. The dog isn’t a trained service dog, but she saw that the animal had an innate ability to sense when Jake was feeling especially tense. She relies on the family dog to help keep her son calm in stressful situations.

“My son started to get anxious, and even before I would notice, my dog would come over and get up in his lap and lick his face,” Brasch said. “Jake would start to laugh and calm down.”

Though the dog’s assistance is key to their everyday lives, Brasch emphasized that he stays at home, except for when Jake takes him on a walk. She had a special dog vest made for those times. “It says,” Brasch explained, “‘emotional support dog for autism’ and has the dog’s name and Jake’s name on it. If someone has a question, it’s an awesome opportunity for Jake to have a conversation. But if Jake doesn’t feel like talking, most people will see the dog’s vest and understand why.”

Emotional support dogs can provide an important service for people like Jake, Brasch said, but it’s equally important to make it clear to the public how these dogs are different from service dogs.

“We need to educate the public about what these dogs are for, what they do for the people they serve,” she said. “If we don’t, some people will take advantage.”

People misinterpreting or taking advantage of laws designed to protect service animals and their handlers may be the reason that state legislators felt they have to pass laws governing the use of service dogs, Lindsey said.  

“In the last couple of years we have seen headlines about people who may be taking a regular household pet and trying to pass that pet off as a service animal.” This most recent law was promoted, in part, in response to ESAs that caused disruptions in local stores, Lindsey explained. “These were pets that were doing things that pets do because they are not trained to be service animals. That’s giving a bad rap to everyone, and that’s unfortunate.”

One in 1,000

The shoulder of Tom Coleman’s shirt is covered with dog hair. It makes sense, because as executive director of Pawsitivity Service Dogs, Coleman spends the majority of his waking — and sleeping — hours with dogs.

In 2012, Coleman and his wife, Julie, founded Pawsitivity with the goal of training rescue dogs to become service dogs for people with physical and developmental disabilities. Their focus is on children with autism, but the Colemans also have trained dogs to assist adults with PTSD. The dogs are trained to help with physical tasks like turning on light switches or restraining autistic children from running into traffic, but they also learn to respond to their handlers’ emotional needs.

“Children with autism and adults with PTSD have specific mental health concerns that go beyond their physical limitations,” Tom Coleman said. “Having a service dog can help lessen the psychological burden on every member of a family.”

On a recent sunny afternoon, Tom Coleman sat outside his St. Paul home beside Lexi, a calm, thoughtful poodle/lab mix recently rescued from the southern United States. While Lexi showed many promising characteristics, she wasn’t yet ready to begin full service-dog training. All Pawsitivity dogs first go through a one-month observation-and-evaluation phase.

“We’re hoping she’d be good for a child with autism,” Coleman said, rubbing Lexi’s long, furry ears. “We have to spend more time with her to see if she’d work out.”

Training a service dog is an exacting process. The dogs are selected for unique, sometimes intangible characteristics like confidence, calm demeanor, patience and strength. The training process takes a year or longer, and during that time the dogs live with the Colemans in their St. Paul home.

“Only one out of 1,000 dogs is appropriate for this kind of work,” Coleman said. Part of the selection process has to do with selecting for specific breeds, he added: “A husky is a great dog, but it wants to pull. A beagle wants to smell. A lab can be hyper.”

Coleman said that he and Julie were inspired to start Pawsitivity after their friend married a woman with an autistic child. Through that family they learned about service dogs for autism. Because Minnesota is known for its high-quality autism support services,  Coleman figured that there would already support-dog training programs in the state, but there weren’t. “The nearest program was 1,000 miles away,” he said.  

With such a clear market gap, the Colemans decided to found Pawsitivity. They’ve been busy ever since, with hundreds of families on a waiting list for their specially trained service dogs that cost as much as $39,000 each. Coleman said his nonprofit gets 200 applicants for each dog it trains. The waiting list is long.

“We train a couple of dogs at a time,” Coleman said. “It is a very different model. You can’t train more than 2 or 3 dogs a year and do it properly.” 

A tool to overcome disability

Henry Wills lives with his family in Maple Grove. Diagnosed with severe autism and global developmental delays, the 12-year-old middle schooler has had his service dog, Bailey, for six years. Bailey, who was trained by Pawsitivity, doesn’t go to school with Henry, but he does accompany the family anywhere else they need to go.

Henry’s mother, Christy Wills, said she decided to look for a service dog when Henry was turning 5. Henry was getting ready for kindergarten, and Wills felt that a service dog could help the family negotiate all the complicated elements involved with making that important transition happen. “I thought it would make things easier on me,” Wills recalled. “A service dog helped made transitions work for Henry and make life easier and happier for everyone.”

Henry usually sleeps only three hours a night. Bailey sleeps with him, and his presence keeps him in bed for as long as possible, helping his parents squeeze out a few additional minutes of sleep. This was part of Bailey’s training, Wills said. ““I asked Julie and Tom if the would allow the service dog to sleep with them so he could learn how to do that for my son. They were open to that.”

Bailey provides emotional support for Henry when he goes to doctor’s appointments.

“Henry has some mental problems that come along with his autism,” Coleman explained. “He has so many disabilities that he goes to the doctor about seven times a month. It used to be that four of those seven times he’d have a meltdown in the office waiting room and have to leave. With his dog helping him mentally, Henry now can get to seven out of seven of the doctor’s appointments.”

Autism isn’t the only kind of mental illness that can be physically disabling. Pawsitivity has trained two dogs to assist men with PTSD.

“One of the men was in a horrible work accident,” Coleman said. “He had made suicide attempts. He couldn’t even leave his house. He was on full disability. With a service dog he was actually able to leave the house for the first time in years. That is huge. His world has just expanded. He still has PTSD, but the dog is a tool for overcoming his disability, like a cane for someone who’s blind.”

While Coleman readily acknowledges that emotional support animals can play a key role in the lives of many people with mental illness, he, like Gallagher, believes that it is important to make a clear distinction between animals that are trained as service animals and well-behaved pets that provide emotional support.

“They’re different breeds,” he said, laughing at his own pun. “Some of the support they provide may be similar, but the reality is that the work they do is really, really different. You can take a pet dog and put a vest on it, but 99 percent won’t have the right temperament to be a true service dog. If you think they do, you’d be dead wrong.”


Service or support?  Legal definitions

Service Animal: A service animal is a trained animal that can assist with a physical or emotional issue by performing specific tasks for the individual with a disability. Under the ADA and MHRA, a service animal is defined as a dog or miniature horse.

Emotional Support Animal: An emotional support may provide support, companionship, or comfort to an individual, but it is not specifically trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with a disability.

Access by service animals to places of public accommodation are generally protected under federal (Americans with Disabilities Act) and state (Minnesota Human Rights Act) law.

This includes service animals trained to assist with disabilities that may be invisible, as well as more commonly thought of services like a guide animal for an individual who is blind.

Emotional support animals do not have the same broad legal protections service animals do.

    For public accommodations generally, like a movie theater or store, the establishment could allow an emotional support animal and may wish to as part of providing a welcoming environment for individuals with disabilities.

      There is one exception to this general rule about public accommodations for emotional support animals, when people fly on planes the federal Air Carrier Access Act provides specific allowances for emotional support animals.

      Minnesota law now makes it illegal for someone who knows that the animal they brought into a store or restaurant is not a service animal if they pass it off as being a service animal.

      Source: Minnesota Department of Human Rights

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      Comments (4)

      1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/16/2018 - 11:43 am.

        Supporting Who?

        If I am to nervous to fly in a confined space when someone’s support dog is across the aisle from me, can I ask that the dog be removed from the flight? I don’t care for dogs leaping on me, nor biting me, which has happened before on flights. Don’t I have a right to a dog-free flight so that I am not a nervous wreck for 2 or 3 hours?

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/16/2018 - 12:21 pm.

          The entire plane?

          Surely your concerns would be adequately addressed by reseating either you or the dog’s owner so that you are no longer in close proximity or directly across from one another. Planes are big – I’m sure they could get the dog far enough away from you to allay your fears.

          Also, the airlines have behavioral requirements, and a dog that jumps or bites is no longer going to be permitted to travel in cabin as an emotional support animal.

          Finally, are you just nervous about dogs, or do you have an actual diagnosed phobia? Because people with legitimate emotional support animals require medical documentation of the condition that requires their animal’s presence while they travel. Can you provide the same kind of documented support of need?

      2. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 07/16/2018 - 03:34 pm.


        All pets, if well behaved, are emotional support animals. But people who exploit their pets as substitutes for human relations are wrong. And it may not be a problem in Minnesota, but in other places, spoiled, entitled, selfish people constantly abuse the public by taking their pets in public places, claiming they are service animals. I constantly am confronted by these pets in grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, all places they do not belong. No pet belongs in an enclosed space where people can have allergies. And the pets are confused and do not know how to behave in such situations. It is unfair to them. It is far more appropriate to leave them leashed outside to wait. They know to do that.
        And it is virtually always dog owners. As someone allergic to dogs, I resent their intrusion into public space. Why shouldn’t cat owners be able to do the same? Or peacock owners, parrot owners, goldfish owners? And what would keep the dogs and cats from getting into a fight in a store? I haven’t yet seen a dog piddle in a store, but the more of them are there, the sooner it will happen. We have health codes for a reason. But people seem to think their selfishness is more important. And its mostly younger people, plus some rich middle-aged women, all of whom should know better, but apparently don’t. It’s sickening. Literally.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/16/2018 - 04:55 pm.

          Support animals =/= Service dogs

          Your comment jumps from subject to subject which renders it nearly impossible to respond to. But just for starters, let’s get the terminology straight. Support animals are NOT the same thing as Service Animals. This was covered in the article if you will go back and re-read it, but it’s important to understand that Service Animals are legally defined in what they are (Dogs or Miniature horses) and in what they can do. And the presence of a WELL-BEHAVED Service Animal in public spaces and places of business is protected by law.

          I agree that dishonest people are out there scamming both the concepts of Support animals and of Service animals, and that is shameful. But that’s a separate problem and does not negate the situation lived by those who have a legitimate need for their animal. And again, remember that if that animal is a Service animal, that person’s right to have the animal with them is protected by law.

          Service dogs receive extensive and specialized training. I once knew a woman who was a double amputee with a circulatory problem that caused her to pass out if she leaned too far forward or leaned forward for too long. Her well-trained and well-behaved dog enabled her to live a full and largely independent life, both at home and while out doing daily tasks such as grocery shopping or buying clothing. Would you deny her that?

          The article was also clear that Support animals do not enjoy the same broad legal protections that Service animals do, so you really need to be careful not to conflate the two in your complaints. But it would still be nice to see a bit more empathy towards the situations of those who have a real and compelling need for a Support animal and the ways in which what these animals do requires a more specialized skillset than “just” being a pet (also covered in the article).

          Don’t be one of those people who lets the selfish actions of the dishonest scammers cause you to call for the removal of the very real and needed support systems that legitimate Service and Support animals provide.

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