The Debate Over Assistance Animals and Credentials

Service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy pets are three terms that have caused a lot of controversy in the news. One reason is the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, even though they have distinct functions. Another reason is the existence of fake credentials. Finally, there’s disagreement over what type of credentials there should be and what form they should take.


Service Animals: According to the American Disabilities Act, service animals are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” The work or tasks that service animals perform must relate to the individual’s disability.

Currently, the ADA recognizes only dogs and miniature horses as service animals. Miniature horses can be turned away if they cannot be accommodated due to their type, size, or weight. The ADA does not recognize cats as service animals, but there are cats that do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. For example, the owner of Dezi and Lexi assists her in these ways: calm her during a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) attack, provide head massages to alleviate debilitating migraines, alert her before a syncopal episode, drive an electric wheelchair, and dial 911 for emergency assistance.

Emotional Support Animals: According to the ADA, emotional support animals “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.” The type of animal is not restricted.

Therapy Pets: According to Pet Partners, therapy pets “provide affection and comfort to members of the public in facility settings such as hospitals, assisted living facilities, and schools. These pets have a special aptitude for interacting with members of the public and enjoy doing so.” Dogs, cats, small animals (rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs), and birds are the most popular types of therapy animals.

The Benefits of Owning an Assistance Animal

Besides the obvious benefit of owning an assistance animal–the particular ‘assistance’ it provides to its owner–there are additional benefits that can be a source of envy for people who don’t need the assistance of a real assistance animal. These benefits most often involve special access. Service animals may enter public facilities and private businesses unless the animal’s presence poses a safety risk and brought onto airlines for free. Emotional support animals may live in residences with a “no pets” rule and brought onto airlines for free as carry-on luggage. Therapy pets may enter the facilities they serve.

The Problem with Fake Credentials

People primarily purchase fake credentials to obtain special access for their pet. For example, by buying fake credentials for an emotional support animal or service animal, a person who moves into a ‘no pets apartment will be able to keep their pet, and can take their pet onto a plane for no additional cost. And in the case of therapy pets, a person might have a legitimate desire to provide comfort to people in need but not want to invest the time or money into obtaining real credentials, perhaps believing their pet doesn’t require any special training. Whatever the reason, because there are people willing to purchase fake credentials, there is money to be made providing those credentials, resulting in an increase in businesses that do so, which makes fake credentials easier to obtain.

Do “fake” assistance animals cause any harm? Yes. They harm residential property owners by unfairly depriving them of proceeds from pet fees or by angering or even driving away other residents who expected their “pet free” building to be pet-free. They harm service animal trainers by causing them to waste time responding to people who are eager to reap the benefits of having a family pet declared a service animal despite having no legitimate need for a service animal. They harm those in the food service industry by putting them at risk for health code violations for allowing entry to animals who are not credentialed. And they harm those who have a legitimate need for assistance animals by sowing distrust and thereby causing tightened restrictions on assistance animals.

Real Requirements, Real Credentials

What are the actual requirements of service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy pets, and how are the fulfillment of these requirements documented? Each type of assistance animal has unique requirements and certification.

Service Animals: According to the American Kennel Club, “Every service dog must be trained in tasking skills specific to the handler’s disability and in public access skills. ADA regulations state that service dogs also must be house-trained and under control at all times in public.”

Service dogs may receive training in various ways. Organizations may specifically breed them as service dogs and then train and place them with clients. People in need of service dogs might hire professional dog trainers to train their family pets. Such people might also personally train their dogs.

According to Service Dog Central, the US Department of Justice permits businesses to ask two questions of people with service dogs:

  1. Is this a service dog required because of a disability?
  2. What is it trained to do to mitigate the disability?

Service Dog Central also notes that if service animals behave inappropriately by disrupting business, behaving aggressively, interfering with other patrons, or toileting inappropriately, a business can exclude service animals due to a “fundamental alteration” or “direct threat.”

Emotional Support Animals: Under the Fair Housing Act, emotional support animals are a “reasonable accommodation to a residence with a ‘no pets’ rule.” A property owner may ask for proof that the ESA alleviates an existing disability, which the Housing and Urban Development Act says may come from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional. Given such documentation, a property owner should waive a “no pets” rule or a pet deposit or pet-related rent increase. The Animal and Legal Historical Center states that because on-campus housing meets the definition of “dwelling” under the Fair Housing Act, campuses with “no pets” are required to make or allow reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities.

The Air Carrier Access Act does not restrict the type of animal it will accept as an Emotional Support Animal. It simply stipulates that the animal fit under the seat as “carry-on luggage” and that the owner has a signed letter from a licensed mental health professional. The letter must state the professional’s address and phone number, that the patient has a disorder listed in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, and that the patient is receiving active treatment for their disorder from this mental health professional.

Therapy Pets: According to the American Kennel Club, a therapy pet is “trained to provide comfort and affection to people in a facility setting”. Training can start with the owner, who socializes their pet to new people, places, and objects. Steps may vary after this, depending on the organization through which one certifies/registers their pet. The general recommended practice is for an owner to enroll their pet in a therapy pet class whereby the pet therapy team will gain exposure to equipment and situations unique to facilities they might serve, and then in a national therapy pet organization which will provide advice, support, and insurance. As part of an application to a national therapy pet organization, an owner usually needs to provide a temperament evaluation filled out by a veterinarian.

The Debate Over Credentials

While researching this article, I talked with people who own and/or train assistance animals. The more interviews I conducted, the clearer it became how little consensus exists over what type of credentials there should be and how proof of them should be provided. Again, I will cover each type of assistance animal separately.

Service Animals: There are no national organizations that have established standards for service animals. Therefore, if an owner receives a certificate from a trainer or an organization, this only means the animal has adhered to that trainer’s or that organization’s standards, and those standards can vary widely.

For this reason, opinions as to the value of certification varies. One service dog owner, Bunny Allen believes, “There is no value in certification. It has been proven in the courts of law over and over that certificates or credentials do not deem a dog trained. Even the ADA states that no credentials are needed.” Another service dog owner, Sierra Lynne believes instead that legislation is needed to establish national standards and licensing. Such standards would cut down on the sale of fake credentials and limit people’s ability to pass off their pets as service animals by merely dressing them up with a service animal vest, patch, or ID card.

Kristin Sandstede (service dog trainer) recommended a middle ground. She suggested that service dogs should be required to demonstrate a minimum of standard conduct that is upheld at all times. To do this, Sandstede said service animals should carry proof of current vaccinations and proof of passing both the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test and the Canine Good Citizenship test. The Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test is designed by the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners and consists of a series of objectives designed to evaluate the dog’s behavior in distracting environments. The 10-step Canine Good Citizenship test is considered the gold standard in obedience. AKC recommends retesting the CGC every three years.

Emotional Support Animals: The type of credentials needed for Emotional Support Animals is straightforward. “The ONLY way to make your pet a LEGAL emotional support animal is through your doctor or psychiatrist who is treating you for a mental illness recognized by the DSM-IV,” writes Amanda on her blog Dog Mom Days. She emphasizes that “If you are not being treated for a mental illness, your pet can not legally be recognized as an emotional support animal.”

In addition, Amanda also points out that owners should not register a pet on an Emotional Support Animal registry. “They are not legitimate, and you will literally throw away $60. Not to mention the fact that you make it more difficult for those of us who truly need an ESA.” Amanda suffers from debilitating anxiety when traveling by airplane or when in other cramped social situations. She’s been treated for her mental disorder since age 17. When she began flying with her dog, she discovered she no longer needed anxiety medication during flights, and this is when she asked her doctor to designate Wynston as her Emotional Support Animal. She notes that airlines will not recognize anything except a letter from a doctor, and that airlines have recently been triple-checking her documentation.

A nurse practitioner, Denise Yoder-Gruzensky, shared with me that when she has a patient that she knows would benefit from an Emotional Support Animal, she writes a letter that is reviewed by a lawyer. The letter states only that the patient would benefit from an Emotional Support Animal, without endorsing the specific animal selected by her patient as she cannot vouch for its training. “Proper training is imperative to ensure the safety of the animal, handler, and everyone else in contact with them. I believe there should be regulations to ensure the fakes don’t make it impossible for others to continue have access.”

Even though the type of credentials needed for Emotional Support Animals is straightforward, concern over fake credentials does exist. Sierra Lynne believes that a doctor’s note is too easy to get, and for that reason owners should have governmental clearance and pay a fee. In addition, she believes their “ESA license” should be revoked if they are found in places such as restaurants and grocery stores where ESAs aren’t allowed.

Therapy Pets: Since I joined the therapy pet world a year ago, debate has revolved most around whether or not there is a need for credentials. Some owners believe that if their pet is friendly to strangers and comfortable in new settings, they should be allowed to bring their pet to visit facilities without any paperwork other than current vaccination records. Others recognize that most facilities will require certification, but will purchase fake credentials out of ignorance or unwillingness to invest time and/or money into obtaining valid credentials.

Those who bypass certification for their therapy pet miss out on one of its greatest benefits: insurance. Because therapy pets interact with the public, insurance is extremely important: if your pet were to cause damage or harm, you could be financially liable. Owners of service animals and emotional support animals do not have this option; there is no national organization that provides them with the option of insurance.

Certification is also a source of pride for many therapy pet handlers, as it represents their teams’ hard work. Certification prepares a team to handle the culture of the facility that they will visit, shows respect for the “job” they have undertaken, and often provides the opportunity for ongoing education and support from a qualified pet therapy organization.

A nurse practitioner shared with me that the hospital where she works requires certification from a nationally-recognized therapy pet program. In addition, she does a meet-and-greet with the pet therapy team, and the team must take a test from the hospital’s training partner. If the team lacks familiarity with HIPPA and infection control information, they will receive the necessary training. For her, “this helps eliminate fake certifications.”

As the public is better educated about assistance animal terminology, confusion should lessen over the difference between service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy pets. The debate over what type of credentials there should be and what form they should take will no doubt continue for some time, for there are no easy answers.


Thanks to Terri Jennings of I-CAT who suggested this topic.

Thanks to my husband, Andy Frederick, who helped me wrap my head around the core issues surrounding assistance animals and credentials. He also helped me organize my research and proofread my article. Without his editing expertise, this article would still be a bad first draft. Finally, when my brain hurt from trying to get my thoughts out, he even wrote a couple of paragraphs for me.

Thanks to members of the following groups who amicably debated this topic: BlogPaws, I-CAT, LOAL Omaha, A special thanks to the following individuals who are allowed me to quote them: Denise Yoder-Gruzensky, Kristin Sandstede, (Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge & Skills Assessed, AKC CGC & APDT C.L.A.S.S. Evaluator and owner of Big Moose Dog Training), Sierra Lynne, and Bunny Allen of Carma Poodale.


American Disabilities Act National Network

American Veterinarian Medical Foundation

Animal Law Resource Center

Deziz World

Service Dog Central

How do I make my dog an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional Support Animals Present Real Challenges to Businesses


Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs

Marla and her dog, Kobie, were visiting patients at the Crete Hospital. As they prepared to leave for the day, a gentleman asked if Kobie could come visit his father. His father had had a stroke and wasn’t responding much to people talking to him. Marla asked Kobie sit on a chair by the sick man’s bed and then took the sick man’s hand and helped him pet Kobie’s head.  The man began to smile.  This was the first time he had smiled since having stroke. According to Marla Wademan, one of the founders of Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, it was a great honor to be part of someone’s like in this way. Moments like these exemplifies why pet therapy exists.

In 2003, Gale Lothrop and Marla Wademan started Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. as a way to strengthen the human-companion animal bond by allowing dogs to heal peoples’ hearts. Gale and Marla had already been doing therapy work as volunteers with the Angel Dog program at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital with their dogs Mysti and Kobie. While Gale and Maria loved volunteering at Madonna, they also wanted to visit and help people outside of the Madonna Hospital. To reach as many people as possible, they started their own therapy dog organization. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. now has approximately 70 members, with teams not only from Nebraska but also Kansas.

Photo from Healing Hearts Therapy Dog
Photo from Healing Hearts Therapy Dog

ALLISON: How did you set up contacts in the community?

MARLA: We basically used word of mouth at first. We then used the internet, newspapers, and social media.

ALLISON: What kind of training do you provide to potential therapy handlers and pets?

MARLA: We offer therapy dog classes for handlers and dogs. This class teaches handlers how to become a therapy dog team and how to use your dog to help bridge the gap between humans and animals.

ALLISON: What are the most typical places therapy pets are taken? What are the most unusual places therapy pets have gone?

MARLA: Our teams go to a variety of places. We have teams visiting hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, schools, college campuses, after-school programs, and businesses. We go where people need the love of a dog.

ALLISON: How often do therapy visits happen? How long is each visit? What do visits consist of?

Photo from Healing Hearts
Photo from Healing Hearts

MARLA: We ask our members to visit a minimum of twice a month. The length of the visits very from time to time. You may have a visit run longer because a client is having a bad day and really needs more time with the therapy dog.

I visit at Crete High School’s after school program twice a month. The length of our visit depends on how many students are there and how many need to see my therapy dog, Barkley.

We ask our members to keep their visits to no more than an hour and a half to two hours. The dogs get tired and we need to make sure we take care of our dogs.

Our visits consist of listening to the person we are visiting. It is amazing how our therapy dogs help start a conversation. We may ask the person if they ever have had a dog or just how his or her day is going. When people start to touch and pet our therapy dogs, people just open up.

ALLISON: What are some of your memorable pet therapy moments?

MARLA: I always tell the teams who take our class that your dog will know who needs them. I was giving a presentation about Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc., at a church in Lincoln. My current therapy dog, Barkley, was with me. While I was speaking, Barkley caught the eye of a gentleman in the group I was speaking to. Barkley kept looking at this gentleman. When I was finished with the presentation, the gentleman came up to Barkley and me. Barkley immediately bonded with the gentleman. I found out that the gentleman had just lost his dog. He was still grieving for his dog and Barkley knew it. He sat for the longest time just petting Barkley.

Everywhere Barkley and I visit, everyone knows Barkley. I’m kind of invisible and that’s just fine with me. In fact, Barkley and I were visiting some high school students. Barkley and I have been visiting the students since August. One of the students, who was down on the floor with Barkley, looked up at me and said,”What is your name?” I just had to laugh.

ALLISON:  How did the R.E.A.D. program start?

Sometimes kids who are learning to read get stressed, not because they aren’t capable of reading, but because they get nervous and self-conscious. They worry about making mistakes, they worry about looking dumb–and all those worries make it hard to focus. They dread reading in front of their friends, so they often “freeze up” and things just get worse. When they read with a dog, right away they start to relax, and then they forget about feeling self-conscious or nervous, and pretty soon things start to flow a little better. Before they know it, they are enjoying the experience of reading instead of dreading it. They are even looking forward to the next time.–Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs

MARLA: R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dog. R.E.A.D. began in the fall of 1999. Sandi Martin, a registered nurse and board member of Intermountain Therapy Animals, thought that the benefits of therapy animals could also help children with reading. November 1999 was the first Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. They did a pilot program at one of Salt Lake City Libraries. The R.E.A.D. program was called “Dog Day Afternoons”.

Photo from Healing Hearts
Photo from Healing Hearts

Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. works with Intermountain Therapy Animals to provide training and reading programs. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs work with the Lincoln Libraries to provide a reading program called “R.E.A.D. to a Dog” and Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs Members help students with their reading twice a year. There is a fall and spring session. Parents sign their child up to read to one of our R.E.A.D. dogs for 15-20 minutes. Each session lasts for six weeks. It’s amazing to see a child relax and just read to a dog. The dog is nonjudgmental and has unconditional love for the child.

ALLISON:  Why should someone volunteer with your chapter or a similar group?

MARLA: Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. wants people who are joining for the right reason. When you do therapy work with a dog, you become invisible at times. If you are not okay with that, then you need to find a different way to volunteer. Most of our clients can tell you our dogs’ name, but probably don’t know the member’s name. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. believes any therapy dog organization is worth taking a look at. Our members have numerous stories how their dogs have helped someone. That is what it is all about–helping people and giving people hope.

Healing Heart Therapy Dogs is a non-profit organization supported through annual membership dues. The group recognizes that interactions with specially trained animals help to transform a life of discouragement, fear, and sadness into one of happiness, independence, and hope. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs Teams serve as a bridge to help develop a caring relationship with children and adults in may settings. If dog therapy interests you, contact Healing Hearts Therapy Dog or the national R.E.A.D. program.