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Service animals need to be regulated

With the return of therapy dogs to campus each semester during finals week, many students crave the company of a canine companion to ease their stress.

In recent years, national popularity of emotional support animals has risen dramatically thanks to relaxed regulations on service animals and easily obtained registration.

ESAs differ from other service animals, such as psychiatric service animals (PSAs), according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. A PSA fulfills a specific task for the owner, such as reminding them to take their medication or preventing a panic attack, whereas an ESA is only meant to provide comfort to its owner.

"Personally, she keeps me company," Winans said. "[She] forces me to leave the room and reminds me that I love exercising and just walking around which I [sometimes] forget or are too nervous to do."

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The lines are already blurred between PSAs and ESAs, but the idea that every service animal has to be trained and certified to perform is a widely popular misconception.

Nowhere in the ADA is it required that a service animal become certified or registered through the government. The training a dog receives to carry out a task for a disabled individual is what defines a service animal as such. There's no requirement to register, provide documentation or even have the animal wear a vest to identify a service animal at work.

The University of Arizona Disability Resource Center confirms that any student does not have to prove that their dog is trained as a service animal. The only thing any administration can do is ask whether or not the animal in question is in fact a service animal and what the animal is trained for. They cannot ask for information about the owner's condition, proof of training or registration of the animal.

When it comes to a guide dog or other animal that helps a person with more obvious impairments such as epilepsy or blindness, the purpose of the companion is clear to everyone. For those who suffer less visible conditions such as anxiety or depression, the service animal's job is much less apparent to others.

These types of service animals are more difficult to identify, and if someone wanted to claim that his or her dog helps with his or her panic attacks, there is no law that requires proof of service training in order to bring a "service animal" into a business.

ABC News tested the limits of this idea last year by seeing how easily they'd be able to fly with an animal for free if they told the airline that their pet was an ESA. With little to no hassle, the ABC correspondent was able to fly with a dog, rabbit and hedgehog at various airlines.

Without any real regulation of service animals in place, the government, airlines and universities have to simply trust that people are being honest about their animals. But the reality is that people aren't being honest.

The only thing differentiating my dog from a service animal is that one was trained to perform a specific action while the other was not. If I really wanted to, I could claim my dog as a service animal and businesses would have to respect my right to bring him into their stores. When it comes to service animals, documentation and certification are simply unnecessary formalities.

For Makenzie Winans, a sophomore studying information science and arts,, having her 10-year-old miniature pinscher mix Paisley as an ESA helps her feel comfortable while living in the school dorms. Winans explained that Paisley helps her deal with her anxiety and depression.

"Personally, she keeps me company," Winans said. "[She] forces me to leave the room and reminds me that I love exercising and just walking around which I [sometimes] forget or are too nervous to do."

Unfortunately, not everyone understands Winans' need for a service animal.

When Winans first brought Paisley to class, she barked at another student after they dropped their backpack. The teacher proceeded to tell Winans she wasn't allowed to bring the dog to class again because she caused a disturbance.

According to the ADA, service animals are not considered a disturbance when provoked by another person.

"Some people have been mean to Paisley or me," Winans said. "She barked and someone threatened that I would be thrown out for breaking the housing agreement because I had a dog."

For people who suffer from anxiety, depression and other invisible disabilities, it's discouraging to hear that most businesses and people either don't understand the laws regarding service animals, or exploit the system just so they can fly with their pet for free.

Until new legislation strengthens the regulations on real service animals, the public needs to stop abusing the current system, so that true service animals can continue being a positive force for those who need their help. 


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Updated December 5, 2021