Lately, there’s been lot of buzz on social media about how to make companion animals into Service or Emotional Support Animals. Some people want to do it just so they can take their dog everywhere with them--maybe the dog has separation anxiety, or maybe it's just for fun...others may seek out this option because their apartment complex has a breed ban. There are thousands of blog articles, socila media posts and discussion threads about how to get a badge or doctor’s note and that if you have one of these, no one can turn you and your dog away from any public place.
On the flip side, I’ve heard and read many sad stories about people with real service dogs or emotional support animals being thrown out of stores, kicked off airplanes, harassed and humiliated because staff didn't believe their service dog was the real deal.
I found myself wondering if these two things were related, so I called a friend who trains service dogs professionally and hit her up for some intel. What she told me was very eye-opening! Whether you’re kicking around the idea of falsifying a doctor's note because your apartment complex won’t let you have a pit bull-type dog, or you really do need to have your dog at your side for medical reasons, I hope this helps you make the right decision for you, your dog and the general public.
Stephanie Gerken is the founder/owner of a non-profit in Las Vegas called Michael’s Angel Paws and as of the date of this post, one of only two trainers in Nevada who are certified to train service animals. She's one of the most hard-working, humble, committed and ethical people I've ever known. Here's what she said:
Hey Stephanie! Tell us a little about what Michael’s Angel Paws does.
We’re a 501(c) 3 non-profit registered in Nevada helping others through either our service dog program or our community program. The service dog program is set up to help those who want to turn their own dog into a service dog or have us find a pup at a shelter or rescue and train them (as long as the dog passes our temperament test). We help them train and certify the dog and file all the necessary paperwork to get them officially registered. That way if anyone ever has questions, they can come back to us and see that they worked with a certified trainer.
Our community dog program is set up to minimize the number of dogs sent to shelters by offering training for them with behavioral issues like potty training, nipping, jumping, barking. We have basic classes all the way to advanced and therapy dog training. We also have agility classes and will be starting a “clicks for tricks” class. Well-mannered pups have a better chance of staying in their homes, so this can help keep them out of the shelters.
That’s great! I didn’t even know you were doing the community program—owner retention is so important in addressing the homeless pet problem.
So how did you get started in the service dog industry?
I was working with a small, private dog training company in Las Vegas and a client of mine came to me and asked if I could train her Akita to be her service dog. She offered me a scholarship to Bergen University of Canine Studies in Santa Rosa to get certified as a service dog trainer. I got certified, came back here and founded Michael’s Angel Paws.
What do you look for in a potential service animal? And are there certain breeds or types that make better service dogs than others?
I’m not worried about breed… we don’t look at that at all. What I’m more concerned with is temperament—one thing we look for in the service dog industry is called “low arousal” meaning basically a couch potato—an easy-going dog who doesn’t react to things like wheel chairs, walkers, shopping carts, things that the dog would normally come across out in the real world. There’s a really high failure rate with service dogs. They have to be “bomb proof”.
Can a reactive or excitable dog become certified?
No. Have we had dogs with those issues pass the test? Yes, because we’ve worked through those issues first.
How much does it typically cost--start to finish--to have a dog trained & certified as a service animal and how long does the process take?
Through our organization, it can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000. And that includes training, food, treats, vet visits, spay/neuter, toys, etc. Depending on the dog, it can take anywhere from 18-24 months to properly train a dog and get them certified.
**note: there are several organizations that train service dogs for free and some of them even pull dogs from shelters…they normally have wait lists and getting a dog is a long, drawn-out process, so be prepared to be patient. (For more info on assistance, see the links at the end of the article)
What’s the difference between an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) and a Service or Assistance Animal?
Emotional Support Animals help their owners with issues like depression, OCD behaviors, phobias, panic attacks, things like that…they calm their person when they’re having an episode or attack, make them feel safe. Science has shown us that touching a dog releases oxytocin in the brain, which calms a person and can even ease physical pain.
Service dogs (which includes Psychiatric Service Animals or PSAs) perform specific functions for disabled owner, such as detecting seizures, diabetic alert, room or perimeter checks, blocking harmful behaviors, helping with balance and/or mobility, visual assistance, hearing assistance, opening doors, retrieving items, blocking people etc.,..
I've seen a lot of social media posts about how you can take your dog anywhere by getting a note from a doctor. Is there any truth to this?
As far as ESAs go, they are no longer covered under the American Disabilities Act. According to the Department of Justice, (who oversees the ADA) that changed back in 2010, but ESAs can still fly on airlines because that’s actually governed by the Federal Aviation Administration. That requires a doctor’s note and several pieces of identification, which varies depending on the airline. You have to check with each one to see what they require. So can you have a doctor’s note to fly? Yes.
Now, if you’re on public property (like the grocery store), an ESA no longer has access laws to protect them. Managers and owners of businesses can’t ask why you have a service dog but they have the right to ask what service the dog performs for you. And they have the right to refuse entry or ask you to leave, unless the dog is an actual service dog because they’re protected by federal law.
What about all those websites where you pay a couple hundred bucks to get a badge and vest that allegedly grants you and your dog access to any public place?
The American Disabilities Act doesn’t regulate that at all, which gets into a whole other controversy that service dog trainers are dealing with now. We work so hard to turn out these really good dogs that represent the service dog industry…you can buy those vests and they might look legitimate to the general public but what we’re more worried about is if the dog has had any formal training.
So people are cheating the system?
Yes, because they think its fun to take their pups everywhere. We see this all the time and it’s happening more and more… people don’t understand the responsibility of having a real service dog. That dog is publicly held to standards way above those of a human child.
*people are also doing it to get around breed bans in their county, city or apartment building. While it's terrible that some dog parents feel they have to do this just to this just to keep their dog, it's still unethical.
Do you think this is affecting people who really need an assistance animal?
Absolutely. It’s made it much harder for people with real service dogs and ESAs to take their dogs in public places, because so many owners and managers have seen fake service dogs misbehaving…they assume they’re all like that. People with certified service dogs are being hassled and asked to leave public places.
So was the Department of Justice's decision to drop ESAs from the protective laws of the ADA because so many people were taking advantage of the loophole?
I believe so. Because everyone was saying they needed one—pretty much everyone has had a panic attack in their life (myself included) but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need your dog to go with you everywhere. There was too much gray area so they decided to drop ESAs.
These people are jeopardizing the reputation of all the real assistance and support dogs and the organizations that work so hard to turn out great dogs and continue to educate the public. People who buy badges and vests just so they can take their dog everywhere don’t realize that if their dog makes one mistake, it becomes so much harder for the rest of us…to the point where state laws can actually change.
This is really great information, so helpful—thanks for talking to us about this and also thanks for all you’re doing for people and their dogs! Where can we go to donate to Michael’s Angel Paws?
ADDENDUM: While some folks with SAs have chosen to fight back legally to protect their rights, others will stay home for fear of being asked to leave or banned from entering public places with their service animal. This takes away their freedom and independence.
If you genuinely need an animal to perform tasks, please start by contacting a certified trainer to have your animal evaluated. If your they have what it takes to be a service animal, your trainer will help your pet learn how to assist you. Those who suffer from anxiety or mood disorder who have found peace and calm in having an animal by their side can begin by talk to a doctor.
So we know there's a big difference between what Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals do, and levels of training and ability differ, as well. But both should have these things in common: sound temperament and basic manners. This ensures the animal can help their human safely navigate public places without incident. A certified force-free trainer can evaluate temperarement and help prepare you and your dog.
Find a service dog trainer in your area:
www.assistancedoginternational.org is a great resource for locating organizations, info on current ADA guidelines, service dog industry standards and general questions
Low cost/free service dog training program:
Find an accredited force-free trainer in your area: