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February 09, 2018 10:00 PM

Canine Confusion

Recently, service and emotional support animals have been making national headlines. 

You might remember the story of a person who tried to bring an emotional support peacock onto a United flight. 

The bird was turned away. 

That has a lot of people asking whether these animals are providing some sort of assistance to people. 

There are three different terms you often hear and it's important to know what they all mean. 

Therapy dogs are trained to visit groups of people, such as nursing home residents or kids at a school.  

Emotional support animals are meant to provide comfort to their owners, but like therapy dogs, they're not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Finally, we have service dogs.

Macy is Ken Laughlin's support system. 

The veteran suffers from back problems, stemming from his service in the U.S. Navy. 

"It was getting to the point where I would stay--I wouldn't leave the house. With her it helps me get out of the house; she gets things for me; I don't worry about stumbling and looking like a drunk because I have something I can grab ahold of," Veteran Ken Laughlin said. 

Laughlin says the German Shepherd completed about two years of training to be certified through Big Paws Canine Foundation, a non-profit that provides service dogs to first responders injured in the line of duty and veterans with disabilities, for free. 

However, not all dogs that appear to be service animals have the same level of training or any at all. 

"Generally you can look at these dogs and tell by their behavior," Big Paws Canine Foundation Midwest Director of Operations Gail Dickerson said. 

Gail Dickerson is the Director of Operations of the Midwest Region of Big Paws Canine Foundation.

She can recall a time when her husband's service dog was attacked by another dog that looked like a service animal. 

Kelli Volk: Was it wearing a vest?
Dickerson: Mhmm. Yes ma'am. And that's happened on more than one occasion. 

She says her husband's dog had to be re-trained so it wouldn't react every time another dog ran toward him. 

It turns out it's easier than you think to make your dog look like a service animal. 

A quick Google search reveals several websites that allow you to purchase vests and certificates for your dog. 

"Basically it's not worth the cardstock it's printed on because the federal government doesn't recognize any of those things so that's where we're finding this gray area," Dickerson said. 

"The gray area." That's a good way to put it because there's a lot to be aware of for handlers and businesses when it comes to service dogs. 

For example, what qualifies as a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

"Service animals under the ADA can only be a dog or a miniature horse is the exception to it. A service animal actually has to perform a service or a task," City of Sioux Falls ADA Coordinator Colleen Moran said. 

If you take one of these two animals to a public place, the business is only allowed to ask you two questions: 

"'Is that a service animal?' and 'What tasks has it been trained to perform?' If it hasn't been trained to perform any tasks it's not a service animal," Moran said. 

Kelli Volk: How can an employer make a determination? How can they say, 'I don't consider that to be a task?'
Moran: I think what the law would encourage employers to do is err on the side of, 'This is probably a service animal.'

Kelli Volk: The honor system is at play here.
Moran: Exactly. Exactly. 

Other takeaways from the ADA? Service animals don't need to wear vests, ID tags, or specific harnesses and you can train the animal yourself instead of using a professional program. 

"Sometimes if you had someone else train it, it would be very cost prohibitive so that's another thing the Americans with Disabilities Act recognized is people should be able to train their own animal because otherwise they may not be able to afford it," Moran said. 

That's a point Dickerson and Laughlin both acknowledge as well.

But at the same time, dogs with improper training or no training at all could cause harm in more ways than one. 

"It takes away from the validity of all the work that my students put into their dogs," Dickerson said. 

For now, she hopes more people will become familiar with the rules. 

"I don't see that there is any easy solution, but I hope that with awareness and education people will refrain from doing things that could hurt other humans and animals by their actions," Dickerson said. 

Here is another key point, the ADA does require that service animals be under control at all times.

There are separate acts that speak to animals on airplanes, like the peacock, and in housing

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