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The differences in different types of assistance animals

Photo by Victoria Hernandez
Panda providing therapy to two walkers who passed by during the FURst Tuesday event Nov. 7.

A law was recently passed in Arkansas to enforce the proper verification process of getting an emotional support animal (ESA). Act 268 passed in 2023 regarding emotional support animals which was sponsored by Rep. Matt Brown of Conway in order to codify what qualifies an animal as an emotional support animal.

People can have an ESA if they need emotional, cognitive, or other similar support for a disability without training. They require a “health care provider” who is licensed, certified or otherwise authorized by the law in Arkansas to provide documentation, according to the act.

The two main problems addressed in the bill were people selling animals or animal accessories that led people to believe their animal could become an emotional support or service dog and the other problem addressed is the regulations of how to get your ESA prescribed, Brown said.

“So essentially anyone with a credit card and a hundred dollars could log on and get a certificate claiming they have been prescribed an emotional support animal,” he said. “The law only puts a penalty on companies that are selling animals and kind of fraudulently marketing them as service animals or are selling the vests or certificates or other accessories and then fraudulently marketing you now just transform your animal into an ADA service animal so those were the only penalties or violations of the law.”

ESAs may live with their owners, even if a “No Pets” policy is in place. Their primary function is to provide emotional support solely through companionship. They do not have the rights to be brought into public establishments and lack the training to tolerate a wide variety of experiences.

“Therapy dogs are specifically certified and trained to go out into the public and spread awareness,” certified therapy dog handler Kayla Mayes said. “I always tell kids when we’re visiting schools that Panda’s job is to spread love and happiness and create smiles. And so really they’re in the community to do that.”

She is the handler of Panda, a five-year-old Newfoundland, and the two are a certified therapy team through Love on a Leash, a nonprofit organization that provides an avenue for volunteers to engage in pet therapy, bringing their animals to help the community destress.

Mayes said she adopted Panda as a rescue dog, but noticed that she had the qualities to comfort more than just her owner.

“I pretty quickly noticed in just going to schools that she was just really equipped to do that. She loves kids. She loves getting pets and spreading smiles and so we decided to get certified as a certified therapy team through Love on a Leash. And the rest is kind of history. So she’s a certified therapy dog. We do visits with Love on a Leash and she’s also a therapy dog at my kid’s elementary school so we get to go there and be involved.”

Another organization that brings assistance animals to the community is Canine Companion. Lilian Crawford is a volunteer puppy raiser through the national nonprofit.

“So my job as a volunteer puppy raiser is just the initial basic training and socialization. And we have the dogs for around 16-18 months before they go to professional training which is where they learn the actual tasks that they’ll use when they’re a service dog to help their person,” she said.

Canine Companion specializes in providing service dogs to people with disabilities.

“A service dog, how it's defined with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is a federal law that allows service dogs to go basically anywhere in public with their handlers. And it defines them as a dog that is task trained to help assist them with a disability,” Crawford said. “So they’re doing specific tasks that directly relate to the person’s disability to help them with that. And the big thing that differentiates them from emotional support animals and therapy animals, facility dogs, is they have public access anywhere.”

Canine Companion also partners with the local organization Paws for Justice.

Susan Bradshaw and Fawn Borden, program managers for Paws for Justice, were both working as victim advocates in Conway’s 20th Judicial District in 2014 when she heard about a prosecutor’s office using dogs during the testimony of witnesses.

From there the two worked to create the statewide program of Paws for Justice, facilitating interactions between their dogs and their clients.

“So we’re there just to help with best practices of how to use the dog, making sure our dogs are safe, and they play all kinds of games with people so we do those interactions where they can play the different games or give high fives, shake, things like that,” Bradshaw said.

Because the handlers from Paws for Justice are not allowed to sit with the animals while their client is testifying, service animal training was the best way to go for their goals, she said.

“Sometimes they’re on the stand for two and a half, three hours. We have used our dogs helping multiple victims in a row and we ended up right at four hours and in fact the judge was checking the clock to make sure we hit the bathroom break when we needed to,” Bradshaw said. “But just knowing that our dogs could work for up to four hours at a time in an environment that may not be of their choosing but we know that they’re healthy and happy and they’re doing what they love to do.”

Since Paws for Justice dogs assist more than one person, they are classified as a facility animal as opposed to a service animal.

“We don’t have a disability, we can't call them service animals so they’re called facility animals and they work with a handler in public settings like schools, nursing homes, hospitals, courthouses, different places like that,” Bradshaw said.

Compared to other types of assistance animals, facility animals have the capacity to not only step away from their handler, but they are trained to follow specific commands. This is a distinction between facility animals and other assistance animals, like therapy and emotional support animals.

Having an assistance animal available in life is more than just another pet. These animals improve the wellness of all they interact with, whether it’s providing joy through therapy or assistance through service.

“Just all of these dogs, a big thing that they do is providing independence and just creating a bond with a dog is huge and so helpful,” Crawford said.

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Victoria Hernandez is a news intern for KUAF and currently a senior dual majoring in English/Journalism with History and Gender Studies minors at the University of Arkansas.
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