Support Animals: Helping to Heal

By Graciela, Brianna, and Rachel, Hotline Advocates

The effects of domestic violence on survivors can be profound and long-lasting. As medical and cosmetic technology has progressed, survivors have more options for removing or changing the physical evidence of abuse. But, healing the emotional effects can be more challenging. One option for survivors who are in the process of healing from abuse is working with a service or support animal.

Currently, there are three different kinds of support animals:

Service Dogs

A service animal is defined by law as, “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” Examples of these service animals include seeing eye dogs that assist people who are blind or Canine Companion dogs that assist an individual who uses a wheelchair. These dogs require special training and certification to become licensed service dogs and are trained to work with a specific individual. They are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Owners have the right to bring their service animal into public establishments, like a domestic violence shelter. “No pet” policies do not apply to these dogs because they are not considered pets, by law.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are not limited to dogs and do not require special training or certification. They can be prescribed to a person by a medical or mental health professional to provide emotional support for issues like anxiety or depression. The primary function of this type of animal is to be a companion and provide emotional support, usually to a specific individual or household. While these animals are not explicitly covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, owners do have some rights. For example, like service dogs, emotional support animals can live with their owners, regardless of “no pets” policies that an apartment complex or domestic violence shelter may have. They are also not subject to breed restrictions because of their role.

Therapy Dogs

Some therapists and nonprofits have special employees called therapy dogs. These dogs undergo special training and certification to provide emotional support and comfort for a wide variety of people. A therapy dog may provide comfort to people in the hospital, nursing homes or be a reading buddy for children. While these dogs perform a wonderful service, they do not fall into the same category as service or emotional support animals because their job is to provide support to a wide variety of people, as opposed to an individual.

Further legal information:

Some shelters work with animal rescues or vet offices to provide boarding or foster homes for pets while their owners are in the shelter. While this is a great option, they cannot require a person to use this option for their service animal. They are not considered pets under the law and that is not considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The person benefits from having their service animal with them and separating them would cause an undue burden on the individual who needs the animal. The shelter can require that a person provides documentation of certification, but they cannot ask someone to prove a disability or explain why they need a service animal. If you are denied access to the shelter with your service animal, the shelter has broken the law. While this is not an issue you may be able to address immediately, you do have a right to pursue legal action. It would a good idea to contact a lawyer to consider legal action or a human rights organization to file a complaint. The laws are not as clear around emotional support animals and may vary by state.

Although by law service animals are not considered pets, they are often important and beloved members of people’s families. Working with a service or support animal can be a great option for those who are healing from abusive relationships. Check out the resources below for more information!

Additional Resources (all links are to PDFs):

ADA Service Animal Booklet 2014

Red Rover – Bringing Animals From Crisis to Care

U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Requirements

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