What the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal?
For someone who says he prefers cats over dogs, Nic Day spends a lot of time with canines.
Atlas, a 1-year-old Akita, is nearly always by Day’s side. A Marine Corps veteran, Day started experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after multiple tours in Iraq.
“When I started having issues with my PTSD, I was like, ‘I’ve tried everything,’” Day said in an interview. “’I’ll try the dang dog.’”
For the last several years, Day, who lives in Meridian, has had service dogs to alleviate some of the symptoms of his PTSD. Like Day’s previous service dogs, Atlas is trained to jump up on Day when the 40-year-old veteran starts experiencing shallow breathing or increased heart rate, signs that he’s feeling stressed or panicked.
“I’m not a big fan of a 90-pound dog jumping on me,” Day said. “But it forces me to think, ‘OK, why is he doing this? What needs to change in this situation?’”
Day can never be sure when something will trigger his PTSD, so most days he takes Atlas with him when he’s out and about. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses that serve the public must accommodate service dogs.
In the three years Day has used a service dog, he had only been refused entry once — at a local hospital — until he and his wife were asked to leave an Oregon hotel earlier this month after staff refused to acknowledge Atlas as a service animal, Day said.
Amid a growing number of people with emotional support animals (which differ from service dogs) and businesses struggling to distinguish between the two, Day hopes to shed some light on service dogs and the complex laws regarding them.
What happened at Oregon hotel?
According to Day, nothing seemed amiss when he and his wife, Tina, reserved a room at a Hampton Inn in Medford. Day said they informed the hotel of their two service dogs — Atlas and another Akita, named Ares, who works as a service dog for Tina — in their reservations and heard no complaints.
Day said the trouble started when the couple checked into the hotel on the evening of June 6. According to Day, the hotel’s night manager told the couple that the business had a strict “no pets” policy — which includes emotional support animals meant to offer companionship to owners.
It’s not unusual that he has to explain how Atlas differs from a companion animal, Day said. Often people misconstrue the fact that Day’s disability is a mental health issue, assuming such conditions cannot be aided by an ADA-compliant service dog. In those cases, like he did when checking in to the Hampton, Day explains the services that Atlas performs. Day said the night manager at the Oregon hotel understood the explanation and allowed the couple to check in.
The next morning, the Days took both dogs outside the hotel to relieve themselves. When they tried to re-enter the building, Day said, their keycards had been disabled. The couple approached the front desk, where day said the hotel’s general manager asked him why he had a dog.
“I explained to her that Atlas is my PTSD service dog,” Day said. “She told me that PTSD does not count as a disability and that the dog is an emotional support animal.”
Since 2012, PTSD has been recognized as a condition valid for using service dog, according to Cheryl Bloom, a local ADA coordinator and service dog advocate who also knows the Days.
Day said he tried to explain the distinction to the hotel manager while Tina went to the hotel’s business center to print relevant ADA documents. When Tina returned to the front desk, Day was frustrated at what he said was the employee’s ignorance of the law.
“I was starting to have an anxiety attack,” he said.
According to Day, the situation reminded him of time several years ago when he’d been refused entry to a local hospital. That experience had left him so stressed and upset that he was put on suicide watch. Day said his wife tried to explain to the manager that she was concerned the incident could escalate Day’s suicide risk, prompting the employee to ask whether Day was armed. He was — he carries a handgun that he had left unloaded in his truck.
“She said, ‘Of course he has a gun. We’re from Idaho. Everyone has a gun,’” Day told the Statesman.
The hotel employee called the police, saying she felt threatened.
According to Medford Police Department Lt. Mike Budreau, hotel employees alleged the Days “snuck their dogs into the motel room.”
“When staff told the wife they would have to leave, she replied, in front of witnesses, that this will upset her husband, who is armed with a gun, has PTSD and ‘doesn’t know what he will do,’” Budreau said in an email. “When we got on scene, everyone was cooperative, no weapons were drawn and everyone had respectful conversations.
“The wife was denying that she said those exact words. Staff was confident that was what she said. Staff remained that they would need to leave the premises and expressed concern over the threats made about her husband being armed. In the end, the couple was asked to leave and they complied.”
After leaving the hotel, Day filed complaints against the Hampton Inn with the ADA and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. He also sent a Facebook message to the company on June 7, describing the incident and informing them that he was seeking legal advice.
“It has been brought to our attention that the dispute in the hotel’s policy escalated to where the police were involved due to threat in safety of hotel staff,” a representative replied via Facebook Messenger. “...Our sincere apologies for any frustrations this has caused you. ... Regrettably, as you have indicated you are seeking legal counsel, we will be unable to assist further with this matter.”
In a statement to the Statesman, the Hampton Inn Medford said it “always welcomes guests with ADA service animals.”
“During the situation that occurred on the morning of June 7, a conversation took place between the hotel general manager and the guest and it was determined that the dogs were not ADA-required companions,” the statement said. “As the guests had already stayed one night without the hotel being aware of the dogs, the hotel general manager decided to make an exception and allow the guests to stay with the dogs for the remaining two nights of their reservation.”
According to the statement, the Hampton alleged Day was satisfied with that agreement.
“Shortly thereafter, the spouse traveling with the guest verbally confronted the hotel’s general manager in the lobby of the hotel about the status of the dogs,” the statement said. “During this confrontation, she stated to the general manager that the guest was in possession of a firearm. The hotel general manager immediately contacted police out of concern for the guest himself, as well as other hotel guests and associates. The local police arrived and determined it was in everyone’s best interest to have the guests leave the property.”
The hotel’s statement said its staff did not behave inappropriately and added that it “certainly does not discriminate against any guest, and sincerely welcomes members of the military and appreciates their service to our country.”
The difference between service dogs and emotional support animals
Though the hotel could potentially face a fine if it’s found in violation of the ADA, Day said he hopes the takeaway is education.
“With the Hampton Inn being a nationwide company, an incident like this can have far-reaching effects,” he said. “(That way) someone with a service dog, veteran or civilian, doesn’t have to go through what I went through.”
That means teaching business owners and employees how to distinguish between emotional support animals, which do not have legal protections to enter businesses, and service dogs, which do. And that’s not necessarily an easy task. There is not legal registry or certification for service dogs, and the ADA allows individuals to train service dogs themselves.
“Businesses are concerned about ... is it a legitimate service dog,” said Bloom, who wrote an Idaho law slated to go into effect July 1 that clarifies state regulations and definitions around service animals.
Bloom said she’s done training for dozens of businesses — including, recently, Hilton — to train employees on questions they can legally ask service dog handlers and how to navigate situations in which service animals are causing a disruption.
Under the ADA, business owners can ask service dog handlers two questions: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
The second question gets to the meat of the difference between service dogs and emotional support animals. While emotional support animals may bring comfort to their owners, those animals are not required to perform a task, such as Day’s service dog disrupting an anxiety attack.
Day wants to educate people bringing non-service animals into businesses, too.
“Individuals passing dogs off as service animals, they’re doing a disservice to those of us who need one,” he said.
There are limitations to the ways businesses can clarify an animal’s status, which can cause some anxiety.
“Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability,” a Department of Justice fact sheet on the ADA states.
But Day and Bloom say business owners do have the right to turn ADA-compliant service dogs away in some circumstances. If the dog is disruptive, unclean or not under control of the handler, businesses can legally ask the handler to remove the animal from the business.
“A lot of business owners are afraid of getting sued (if they turn a service dog away),” Bloom said. “When businesses know they’re not going to get sued because the dog is barking or pooping or chasing someone around the store, they’re more confident.”
Day said better education could help alleviate some of the stress he and other veterans experience when their disability status is called into question. For Day, the incident in Oregon led to a week of health issues, including an ER visit after he experienced a panic attack and blacked out, he said.
Day said many of Idaho’s veterans benefit from service dogs. He and Tina run Guardian Paws Service Dogs, a nonprofit that helps veterans train their own dogs for mental health and mobility assistance. They often work with other veteran-focused groups, like the Idaho Veterans Network and Return to Heal, another local service dog training organization for veterans.
Jason Harvey, who co-owns Return to Heal with fellow veteran Thomas Hansen, trained military K-9s in the Marine Corps. He said the “invisible illnesses” many veterans deal with — like PTSD — can leave those individuals feeling judged. Many of veterans are already at increased risk of suicide.
“I’ve had people say, ‘You’re disabled?’” Harvey said. “I don’t operate the same as I did pre-deployment. I may have no physical injuries, but the mental injuries are there. On the veterans side, I see them deal with another stage of depression, they feel shame or guilt where they want to be normal because people don’t see they’re not.”
A service dog can help veterans navigate those feelings and so much more, according to Day.
“If a dog can help save just one life, they’re worth it,” he said.