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Rev. John P. Joseph, Esq. CCA
8950 Dr. MLK Jr. Street North Suite 160
St. Petersburg, FL 33702
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Support, Service and Psychiatric Animals in Church Services

Dear Clients and Friends,

Occasionally I am asked to explain the differences between Service, Emotional Support and Psychiatric animals. In this blog, I will address this and assist you to understanding the Federal and State legal accommodations required of these animals. Although Florida law allows dogs and miniature horses as service animals this blog will mostly speak of the more common animal, dogs. From the outset I would like to thank and credit the American Kennel Club with some of the information used in this blog.

Every dog owner knows the various benefits to having a dog, from exercise to receiving loyal companionship. However, for some people with mental or emotional diagnosed conditions, a dog is critical to their ability to function normally on a daily basis. The pet provides emotional support and comfort that helps them deal with challenges that might otherwise compromise their quality of life. These pets are known as “emotional support animals” or (ESAs).

What Is an Emotional Support Dog?

To be legally be considered an emotional support dog, also called an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety or give them a focus in life.

Emotional Support Dog vs. Service Dogs

ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. However, they are not service dogs, and ESA users do not receive the same accommodations as service dog users.
A service dog, such as a guide dog, is generally allowed anywhere the public is allowed; ESAs are not. For example, ESAs generally cannot accompany their owners into restaurants or shopping malls.

Some state and local laws have a broader definition, so be sure to check with local government agencies to learn if ESAs qualify for public access in your area.

Service dogs are a different story.

The Federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The act clearly states that animals that simply provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals.

Florida law in FSA 413.08 defines service animals as “an animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Approved animals in Florida is “a dog or miniature horse.”

The key difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, service dogs are trained to alert a hearing-impaired person to an alarm or to guide a visually impaired person around an obstacle.

Florida law says the person with such a service dog is “entitled to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges in all public accommodations.” FSA 413.(2)

A common question from a Pastor is care for the dog by the handler while attending church services. Here the law is clear in this regard. The animal must be under the control of its handler and must have a harness, leash or other tether, unless the handler because of their disability cannot do so. Then the handler must still use control by other means such as voice control, signals or other effective means to control the animal. This is important for the church staff to understand.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

There are service dogs, known as psychiatric service dogs that require extensive training to work specifically with people whose disability is due to mental illness. These dogs detect the beginning of psychiatric episodes and help ease their effects. Although this sounds similar to the role of an ESA, the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an ESA is again in the tasks performed by the dog and the training received to perform these tasks.

Psychiatric service dogs (recognized by the ADA as service dogs) have been trained to do certain jobs that help the handler cope with a mental illness. For example, the dog might remind a person to take prescribed medications, keep a disoriented person in a dissociative episode from wandering into a hazardous situation such as traffic.

If a handler with a Service dog attends your church and an incident takes place be advised Florida law states the person who has such an animal is liable for damage caused by a service animal. But the church must have a regular policy and practice to charge non-disabled persons for damages caused by their pets.


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