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The difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal


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Pocatello resident Nikki Jorgenson, with her service dog, Zeus, who assists her when she has seizures. Zeus is a standard white poodle. | Courtesy Nikki Jorgenson

IDAHO FALLS — It’s becoming more commonplace for customers to bring animals into places of business, which is causing problems for those who need and use true service animals.

“We are not taken seriously with our dogs due to so much fraud and using an emotional support dog (designation) to keep your pet (in a store),” service animal breeder Nikki Jorgenson said.

Jorgenson, who lives near Pocatello, has a service dog that is trained to help her when she has seizures. She owns Snake River Doodles and breeds labradoodles to be service dogs, and she helps test and place service dogs with those who need them. Her clients are those in the disabled community who need service dogs to gain some independence.

Over the years she or clients have been illegally denied access to places with their service dogs. She now carries cards with the law to show businesses.

“I think more education is really the answer,” she said.

One of the main problems is people don’t know the difference between a true service animal and an emotional support animal. Both are protected by federal law — but the laws are significantly different.

Idaho Falls Animal Services Supervisor Irene Brown said it’s the number one issue she sees, especially at animal licensing.

“I get people all the time coming in here trying to license their emotional support animal as a service animal,” Brown said.

People just aren’t aware of the laws, she added, and so she must educate them about service animals versus emotional support animals, and the different laws protecting each. Here is the distinction according to the Americans with Disabilities Act:

Service animals can only either be dogs or in some cases miniature ponies. They are highly trained to perform a necessary function for a person with disabilities. By law, service dogs with their handlers are allowed entrance into places of business. There is no specific licensing for service animals.

Emotional support / therapy / comfort animals can be most any type of animal within reason. A physician or therapist can determine that a patient needs an emotional support animal. The animal is not trained to perform a specific function. By law, they are not required to be allowed into a place of business. An emotional support animal is protected by two regulations: the Fair Housing Act which says a property management company cannot deny housing to someone with an emotional support animal; and the Transportation Act which allows emotional support animals on airplanes.

Pocatello resident Nikki Jorgenson, with her service dog, Zeus, who assists her when she has seizures. Zeus is a standard white poodle. | Courtesy Nikki Jorgenson

Brown added some confusion comes because anyone can order a “service animal” vest online, even when they do not in fact have a legitimate service animal; and service animals are not even required by law to wear vests. Still, someone with a true service animal is typically easy to spot, and in east Idaho, there aren’t very many, according to Brown.

If it is not obvious that an animal is a legitimate service animal, a business can ask these two questions: Is the animal required because of a disability? What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? If a service animal is being disruptive, the business can ask them to leave.

“Most stores don’t want to rock the boat so they turn a blind eye to it instead of trying to enforce the law because they’re afraid they’re going to get sued,” Brown said. There are also businesses that are fine with people bringing in pets.

Zeus is a service dog who assists his owner when she has seizures. | Courtesy Nikki Jorgenson

Some states are taking enforcement to the next level. In July, Wyoming became the 16th state to enact laws relating to misrepresenting service animals. House Bill 114 makes doing so a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a fine up to $750.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that those with legitimate service animals are protected and allowed to use their animals as they were intended. Still, there is some work to do.

Dana Gover, of the Northwest ADA Center-Idaho, said she receives many calls about service dogs in Idaho.

“One of the major issues I see is the business entity won’t allow a legitimate service dog into the business if the individual’s disability is invisible,” she said. “The business will illegally ask for documentation or certification.”

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there. A quick Google search about service dogs can give inaccurate information, fueling the confusion.

Gover explained that their primary goal at the center is to provide information and education, not enforcement. Anyone wanting clarification about the laws is welcome to call their office or visit their website at