November 29, 2021

Therapy pets vs. service animals: What’s the difference?

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Walden Place residents Donna Anderson, left, and Edigh Lohr, right, pet Sadie the therapy dog during one of Sadie’s weekly visits June 9.

A dog is a pet, maybe a best friend.

To Adam LeGrand, Molly is a lifeline.

She helps him get up when he falls — a traumatic brain injury from an accident while deployed in Qatar years ago affects his balance.

She prevents people from getting too close to him — his post traumatic stress symptoms cause anxiety.

She lets him to be a dad again — facing crowds at his daughter’s gymnastic tournaments or taking his daughters where they want to go.

A life turned around

LeGrand is president of Syracuse University’s Student Veteran’s Organization and is now getting his master’s degree in public administration.

But in January 2011, LeGrand had a suicide plan involving a gun until a friend stepped to get him help.

After a bumpy road that involved two self-commitments to avoid suicide, LeGrand started turning his life around three years later.

That is when another friend who had to drag him unconscious from a crowded subway, started researching equine therapy. That research evolved into searches for medical service animals, in particular dogs.

When LeGrand found the organization K9s For Warriors, he knew he was on the path to recovery.

And when he met Molly at the K9s For Warriors establishment in Jacksonville, Florida after a 15-month wait, he cried for the first time in years.

“A guy who hasn’t cried over anything emotional, this four-legged thing with the softest ears and a beard made me cry,” he said. “It was knowing that this dog, along with a lot of hard work, was going to be the answer to keeping me alive.”

Molly performs a vital role for LeGrand, so he’s frustrated by the ease at which people can now get a dog certified as a therapy pet, snap a vest on it, and bring it anywhere.

There have been recent cases of people claiming their pets are therapy pets to gain access to places they otherwise would be denied — like Dexter the peacock, who was denied a United Airlines flight with his owner in January.

To combat abuses, New York State passed a law in December that forbids misrepresenting a therapy pet as a service animal and calls upon the commissioner of agriculture and markets to enact certification standards for therapy dogs.

A service animal’s duty

Molly isn’t just any dog; She is trained to perform a variety of tasks.

She will nudge LeGrand if someone is standing behind him on line at the grocery store, so he doesn’t “turn around and freak out.” Or she’ll place herself between LeGrand and a stranger.

If he falls, Molly will get under LeGrand’s chest so he can push off her to stand up, and she gives him something to lean on going up and down steps.

If LeGrand gets upset, Molly will nuzzle him to distract him, and make contact with him to ground him in a crowd.

She’ll even drag him out of a building — like the time bright lights and loud noises at a casino caused him to freeze up.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as “any dog individually trained to do work or to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Animals that provide comfort or companionship for their disabled owners, but not trained to perform specific tasks, are not considered service animals under federal law, the act notes. Neither are animals that provide emotional support.

The difference is huge.

As a service animal, Molly can go anywhere LeGrand goes — sterile atmospheres like operating rooms, burn units and professional kitchens aside. By law, therapy pets don’t get the same access.

LeGrand faces ignorance everywhere, he says. He has been treated differently at restaurants, questioned about the dog’s presence, and asked if she was a seeing eye dog while getting behind the wheel of a car.

People also come up to Molly to pet her, talk to her, shake a baby toy in her face, and offer her treats, distracting her.

“Assume any vested dog has a job and leave it alone,” he says. “And if you really, really, really have to say something, talk to the handler, not the dog.”

A therapy pet’s use

On the other side of the spectrum, are animals that provide companionship — therapy pets and emotional support animals.

They’re not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but their handlers say their services remain important.

Kathy Reynolds has been bringing her Goldendoodle, Sadie, to nursing homes and group homes in Cortland County for years to spread happiness.

“It’s the nicest thing to just see how everybody’s happy and smiling and just gets excited to see her,” Reynolds said.

In the unit devoted to Alzheimer’s care at Walden Place in Cortlandville, Reynolds saw one woman go from fearing Sadie to giddy with excitement by the fifth visit.

Sadie, with her soft hair, cheerful temperament (she begs for belly rubs), charms people.

Reynolds got Sadie certified through PAWS of Central New York, a pet-assisted wellness organization.

Sadie passed behavioral tests to show she will remain calm. Sadie and Reynolds also had to visit with patients several times before an evaluator tested Sadie’s performance.

Reynolds can bring Sadie to work as a therapy pet at any facility that has an agreement with PAWS of CNY.

Reynolds and Sadie have been the only PAWS-certified team in Cortland County for a while, but she said the organization is starting to expand its group of volunteers in the county.

Abuses of the system

With a letter of recommendation from a doctor or mental health professional, and the click of a mouse, you can register your pet as an emotional support animal on a host of websites. It doesn’t mean anything.

The website offers a registration package for Fido for about $80 along with the assurance that Fido can accompany you on a plane or live with you in any housing.

Federal protections are provided to animals and their handlers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation. But there is no national accreditation process.

This is problematic, says local landlord Jim Reeners.

Reeners received a request last year from a prospective tenant who wanted to have a pet as a support animal because she couldn’t cope with the results of the presidential election of Donald Trump.

The request was denied.

“We received no verification of any need and therefore we were forced to believe it wasn’t necessary,” he said.

Tahoma Guiry chief marketing officer for K9s For Warriors, says abuses of the system hurt everyone.

The organization is working to establish a national accreditation system to help airports and housing entities distinguish between a real service animal from a fake, she said.

“It is a huge problem that you can click a button and print out a certificate saying your dog is a service dog whereas they are not officially trained through a certified program like ours,” she said.

K9s For Warriors is certified with Assistance Dogs International, she said.

The fake service animals, and the problems they cause, reflect poorly on the properly trained service animals, LeGrand said.

“Let’s say at some point a dog (not a service animal) wearing a vest did something unbelievable, bit a fellow customer or … got loose and was uncontrollable,” he said. “I’m going to walk in and face a lot of scrutiny because of that.”

Getting a service animal

To get Molly, LeGrand had to provide his military discharge papers, a letter from a medical professional with his diagnoses — PTSD, a traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury — and a 15-page application.

The process is free for the person receiving the service pet, Guiry said.

About 90 percent of the dogs are rescued from shelters or owner-surrendered, said Guiry, and they are trained for 60 to 90 days to perform specific commands.

The organization is largely funded by donations. K9s For Warriors recruits dogs of a certain size — at least 24-inches at the shoulder and weighing at least 50 pounds — so they can physically support their human.

Molly, a mix between a wolfhound, a Labrador and golden retriever, is about 5 years old now, LeGrand thinks. Someday she’ll retire, and when that happens he plans to keep her as a pet.

The end result

With Molly’s help, says LeGrand, he’s cut about 75 percent of his medications. He can go grocery shopping at any time of the day, not only at night when the store is empty. He can watch his daughter at a gymnastics tournament packed with people.

Off duty, Molly will snuggle with his children and walk or cuddle with LeGrand.

But she has a job: get LeGrand through the day-to-day that he otherwise finds unbearable. And it’s hard work, he says. They had to get used to each other and still face recertification every two years.

“Service animals are tools,” he said. “And unless you use that tool correctly it is not going to help you, and unless you want that tool to help you, it’s not going to help you.”