Therapy and Service Animals for Disabled Children

Service and therapy animals are proven to make a positive difference

Boy hugging dog

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Service and therapy animals have become increasingly popular for disabled children, and for good reason. Research shows that animals can make a huge difference in kids' physical independence and emotional well-being. Additionally, service and therapy animals are being trained to help people with many different disabilities, in many settings.

Types of Working Animals

Service, emotional support, and therapy animals undergo specialized training, of varying degrees, to perform different tasks based on their owner's individual needs. They also have access to more public places than companion pets. According to the Service Animal Association, a service dog works to help the owner perform tasks they cannot perform on their own because of their disability, an emotional support animal works to improve the health of their owner who is disabled, and the therapy animal works with their owner to improve the health of others.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are often dogs—but may also be almost any other species. They are medically prescribed by a doctor and provide support for a single disabled person. Emotional support animals are not highly trained, but they do provide significant support and comfort. As a result, they are permitted on airplanes, and in "no pets allowed" hotels, restaurants, and other public facilities.

Service Animals

The vast majority of service animals are dogs, though the ADA also allows trained miniature horses as an alternative. Service animals can potentially complete a wide range of tasks. They may guide individuals who are blind or deaf, alert others to an individual who is having a seizure, pull a wheelchair, retrieve dropped items, and otherwise perform meaningful physical services to a person with a physical disability.

Service dogs are not pets; they are highly trained, and are considered to be "medical equipment." As a result, they have special legal status and may accompany their owner virtually anywhere they can fit.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are pets that have been trained, registered, and insured. They belong not to one disabled individual they help, but to someone who brings the animal to facilities for therapeutic purposes. A therapy animal might visit nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, or schools to provide stress relief and comfort. Unlike service animals and emotional support animals, therapy animals are not medically required and thus can't (for example) be brought into a school without special permission.

Types of Needs Met

Service and emotional support animals can do a great deal for disabled children. Of course, the animal must be trained to be more than just a warm, friendly companion—and you must learn how to work with the animal to get the most of its abilities and skills.

Here are just a few of the things a service or emotional support animal can potentially do for your child:

  • Alert others to an event, such as seizure, that requires immediate medical attention
  • Build self-esteem and responsibility
  • Encourage social skills by responding to a child's input (horses, for example, respond to a child's touch while dogs respond to commands)
  • Guide a child who is blind, deaf, or has focus issues to be sure they cross roads safely, avoid obstacles, and avoid collisions with other pedestrians
  • Help manage anxiety and mood-related challenges
  • Model appropriate behaviors (like relaxing in bed, rising for the day, and responding to requests)
  • Provide companionship and emotional support
  • Pull a wheelchair or provide physical support for transferring, balance, and other needs
  • Retrieve objects that have dropped or are hard to reach
  • Support learning by attending to the child as they read aloud

Benefits

No matter what your child's needs are, there's a good chance that an animal can help. But before leaping into action, remember that animals are living, feeling beings that need a safe environment and an owner who is capable of understanding their needs and limitations.

Before saying "yes" to a service or support animal, consider these questions:

  • Is my child old enough (usually 12+) to physically and intellectually work with and (to whatever degree possible) care for an animal?
  • Are my child's needs likely to be met by an animal? Obviously, a therapy animal is a poor choice for a child who is afraid of animals or is likely to ignore, injure, or neglect them.
  • Is our family ready to own and care for a service or emotional support animal? For example, do you have space and time to own a large dog?
  • Are you able to make a long-term commitment to an animal that may be living with you for many years to come?
  • Is an animal the best tool to achieve your child's goals? For example, an emotional support dog may delight an autistic child, but it might also wind up being a substitute for (rather than a tool for improving) important human interactions.
  • Where and how would your child work with a service or support animal? Are those settings likely to be safe and appropriate for your animal?

Access

If your child's animal is considered "medical equipment" or has been prescribed by a doctor, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) says the animal can be with your child at all times.

The law states, "The ADA requires State and local government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations (covered entities) that provide goods or services to the public to make 'reasonable modifications' in their policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to accommodate people with disabilities. The service animal rules fall under this general principle."

You will, however, need to check with your state's policies regarding the definition of service and support animals to be sure your animal meets their criteria. In some states, emotional support animals have limited rights compared to service animals.

If you are considering a service animal, you should know there are situations where you can be asked to leave a public space if your animal is becoming a nuisance or a danger to others. If a service animal is either not housebroken or out of control, a business or state/local government can ask their owner to remove them.

"Accordingly, entities that have a “no pets” policy generally must modify the policy to allow service animals into their facilities."

At School

The same rules are required at schools. Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.

When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.

Rules that pertain to service animals and most emotional support animals do not apply to pets. Even if your child is emotionally attached to their animal friend, they may have to leave the animal at home if that animal has not been prescribed by a medical professional.

If you want your doctor or therapist to prescribe an emotional support animal for your disabled child, you can ask them to write an official letter explaining your child's disability and why the animal is required for their mental health. That letter must be provided, in advance, to public facilities such as airlines and apartments that prohibit pets.

However, it is illegal for personnel in public facilities to ask for papers proving a dog or miniature horse is a service animal. While you may be asked to verify that the animal is a service animal, the ADA prohibits businesses from requesting or demanding documentation of that fact. Service animals are also not required to wear special collars, harnesses, or vests, though many do as they are a helpful nonverbal method of preventing discrimination and well-intentioned but unwelcome petting.

How to Get One

If you simply want an animal companion for your child, your best bet is to research types and breeds, have your child visit with a few potential pets, and then adopt or buy the animal that suits your needs. Such an animal, however, will not have access to public places as they are not covered by the ADA.

If needed, you can ask your child's medical practitioner to write a letter describing your pet as an emotional support animal.

If you are interested in a trained service animal, you're in for a very different experience. Service animals are expensive because they are highly trained. In addition, your child will only be given a service animal if they are trained and capable of interacting properly with the animal. You may even have to submit to a home inspection to be sure you own a suitable home for the animal.

While the cost of a service animal is high, there's an excellent chance that you will be provided with an animal at a discount or even free through a non-profit service animal provider. There are also organizations that provide grants or assist families in fundraising for service animals. If you have non-Medicaid health insurance (including veterans insurance) you may also be able to defray some of your costs. Cerebralpalsy.org recommends these non-profit agencies:

  • International Federation of Guide Dog Schools
  • Assistance Dogs International
  • International Association of Dog Partners
  • Dogs for the Deaf and Disabled Americans
  • 4 Paws for Ability
  • Paws for a Cause

A Word From Verywell

Service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals can provide invaluable assistance and companionship for people with a wide range of mental and physical disabilities. Yet before you bring a new animal home, be sure to do your research and ensure your family has the time and resources to care for it. When it's a good fit, the unconditional love and support service animals have to offer can make a positive difference for your child and your family.

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