Man’s best friend: the use of service and therapy animals

EmotionWellnessAnthony Lyons, a 16-year-old currently receiving treatment for leukemia, warmed the hearts of Americans when the Huffington Post penned an article about the support he receives from therapy dogs at a Phoenix hospital. As a result, thousands posted photos and videos to offer their support for the days when the hospital therapy dogs are not available.

In 1933, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud favored the use of psychiatric therapy dogs during his individual therapy sessions. The Veterans Administration also noted that the use of psychiatric service dogs was beneficial to servicemen experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following World War II. The use of service animals has grown in popularity since that time and can allow the disabled to live a more stable and independent life.

Service animals have also been used as “guide dogs” for the visually impaired, as medical assistance animals for those with health conditions such as epilepsy, and as mobility aids for those with physical limitations. According to the National Association of the Mentally Ill (NAMI), service animals can assist the mentally ill in a variety of tasks such as reminding the owner, also called the “handler,” to take medications; allowing the handler, overwhelmed with anxiety and panic, to leave their home; or reducing suspiciousness and fear in those experiencing paranoia, to name a few examples.

The MN Department of Human Rights defines a service animal as “an animal trained to assist a person with a disability” and only applies to dogs and, in some cases, miniature horses. The American Disability Act (ADA) protects the rights of the disabled to have their service dog in most public and residential places, even those that prohibit dogs.

Employers are required to provide accommodations to allow service animals to accompany their workers to their job. Service animals are not pets, and legally they must be allowed to perform their assigned duties.

Emotional support and therapy animals differ from service dogs and can include unusual species such as snakes, ferrets and monkeys. The use of therapy animals is designed to promote physical, social and emotional improvements in human.

Therapy animals can be used in a variety of settings that may be group or individual in nature. There are specified goals and objectives that are measured for each individual. An emotional support animal is not a pet, but rather a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual (from Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy).

Imagine boarding your flight and seated next to you is a man with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. Although snakes have sometimes been used to provide emotional support to those with mental disabilities, many question the validity of statements made by Daniel Greene, who told the Seattle Times and People magazine that he has trained his five-foot boa constrictor to alert him to oncoming seizures.

Although you would be unlikely to see Snakes on a Plane, the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) does allow “potbellied pigs” to accompany passengers for emotional support. Parents of autistic children are currently at odds with schools that do not allow service animals in their school, citing the risk of harm to other children; however, there are a variety of school districts in MN that allow service animals with supporting documentation from a licensed provider.

Service dogs, therapy animals and emotional support dogs all require various degrees of training and certification. There has been an increase in fraudulent use of family pets as service animals and, as a result, many states now have laws that, when violated, can lead to fines and jail time.

For additional information on service or support animals in schools, go to your child’s school website or call their main office.  

For more information about your rights, please contact the MN Department of Human Rights at 651-539-1100 or by email at

For information about mental health, contact Dr. Annice Golden at NorthPoint Health & Wellness Behavioral Health Clinic in Minneapolis — telephone 612-543-2500. 

Deirdre Annice Golden, Ph.D., LP, is director of Behavioral Health for NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center Behavioral Health Clinic, 1313 Penn Ave. N. She welcomes reader responses to, or call 612-543-2705.