Service dog vs. emotional support dog: Incident leaves one dog injured, another labeled dangerous

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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) —¬†How many times have you been in a store or a restaurant and seen a dog inside? Some, of course, may be legitimate service dogs.

More people just seem to be taking their pets wherever they please nowadays, or trying to claim it as an emotional support animal. But there’s a big difference.

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An incident at a Wilmington restaurant earlier this year shows why, after a service dog ended up injured and another dog was labeled dangerous.

Now, the victims are speaking out in hopes of keeping this from happening again.

“She just gave me the sense of safety that I could be there by myself,” service dog owner Melissa Franklin said



Franklin’s service dog Grace is her partner through life, helping her navigate the world while dealing with the impacts of autism. But now, Melissa is afraid to take Grace anywhere.

In February, another dog attacked Grace a Wilmington restaurant. Franklin and her mother were shaken and upset after finding out the other dog was not actually a service dog, which is a very specific designation that is legally defined and protected.

“Service dogs are trained to help their people, and they’ve gone through a certification process,” Samantha Cleary, who works with paws4people said. “They’re able to help their clients with different types of disabilities. So they’re able to perform tasks.”

Wilmington’s paws4people is an accredited assistance dog organization.

Cleary says that contrary to what you may have heard or believe, you or a business can ask specific questions to find out if an animal brought into a business really is a protected service animal.

“The two questions per Americans with Disabilities Act are ‘Is that a service dog?’ and if the person says ‘Yes, this is my service dog,’ then the follow up question is, ‘What task does the dog perform for you?'”

Those tasks include serving as a seeing-eye dog, identifying an impending seizure or performing other tasks for a human. That’s how Grace serves Melissa.

“A big thing that autism service dogs provide is safety,” Melissa’s mother, Jeri Wentworth said. “If you’re going to go walking, she knows where the traffic is, and knows when you should stop and wait for the light.”

In addition to helping Melissa cross the street, Grace also helps Melissa understand social cues like personal space.

Wentworth says Grace helps Melissa perform those daily tasks safely.

Cleary says another difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs is that emotional support dogs do not have public access.

“That means that they’re able to be in your home with you, but they cannot go to general public areas, as in restaurants or stores that are non-dog friendly,” Cleary said. “They’re able to go anywhere a dog can go to. A dog park. Dog-friendly restaurants.”

Wentworth says that when Grace was attacked, the other dog’s owner said it was an emotional support dog. That dog’s owner did not want to go on camera, but she says she has brought her dog to the restaurant before and nobody has ever asked questions.

Now, Wentworth is speaking out in hopes of educating people on how to identify a true service dog. But looks can be deceiving.

Cleary says there is no official paperwork or certification an owner needs to carry for their service dog.

To make things even more confusing, you can go online to sites like Amazon and buy any dog a marked vest that legally means nothing.

Cleary says paws4people hopes certification will become a requirement, as it is in Europe.

“We’re hopeful, in the future, that that’s what the United States will turn to, is legal service dogs,” Cleary said. “If you want a service dog, you have to get it through an accredited organization for it to be recognized, and to bring it into public places and fly with it.”

Wentworth says that the whole situation that led to Grace getting hurt, could have been avoided with one thing.

“More education,” Wentworth said. “Even just locally in Wilmington, to every single public facility, that a service dog is allowed in and an emotional support dog is not.”

Cleary says a business is allowed to ask someone with an emotional support dog to leave.

Under the Americans with Disability’s Act, the only other animal other than a dog that can be a legally-recognized service animal is a miniature horse.

The Federal Fair Housing Act also includes a broader definition of “assistance animal.”

The Air Carrier Access Act, which applies to U.S. Airlines, also has a broader definition.