Debate around emotional support animals intensifies

They're at tables in local restaurants and may be sitting next to you on planes. Emotional support dogs, ponies and even ducks are showing up more and more.

They're different from service animals that are trained to help a person with a disability. Emotional support animals don’t have any required training and are typically prescribed by a doctor solely for psychological needs.

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Some business owners say it's hard to verify if these support animals are legitimate. They’ve become a source of frustration for many service dog handlers.

"When those fraudulent dogs enter these businesses it's dangerous for the staff. It's dangerous for the other customers. But it's also dangerous for us,” Paralympic rower and service dog owner Katelynne Steinke told Boston 25 News. “A small Yorkshire terrier lunged off of a seat at us, and the woman who had that dog asked the manager that we leave because they were there first."

Steinke says she relies on her service dog, Jones, to help her at home and get around town.

“I know I can depend on him to do his job every time I ask him to. And I don't think that I would be able to live independently alone without having him," Steinke said.

A tough position for restaurants and airlines

A gray area in Massachusetts law gives dogs like Jones equal protection with untrained emotional support animals. According to the attorney general’s office, businesses can't ask about the animal.

Some local restaurants say that puts them in a tough position.

“It becomes a little more difficult when you have to decide which animals you can allow in and which animals you can't,” said Massachusetts Restaurant Association president and CEO Bob Luz.

Luz says the fear of being sued is very real.

"Because restaurants want to serve the community and they want to serve everybody, this fear of being sued is really troublesome. And it's almost like we don't know what to do and we're looking for the legislature for some help," Luz added.

Airlines face a similar dilemma. Boston 25 News found reports of service ducks, bunnies, and alligators on planes. Right here in New England, a woman was asked to de-plane when her service pig disrupted a flight in Hartford.

A spokesperson for Airlines for America says they require passengers traveling with an emotional support animal to provide documentation from a licensed mental health professional. But the industry has no way to verify the validity.

"I think that people are becoming more aware that the loophole is there, and they are taking that loophole to the extreme,” said Steinke.

Boston 25 News wanted to see if we could register an untrained dog as a certified emotional support animal. Without a visit to a therapist or mental health provider, we were able to obtain a picture identification card and certificate online with a few clicks on the computer and about $100.

In support of support animals

Cheryl Hardnett's dog, Milo, was prescribed by her doctor to treat her depression. She admits there is some abuse of the system, but says the need for emotional support animals is very real.

"There are 16 million people in America that have depression,” said Hardnett. "Milo saved me as well as I saved him."

Hardnett says no one can decide what kind of animal can provide emotional support except the owner.

"I have a client… they have an emotional support monkey,” said Hardnett. "I don't think it matters if it's trained to be an emotional support animal or a service animal. Milo's purpose in life I think is to make me happy."

A bill was filed in the state legislature calling for penalties for misrepresenting service animals but it's not headed for a vote in the near future.

To see more of Paralympic rower Katelynne Steinke’s trained Service dog, Jones, in action, watch below:

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