Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forum. This week’s question is inspired by the forum topic “My Service Dog Changed My Life” from July 17, 2018.
One of my MS pals has a service dog, a chihuahua with a heroic skill set: picking up out-of-reach things. My friend uses assistive devices and suffers from balance issues, gait problems, and dizziness. The simple act of bending over to reach for something is a major challenge. Her little helper, who looks like a miniature reindeer, has made all the difference in her life.
I know others with MS whose service dogs may be similarly described as “tiny but mighty.” I’ve also heard their stories about the hassles they face from others who accuse them of turning household pets into “fake” service animals.
What exactly is a service animal? Is it the same as an emotional support animal? And why might someone with MS choose to register and work with one?
Support animals: What’s the difference?
So much controversy surrounds the use of animals to provide assistance to people with specific needs, pointing to a problem within our society of disregarding the needs of those with an invisible illness or disability. Ignorance and confusion continue to frustrate distinctions between pets and support animals, especially when distinguishing a service dog from an emotional support animal.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
The ADA also federally protects the use of miniature horses as service animals.
MS-relevant tasks performed by service animals include assisting people with limited vision or hearing, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving out-of-reach items, or offering physical support for balance and stability.
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