By Michael Rock

It’s a well-known fact that interacting with animals can offer people with disabilities numerous therapeutic benefits.

For people with disabilities that have potentially life-threatening symptoms such as epilepsy, a service animal, such as a dog, can play a central role in detecting seizures, as the ones offered at Xenia, Ohio’s 4 Paws for Ability do.

Grand Rapids, Michigan is home to a similar organization, known as Paws for a Cause. They offer trained service dogs for people with a number of conditions and disabilities, ranging from autism to deafness.

Unfortunately, the need some people with disabilities have for service animals is sometimes exploited by pet-owners who do not have disabilities and pretend their pets are service animals in order to take them to places where they would otherwise be banned, such as restaurants, stores, and airplanes. In order to address these challenges, the Department of Transportation announced last year that it would take public feedback to adjust regulations for service animals under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Meanwhile, the Georgia state legislature recently established a committee to determine how best to prevent people from passing off their pets as service, therapy, or emotional support animals. State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican who had previously volunteered with her golden doodle, Dobie, who served as a therapy dog for five years at a Ronald McDonald House, was chosen to lead the charge in making recommendations due to her experience in the matter.

Understanding the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals is crucial In order to better understand how they can help people with disabilities. Service dogs are working dogs specially trained to assist one person.  They may help people with visual impairments to navigate, pull wheelchairs, or detect imminent seizures or dangerous allergens.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are generally calm and gentle. Handlers own them and have them work with a number of different people. They may visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes, or other similar venues, and provide therapeutic stimulation and comfort those who are seriously ill, traumatized, anxious, or depressed. Unlike working service dogs, people are encouraged to play with therapy dogs.

Emotional support animals, unlike the other two categories, are pets that a health professional has determined play a key role in a patient’s treatment. They do not have to be dogs, and they are not specially trained. As a result, it is up to the owner to ensure they behave.

Horses are another animal that may offer therapeutic benefits to people with disabilities such as autism. According to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), therapeutic riding refers to “an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs.”  In addition, hippotherapy utilizes horseback riding to complement physical, occupational, and/or speech therapies.

In Disney, Oklahoma, Oasis Animal Adventures offers adults with various developmental disabilities therapeutic interactions with its horses and other animals, which include donkeys, camels, a zebra, a yak, kangaroos, and lemurs.

Kalamazoo, Michigan is home to the Adult Agricultural Community Option for Residential Needs, or “AACORN,” a similar farm that offers therapeutic animal interactions for people with developmental disabilities.

Meanwhile, La Grange, Texas is home to Waylon, Willie, and Tex, three alpacas that have appeared not only at such events as weddings, but who also recently visited people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Texas Rural Health Services Center. The trio are recognized as emotional support animals through the Emotional Support Animal Registration of America.

The species of some emotional support animals may sometimes differ from common expectations, as in the case of Wally, an alligator who lives with his owner, Joie Henney of Strinestown, Pennsylvania. When Henney began to take Wally, who he managed to domesticate to schools and nursing homes for educational purposes, he noticed that children with developmental disabilities especially loved Wally, who became an official emotional support animal in December 2018.

Whether it’s dogs, horses, alpacas, alligators, or some other type of animal entirely, there are plenty of opportunities and good reasons for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to benefit from interacting with animals.

Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.