Kelli Rogers

Kelli Rogers with her Service Dog Lily. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

Kelli Rogers sometimes has seizures and anxiety attacks.

The 27-year-old Anniston woman had trouble enjoying life and even doing routine activities like going to a mall.

Then Lily entered her life.

The 2-year-old Staffordshire terrier is a fully trained, federally recognized service dog, and she never leaves Rogers’ side, whether she is at work delivering newspapers or just out in public.

“She’s improved my life a lot,” Rogers said of Lily. “I feel more comfortable going out doing regular shopping ... she helps keep my mind focused.”

Service dogs have become more prevalent across the U.S. in recent years as their uses have expanded and the public has gained awareness of their benefits, some animal training experts and studies say. Meanwhile, therapy and empathy dogs and other animals, which have fewer legal protections and have different roles from service dogs, have also grown in popularity. Some experts say the rise in use of all these animals has led to more confusion among the public about them, their different uses and about which laws do and don’t apply to them.

“The terminology has been a real problem with the general public ... they don’t understand the difference between a service dog, or empathy dog,” said Chris Diefenthaler, operations administrator for Assistance Dogs International, a coalition of nonprofit assistance dog organizations. “Even some of the people who own these dogs don’t understand the difference.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as a dog that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. Such dogs are used to help with a variety of disabilities and conditions, from epilepsy, blindness and autism to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If I do pass out, she’ll crawl on my chest, which is considered pressure therapy, and will lick my face until I come back,” Rogers said of Lily. “And she can sense a seizure up to 10 minutes before it hits ... she’ll curl up by my leg to tell me.”

Under the ADA, service dogs can be taken into all public places, from restaurants to hotels and shopping centers.

Diefenthaler said the use of service dogs has grown in the U.S. in recent years, particularly with veterans.

“Certainly there’s a number of veterans returning from active war and their service has spurred the growth,” she said.

Diefenthaler added that awareness of service dogs and their abilities to help people with psychiatric disabilities has grown too.

“Certainly there’s been a growth in requests for those types of service dogs,” she said.

‘A very serious animal’

According to a 2017 joint study published by the colleges of veterinary medicine at North Carolina State University and Colorado State University, there are widespread misconceptions about the definitions, rules, regulations and rights of different types of assistance dogs that has grown with their use.

Therapy and empathy dogs and animals do not qualify as service dogs under the ADA. Still, there are some state laws that let people take these types of animals into certain public places.

Under current Alabama law, owners of public businesses are not required to let emotional support or therapy animals into their establishments, only federally recognized service animals.

Diefenthaler said unlike service dogs, an emotional support dog has no specific training and provides only comfort. A therapy dog or animal is trained in some service tasks and can provide comfort.

Rogers said she’s faced problems taking Lily places because of confusion and misinformation about service dogs.

“I actively had to file a report against a chiropractor because he denied access for her because of her breed,” Rogers said of Lily.

Frances McGowin, executive director of Service Dogs Alabama, a nonprofit that trains service dogs near Montgomery, said that because of the rise in use of different assistance dogs, some people are taking advantage of the system, which has added to the confusion.

“I think people are bending the law more than they used to,” McGowin said. “You can’t do an investigation into someone who comes in and says they have a service dog, and that opens the door for a lot of fake service dogs.”

Under the ADA, a business can only ask a person if his or her dog is a service animal required because of a disability and what task has the dog been trained to perform.

McGowin said a proper service dog has between one and two years of training, isn’t a giant breed and is fully obedient.

“All of the evaluations and training that allows them to go into public places ... it should make the animal almost invisible to the public,” she said. “I think you’re seeing a lot of misunderstanding ... it’s not a pet, it’s a very serious animal.”

Comforting companions

While service dogs have more functions and greater access, that doesn’t mean therapy or emotional support animals aren’t useful.

Megan Bridges, coordinator for the Calhoun County family drug court, said that she’s used a therapy dog named Squiggle for the last two years in her work. Bridges said the dog has permission to enter courtrooms when needed.

“Sometimes my clients will come in and just sit there, but they will feel better talking with Squiggle there,” Bridges said. “And court hearings are usually very high-stress, but Squiggle can help defuse the situation.”

Bridges acknowledges that there’s a growing confusion among the public about a therapy dog like Squiggle and other, more highly and specifically trained service dogs.

“Therapy dogs, that is a growing field and more people are pursuing them,” Bridges said. “And I think a lot of people don’t understand the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog.”

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.