issue Winter 2022

The Difference a Four-Legged Friend Can Make

By Sabreen Alfadel
Karina Luna, payroll coordinator at RFU, sitting alongside Reia, her current service animal in training.
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

To work in the healthcare field is also to strive toward shaping an inclusive system. This inclusivity widens the possibilities of treatment, which may range from medication to prescribing emotional support animals or service animals.

Karina Luna, payroll coordinator at RFU, speaks to this as a disabled person who has benefited from the use of service animals. Mrs. Luna’s current service animal in training, Reia, is being task-trained to alert and support the vast symptoms of her complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety disorders, and neuropathy.

“My service animals have given me my independence back,” Mrs. Luna said. “I struggle daily with a wide range of symptoms that limit my ability to complete daily tasks alone. Medication helps a lot but can only go so far. My trained service dog fills the gap and allows me to live a less limited life by mitigating my symptoms.”

Still, Mrs. Luna has had to navigate unique challenges from various communities that have put her on the receiving end of judgment and misunderstanding. A lot of it — in Mrs. Luna’s case — comes from psychiatrists and other physicians, who have turned her away upon seeing her walk into their office with a service animal.

“Part of this is because of the public not understanding the difference between a service animal, an emotional support animal and a therapy animal,” she says. “I strongly believe that all (medical professionals) should know at least the basics.”

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog should be considered a medical device, comparable to a wheelchair, cane or oxygen tank. The ADA legally classifies them as “medical equipment,” because service animals are a necessary tool for their handlers.

“You see therapy dogs in hospitals and public settings — they’re brought in to provide comfort and support to multiple people. An emotional support animal is a pet who has access to non-pet housing with a doctor’s note, but it does not have public access,” said Mrs. Luna. “A service animal is task-trained to mitigate symptoms — they’re not there for emotional support; they go beyond that.”

“ I want the public to learn to respect the unknown. You don’t need to know why someone has a service animal — respect the handler’s right to privacy.”

For individuals who have a physical disability, service animals can help with mobility, such as fetching items, closing and opening doors, guiding and more. For those with invisible disabilities, like Mrs. Luna, service animals can detect and alert handlers about oncoming seizures or panic attacks, high or low glucose levels, signs of distress and other factors.

Disabled individuals often go about their life justifying themselves to the public. The more access there is to this information, the closer we can get to turning this awareness into an independent thought process.

“I want (medical professionals) to understand the difference (a service animal) can make in a disabled person’s life when they feel like there’s no way out of the life they’re living,” Mrs. Luna said. “I want the public to learn to respect the unknown. You don’t need to know why someone has a service animal — respect the handler’s right to privacy.”

Key facts about service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act:

  • Defined as any breed of dog “that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.”
  • Individuals are not required to carry formal documentation that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal.
  • Must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability, and the actions or tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.
  • People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves, and they are not required to use a professional service dog training program.
  • Service animals can accompany individuals in medical settings like patient rooms and ambulances.

Sabreen Alfadel is a staff writer with the RFU Division of Marketing and Brand Management, specializing in content development for social media efforts and initiatives.