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Pet Wars: Should emotional support dogs be allowed?

Pet Wars

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho - Many of our neighbors rely on dogs to help with a disability, but what if that disability isn't visible to the naked eye?

One local mom is calling for more tolerance after she got a puppy to help with her daughter's psychological disabilities. She now feels unwelcome in her own apartment.

Take one look at Kaylee Gomez and her puppy, Koko, and you'll know they're best friends.  What you can't see is that Kaylee, 9, has a psychological disability.

"I thought if she had a puppy to love and take care of, it would be great for her, and it has been," said RaeLin Torgerson, Kaylee's mother. "She's been happier, she's been more positive, she's been better in school."

Kaylee used to have trouble getting her homework done. She now has no problem meeting the deadlines.

"When I didn't have (Koko), I didn't want to get get (my homework) done because I didn't have anything to look forward to, except watching TV or something. Now I do," Kaylee said.

There's one major hitch: Torgerson's apartment building does not allow dogs. That's where the Fair Housing Act kicks in.

A housing provider must "modify or provide an exception to a 'no pets' rule... to permit a person with a disability to live with and use an assistance animal," according to FHA.

Koko is not a full-fledged service animal. That designation requires special training. Instead, Koko is considered an emotional support animal, which means Kaylee would need proper documentation to keep the dog.

Kaylee's counselor, Beth Boettcher, was happy to write a letter to Torgerson's landlord, expressing how a dog would assist in Kaylee's therapy.

"That would be unethical for me to just hand those letters out," Boettcher said. "There has to be a need. There has to be a benefit."

For Torgerson's landlord, that letter wasn't good enough.

"They wanted (a letter), I guess, that had more information," Torgerson said. "They were asking me if Kaylee was disabled."

Boettcher wrote a second, more detailed letter. The letter still did not reveal Kaylee's disability because that violates medical privacy laws. Then, another letter arrived at Boettcher's office.

"Do you think about how your decision affects other people?" the letter read. "It would be different if there weren't places for people to live with their pets. The only thing wrong with them is that they're usually filthy and expensive. Guess why they're filthy?"

There was no return address on the letter, but the sender identifies themselves as a landlord. Boettcher has only written a letter for one other client more than a year ago, so she imagines the landlord is Torgerson's.

"I think (the letter is) just from a miscommunication and misunderstanding," Boettcher said.

Torgerson said things have been unreasonably tense at home.

"I feel like I'm being watched," she said.

FHA also says, "A housing provider may not deny a reasonable accommodation because he or she is uncertain whether or not the person seeking (it) has a disability."

If landlords are concerned about potential damage, FHA states the assessment must be based on "evidence about the specific animal's actual conduct -- not on mere speculation or fear."

Torgerson's landlord didn't want to comment.

Jake Durtschi, president of the Eastern Idaho Apartment Association, said landlords can easily sour to the concept of emotional support dogs. Not only is there potential for damage, Durtschi said there's sometimes potential for fraud when tenants pretend to have a disability to get a dog.

"Any time you have a system, you're going to have people that are actually being served by the system -- people that have the disabilities -- but you're always going to have people that abuse it," Durtschi said.

Some local landlords said they'd rather allow pets, so they charge pet deposits to help weed out the fraud and cover cleaning costs. Other landlords said they simply anticipate the occasional fraud.

Neither Torgerson nor Koko are being kicked out of the apartment.

At the end of the day, people involved say the incident is simply about promoting tolerance and spreading awareness for people who need the companionship of a dog.

"To be able to have some empathy for the person that needs it -- to understand the specific need and purpose," Boettcher said. "It will help, I think, the greater good."

"Why is it any of their business?" Kaylee said. "It's my dog and it's helping me."

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said colleges and universities need to allow emotional support dogs in on-campus housing. 

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