Sophia Hutton cannot sleep without her dog.
The junior biology major said she needs to feel all 65 pounds of her golden retriever pressed against her in bed in order to fall asleep.
The three-year-old dog, Coco Chanel, is Hutton’s emotional support animal. They live together in an apartment off campus.
“She will know when I’m having a panic attack,” Hutton said. “She will task, she will redirect me to not think about it. She will actually bring me back to reality.”
But not everyone who says they have an emotional support animal is telling the truth. The Florida legislature is considering defining the Federal Fair Housing Act for the state, as it currently has no restrictions or specifications to protect people who truly need their ESAs or service animals.
State House Rep. Anthony Sabatini, District 32, has co-sponsored House Bill 209, which would make it harder for people who are “taking advantage of this lack of clarity in the law to abuse the system,” to get an ESA. And protect those getting tricked by online scams that sell fake ESA and service animal registrations.
UCF students will need to adhere to the new law if implemented, to move into on and off campus housing with their ESAs or service animals.
“It’s a unique issue because we want to be able to help and protect those who have serious disabilities who need an animal to get by, but we also want to protect people whose property rights are limited because of the fact that someone has a card,” Sabatini said.
“There’s no clarity to the law right now and people don’t properly understand what it is they’re supposed to be looking for when a person says they have an emotional support animal. Devious businesses that sell fake emotional support cards are getting bigger and bigger because no one’s able to deflate their business.”
Hutton’s case for having an emotional support animal has been documented by health care professionals who have assessed her mental health needs. The documentation states her need for an ESA, not the registration of a pet.
Hutton, who works as a cashier at Pet Smart, said she becomes frustrated with customers who share their plans to register their pets as ESAs.
“There is no such thing,” Hutton said. “There is no legitimate registration for service animals or ESAs required by law. They’re getting duped.”
Chaz Stevens, founder and CEO of ESAD International, said that getting a proper mental health evaluation should not be an option for anyone who wants to own their ESA legitimately.
ESAD International is a company of licensed mental health counselors that provide emotional support animal services through online and in-person sessions.
“This is full-on mental health care,” Stevens said. “You should be spending a couple hours — two to three hours — with a licensed clinician talking about whatever issues you are managing. You think that costs $40? Do you think that’s something you can get the same day? No, it’s not. It's a serious process, not just registering a pet.”
In a press release, Stevens supported prior attempts to restrict ESA and service animal laws in Florida. He has registered multiple bizarre and diverse types of organisms as ESAs to prove a point.
“I registered Muffin Top, my 11-ton African elephant," Stevens said. "I registered Harry Henderson, which is basically Bigfoot; Odin, the Norse god of war; and I took a picture of my cactus plant and registered it as Freddy, my emotional support cactus."
UCF does not recognize pet certifications, identification or registration cards of any kind, as none have been implemented by Florida law.
For now, according to the UCF Office of Institutional Equity, students must be first approved by UCF Housing and Residence Life by presenting mental health assessment documentation that validates their need for an ESA before being permitted into dorms with their pets.
A student who lives in UCF off-campus housing, Alyssa Gonzalez, a sophomore pre-veterinary biology major, said she trains her dachshund Kiwi to not even bark, let alone jump on people, as her ESA.
“A lot of people with emotional support animals get a bad rap because others think they get one just to be able to have one and take it anywhere,” Gonzalez said. “My dog walks side by side with me, and I’ve trained her to not bark at others and walk by me with no problems."
Gonzalez said that when she walks around her apartment complex, she sees overly excited and easily distracted dogs, which is not a characteristic of an ESA.
“This is how I know the people living here just wanted a pet to stay with them just for the fun of it," Gonzalez said. "So, I am in favor of making it harder for those to acquire an emotional support [animal].”
Sabatini said he sees this as a non-controversial bill for the most part and he thinks it will be beneficial and bring order.
“It’s been ignored for years and the problem's sort of starting to build up because nobody knows what the law is,” Sabatini said. “So I think that anyone who has an emotional disability or mental disability is going to benefit from this law because it brings clarity and seriousness to this issue.”
Hutton and Stevens agree that online websites who take small amounts of money for immediately approved and printable ESA registration cards are scams that merely minimize, exploit and mock a serious issue for many people.
Several local and national companies who sell ESA certificates and pet registration cards were reached out to for this article, but refused to be named or make public comment.
Stevens, who said he prefers to be known as the “Director of Happiness” at ESAD International, said it is about repairing lives, not making money. This is the ethos in which he said his company operates and he holds this proudly and transparently.
“We’re not perfect," Stevens said. "We make mistakes, but we do this thing honorably and ethically. At the end of the day, these folks that come to us are broken inside and we try to put them in a little better spot. That’s the whole thing — to see them smile again, not to take some money from them.”
In the meantime, Hutton is taking the issue as seriously as ever. Training Coco, who can already perform pressure therapy tasks, to be a service dog one day.
She said her furry companion is not quite ready yet and that she would rather make the decision responsibly than to make it any harder for others with service animals to be accepted in public places.
“Coco is still in public access training, so I don't feel confident enough yet,” Hutton said. “I mean she loves people, and people love her, but I’m trying to be fair.”