Animals have been supporting humans since the beginning of time. In more recent years, many people have been leaning on their animal companions for emotional support. For some people with mental or emotional conditions, the presence of a pet is critical to their ability to function normally on a daily basis. The animal provides emotional support and comfort that helps them deal with challenges that might compromise their quality of life. These pets are known as emotional support animals (ESAs). Dogs are the most common type of emotional support animal because they are good at gauging human emotion and take well to special training.
What Is an emotional support dog?
Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their owner, to legally be considered an emotional support dog, also called an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety or give them a focus in life. The dogs can be any age and any breed.
Emotional support dog vs. service dogs
ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. However, they are not service dogs, and ESA users do not receive the same accommodations as service dog users.
A service dog, such as a guide dog, is generally allowed anywhere the public is allowed; ESAs are not. ESAs are only allowed to go into stores and restaurants that have pet-friendly policies. So do some research to find a pet-friendly establishment before you go out.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The act clearly states that animals that simply provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals. Some state and local laws have a broader definition, so be sure to check with local government agencies to learn if ESAs qualify for public access in your area.
The key difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, service dogs are trained to alert a hearing-impaired person to an alarm or to guide a visually impaired person around an obstacle.
Behaviors such as cuddling on cue, although comforting, do not qualify. The tasks need to be specifically trained to mitigate a particular disability, not something instinctive the dog would do anyway.
Emotional support dogs are not psychiatric service dogs
There are service dogs, known as psychiatric service dogs that require extensive training to work specifically with people whose disability is due to mental illness. These dogs detect the beginning of psychiatric episodes and help ease their effects. Although this sounds similar to the role of an ESA, the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an ESA is again in the tasks performed by the dog and the training received to perform these tasks.
Psychiatric service dogs (recognized by the ADA as service dogs) have been trained to do certain jobs that help the handler cope with a mental illness. For example, the dog might remind a person to take prescribed medications, keep a disoriented person in a dissociative episode from wandering into a hazardous situation such as traffic or perform room searches for a person with post-traumatic stress disorder. If it is simply the dog’s presence that helps the person cope, then the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog.
Accommodations for individuals who use emotional support dogs
Individuals who use ESAs are provided certain accommodations under federal law in the areas of housing and air travel. The Fair Housing Act includes ESAs in its definition of assistance animals. Under the act, people cannot be discriminated against due to a disability when obtaining housing. Rules such as pet bans or restrictions are waived for people who have a prescription for an ESA, and they cannot be charged a pet deposit for having their ESA live with them.
The Air Carrier Access Act allows service animals and ESAs to accompany their handlers in the cabin of an aircraft. The airline can require documentation stating that the person has a disability and the reason why the animal must travel with them. If you intend to travel with an ESA, contact the airline ahead of time to ensure you can provide the appropriate paperwork.
ESAs can be any common domestic animal including dogs, cats, or ferrets, and more. To qualify, the animal must be reasonably well behaved and under the control of its handler at all times. It also must be housebroken, and cannot be a nuisance or danger to others. Airlines may exclude certain types of animals from accompanying passengers. Like, service dogs, emotional support dogs are not required to wear identifying equipment, such as a vest or a harness.
Emotional support dogs can perform an important role in the life of a person with mental or emotional conditions. When people who do not have a disability abuse the system by misrepresenting a pet as an ESA to obtain special accommodation, they undermine important accommodations for individuals with a legitimate need for this assistance.
Stephanie Gibeault, MSc, CPDT is a freelance writer with a specialization in animal behavior and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She frequently writes for the American Kennel Club.