If you own a dog, you know that they’re amazing companions. Dogs are a source of not only companionship, but they’re also incredibly loyal. For some people, however, dogs are even more. An emotional support dog can greatly improve the quality of life for people with certain disabilities.

Emotional Support Dog 101

As the name implies, an emotional support dog provides its owner with comfort and companionship. These dogs will typically help people suffering from issues such as anxiety or depression. When someone with one of these conditions faces a distressing situation, an emotional support dog can help them get through it.1

Emotional support dogs, or any other type of emotional support animals (ESAs), provide much more than an emotional connection with their owners. In order to be considered an ESA from a legal standpoint, a mental health professional must write a prescription for an animal. This can be a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a therapist or other licensed practitioner.2 This professional must determine that an emotional support dog, or another type of ESA, will help ease a patient’s anxiety, depression, or another debilitating mental issue.

How an ESA Differs From a Service Dog

You’ve probably seen a service dog at one time or another in some sort of public venue, such as an airport. These are not emotional support dogs, and it’s important to know the difference. An ESA performs a vital role in a patient’s mental health. However, an emotional support dog does not have the same rights as a service dog.

Emotional Support Dog | Dr MartyAccording to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an emotional support dog, or other ESA, does not qualify as a service animal.

The reason, according to the Act, is that service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for people suffering from disabilities. ESAs are not.3

For example, a guide dog helping its blind owner will usually be allowed in just about every public location, such as a restaurant or a grocery store. The same holds true for a dog trained to alert someone who is hearing impaired to some sort of alarm. An emotional support dog, on the other hand, may be able to provide comfort on cue, but that’s not enough to qualify as a service animal.

If you’re thinking of getting an emotional support dog, you’ll need to speak with a local government agency to determine where you can and can’t take the animal.

Is an Emotional Support Dog the Same as a Psychiatric Service Animal?

This is another misperception that is common when people think about getting an emotional support dog. Even though these dogs often help people suffering from issues involving mental health, they are not considered psychiatric service animals.

Much like service dogs, psychiatric service animals are trained to perform specific tasks. They may, for instance, help keep a person from wandering into traffic if they’re disoriented. Some of these animals are trained to alert someone when it’s time to take medication. This is much different from an ESA, which provides comfort just by being present.4

What Sort of Legal Rights Does an Emotional Support Dog Have?

An emotional support dog does have some legal rights, even though the dog isn’t considered to be a service dog in the eyes of the law. According to the Fair Housing Act, it’s illegal to discriminate against someone with a disability. As a result, if a person has a prescription for an ESA, they aren’t subject to some of the rules that apply to other people looking for housing. These include bans on pet size, bans on certain species of animals, and no-pet policies. In addition, someone with a prescription for an emotional support dog cannot be charged a pet deposit.

Emotional Support Dog | Dr MartyPeople with an emotional support dog also have certain rights when it comes to air travel.

The Air Carrier Access Act allows people to have not only service dogs with them in the cabin on flights, but also ESAs. Some airlines require that people show not only proof that they have a disability, but also documentation that shows why the animal must accompany them. If you have an ESA, always contact the airline before you fly to make sure what documentation you need to provide.5

There is also a question as to just how long airlines will be forced to allow ESAs on board. Many of them are saying passengers are complaining about aggressive animals, as well as urination and defecation on planes.6

Qualifying for an ESA

Again, you must receive a certification from a licensed mental health professional before you will be able to qualify for an emotional support dog. The certification letter must include the professional’s type of license, date that license was issued, and the date that the letter was written. In addition, the certification must be on the professional’s letterhead. It must include information on the type of disability you have, and must show that the ESA is a key part of the treatment you’re receiving for your condition.7

The Takeaway

An emotional support dog can be incredibly important for someone suffering from an emotional disability. However, you will have to go through several steps before your pet will be legally considered an ESA.

While these animals perform critically important roles, you should never try to get one simply to get around a housing policy, or to be able to have your dog in the cabin with you when you’re on an airplane. This is an abuse of the system that could make it harder for someone who has a legitimate need to get an ESA.

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