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3 Things You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals

human hugging emotional support dog

Isn’t Every Pet an Emotional Support Animal?

Each dog owner is certainly aware that there are many benefits to having a dog. From helping its owner get out for a walk, to providing loyal and loving companionship, dogs are clearly “man’s best friend.”

And yet, there are those who are saddled with emotional conditions, who need much more than a best friend. Without a dog, they are unable to function normally on a daily basis.

The dog, or any other domestic animal such as a cat or ferret, provides critical emotional support and comfort that assists them in confronting life’s challenges they may be unable to do otherwise. These pets are known as emotional support animals (ESA).

To qualify as an ESA, the animal must be reasonably well behaved, housebroken, not be a danger or nuisance to others, and submissive to the control of its handler at all times.

Although as a rule, every pet provides an emotional connection with its owner, in order to be an ESA, according to the law, the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional as a means of mitigating a disabling mental illness or relieving anxiety so the client can focus and live a more productive life.

Are Emotional Support Dogs Service Dogs?

While ESAs provide emotional support through companionship and can be instrumental in easing anxiety, depression, and certain phobias, they are not considered to be service dogs. Because of this, ESA users are not entitled to the same accommodations as service dog users.

An important distinction is that a service dog, such as a guide dog, is generally allowed to go anywhere the public is allowed; ESAs are not. For example, as a rule, ESAs cannot accompany their owners into restaurants or shopping malls.

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 which simply provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals.

The primary distinction between a service dog and an emotional support dog lies in whether or not the animal has been trained to perform a particular task or job that is directly related to the person’s disability.

For example, service dogs are trained to guide a visually impaired person around an obstacle or to alert a hearing-impaired person when there is an alarm. However, a behavior such as the pet cuddling with its master on cue, while comforting, does not qualify since the task is not designed to mitigate a particular disability.

Are Psychiatric Service Dogs Different from ESA?

Some confusion arises regarding “Psychiatric Service Dogs.” These dogs are actually service dogs that help people with psychiatric disabilities, such as severe depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While this sounds similar to the role of an ESA, the key distinction between the two is whether or not the dog is trained to perform tasks such as:

  • performing safety checks or room searches for individuals suffering from PTSD
  • preventing someone who is dissociating from wandering into traffic or other danger
  • impeding or interrupting destructive behaviors, such as self-mutilation
  • helping a person to remember to take prescribed medications

The dog’s mere presence that enables the person to better cope, is insufficient to qualify as a psychiatric service dog. At times it can be confusing to the staff at public places, whether an animal accompanying a psychologically impaired individual is a psychiatric service dog or an ESA. Confusion may result in unlawful and discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities.

Another difference is that a psychiatric service dog is not only responding to its owner’s need for help but is trained to recognize a need for help and act in a preemptive manner. To be considered a psychiatric service dog, the animal must be able to recognize the need and respond.

On the other hand, an emotional support dog is a dog that hasn’t been trained to perform specific acts directly related to an individual’s psychological disability. Instead, the pet’s owner simply derives a sense of security, calm, and well-being from the dog’s companionship and physical presence.

It’s important to remember that the companionship of an emotional support dog has genuine therapeutic benefits for those with emotional disabilities and less debilitating mental impairments.

For example, someone with social phobia might not feel safe enough to leave home for food or medication unless accompanied by the ESA. It should be noted that sometimes documentation will be required to bring the ESA into a store, bank or the like.

If, however, that same individual is susceptible to a dissociative episode when leaving home, and the dog has been trained to recognize and respond to the onset of such an episode by barking, nudging, or pushing that individual to a safe location, then the dog is considered a psychiatric service dog.

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