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Every dog owner knows there are benefits to having a dog, from getting out for exercise to loyal companionship. However, for some people with disabilities, the presence of a dog is critical to their daily functioning. The emotional support and comfort provided by their pet allows them to deal with challenges that might otherwise compromise their quality of life. These pets are known as emotional support animals (ESAs).

 

What Is an Emotional Support Dog?

Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their owner, to legally be considered an emotional support dog, 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, for example, must decide 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 him a focus in life.

 

Emotional Support Dog vs. Service Dogs

Although ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias, they are not service dogs and do not have the same rights. While a service dog, such as a guide dog, is generally allowed anywhere the public is allowed, ESAs are not. So they cannot accompany their owners into restaurants or shopping malls, for example.

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 those animals that simply provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. 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 ESA is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, alerting a hearing-impaired person to an alarm or guiding a visually impaired person around an obstacle are jobs performed by service dogs. Behaviors such as cuddling on cue, although comforting, would not qualify. The tasks need to be specifically trained, 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 work specifically with people whose disability is due to a 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.

 

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Psychiatric service dogs (also covered by the ADA) 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 like 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.

 

Legal Rights of Emotional Support Dogs

Although they are not service dogs, ESAs do have certain rights in terms 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. Therefore, rules such as no pets, species bans, or pet-size limitations do not apply to 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 handler in the cabin of an aircraft. The airline might 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.

Service animals can only be dogs, but ESAs can be any common domestic animal including dogs, cats, or ferrets, and more. To qualify, the animal must be reasonably well behaved by typical pet standards, such as being toilet trained, and can’t be a nuisance or danger to others.

ESAs perform a critical role in the life of a person with a disability. It is important to realize that attempting to take advantage of the category so your dog can fly with you or live in no-pet housing is an abuse of the system and makes it harder for people with a legitimate need. On the other hand, if you are legally disabled, limited in at least one area of your life, and you believe a dog or other pet would provide you with mental health benefits, see a licensed mental health professional about obtaining a prescription for an ESA.

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