An emotional support dog (ESD) is a dog that has been “prescribed” by a licensed mental health provider to help an individual cope with a condition. Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs don’t require any specialized training. Their companionship is the treatment.
Unfortunately, abuse of certain rights ESD owners are privy to has led some people to doubt the legitimacy of emotional support dogs, writing them off as an excuse to keep or take their dog places they otherwise would not be allowed.
To dispel this ignorance and to provide the much-needed support and help that people with mental disorders need, we here at US Service Animals have written this guide to answer once and for all what an emotional support dog is and how they help their human companions.
Defining an Emotional Support Dog
Let us begin with the definition of an emotional support dog with what it isn’t—a service dog. Most people mistakenly categorize emotional support dogs as service dogs. Emotional support dogs do not require specific training, and they are meant to provide mental or emotional stability to their owner through companionship and love. As very affectionate animals, dogs fill this role incredibly well.
So, what differentiates an emotional support dog from any regular dog? Well, an emotional support dog is one that a licensed mental health professional designates as an animal that provides mental and emotional benefits to someone with a disability. Do note that dogs are not the only emotional support animals (ESAs) out there. All domesticated animals can qualify, including cats, hedgehogs, teacup pigs, miniature horses, rabbits, mice, and even snakes.
Getting an Emotional Support Dog
The only one who can truly answer that question would be a mental health professional. You need to talk to a doctor to determine if you qualify for an emotional support dog. If a mental health professional determines that you would benefit from an emotional support dog, then a recommendation from them is all you need to qualify for one.
Disabilities that Qualify for an Emotional Support Dog
Although a mental health professional’s recommendation is all you need, they won’t give you one simply because you asked for it. There are disorders and issues that emotional support animals specialize in treating.
Previously known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a brain disorder characterized by unusual shifts in energy, mood, and activity levels that disrupt one’s ability to carry out their day-to-day tasks. In this case, an emotional support dog becomes your anchor, the one thing that remains constant amidst tumultuous changes in your mood and energy levels, comforting you in whatever state you find yourself.
Depression isn’t simply a state of being sad. It is a serious mental disorder that negatively impacts your feelings, thoughts, and the way that you act. Clinical depression can lead to a myriad of emotional and physical problems to the point that you can barely get out of bed in the morning. An emotional support dog helps comfort you during extreme episodes and will always be there to gladly greet you regardless of how you feel or even kick you out of bed.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health issue caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD affects a variety of individuals such as victims of abuse, war veterans, victims of torture, or those that lost a loved one. As a result of experiencing these traumatic events, symptoms such as severe anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and uncontrollable reactions to similar events can manifest in the individual. During such episodes, your emotional support dog will be by your side to provide comfort and improve your mental health.
The birth of a child brings about a great deal of emotional upheaval—excitement, joy, and happiness followed by fear, anxiety, and at worst, depression. Many mothers experience what is known as postpartum depression or “baby blues” with symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, uncontrollable weeping, and mood swings. Unlike the usual several days to a week, postpartum depression can last longer and in extreme cases can even develop into a condition known as postpartum psychosis. During this time, a mother should never be left alone, and an emotional support dog fills this role, providing much-needed comfort and care during this chaotic time for a new mother.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Also known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder, causes intense fear and anxiety for a person whenever they are around other people or in a regular social gathering. The anxiety draws from the fear of being negatively evaluated by people, judged for character flaws, or to be rejected in a social situation. Social phobia often stems from a lack of self-confidence or experiencing a traumatic social situation that the individual has not recovered from yet. An emotional support dog helps boost the self-confidence of an individual suffering from social anxiety disorder. The acceptance and comfort provided by a dog are critical to helping individuals relieve themselves of social phobia.
We’ve listed only five of the different disorders that emotional support dogs can help with, and there are a lot more. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above or any emotional upheaval, then a visit to a mental health professional is warranted. Getting the necessary help for your condition is of the utmost importance to us, and if you get an emotional support dog in the process to help you through your pain, that’s even better!
Frequently Asked Questions About Emotional Support Dogs
As we already mentioned, ignorance can have a significant negative impact on the world, and for emotional support dog owners, it can be in the form of mockery from other individuals. Here are the most frequently asked questions we’ve received through the years, and we hope this sheds some light on emotional support dogs and helps you get a canine best friend to help you.
How do I get an ESA letter from my doctor?
While you can’t force your doctor to give you an ESA letter, it wouldn’t hurt to ask them for one. You know yourself better than anyone else, and if you’re suffering from one of the many mental health conditions that emotional support dogs can help with, and you need a companion to help you with your struggle, go ahead and approach your therapist or psychiatrist. These professionals should determine if an emotional support dog is the best way to go for you.
On the other hand, if you are not seeing anyone about your condition yet, but from what you read or how you feel, you understand that you are having emotional and mental health symptoms, then we highly recommend seeing a licensed mental health professional and getting yourself some help. Even if you aren’t given an ESA letter, at the very least, you can take the first step to improving your quality of life.
Can I buy an emotional support dog anywhere?
It’s important to stress that any dog can be an emotional support dog, and no special training is required. These dogs are not like service dogs that require a special trainer. If you already have a dog, a letter from your health care provider stating you need the dog for a diagnosed condition is enough to make that dog an ESD. If you don’t already have a dog, you can adopt or purchase one at any age, trained or not, to have as your ESD. In short, yes, you can buy an emotional support dog anywhere.
However, at US Service Animals, we encourage you to consider adopting your new ESD from a local shelter. A shelter dog needs you as much as you need a companion. You can treat your condition while saving a life in the process. You might also look into animal rescue groups, as they often take in dogs that are not adopted from shelters.
Do emotional support dogs need training?
As mentioned previously, unlike service animals, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development does not require any special training for the service and help that an ESD provides. However, you need to provide at least some basic behavior training to your emotional support dog to ensure that your pet behaves properly in public. After all, you want your dog to be with you during your travels and that they behave enough to travel by air if needed.
Does my emotional support dog need any gear or vest?
There are no laws that require you to provide a vest or jacket to indicate that your pet is an emotional support animal. However, most owners do opt to do this still to ensure that their dogs are identifiable as emotional support animals rather than just pets.
What documents do I need to show my landlord or airline staff to allow my dog to stay/fly with me?
While certification and an ESD ID are useful as additional documents, the most important document in your bag is the ESA letter from your licensed mental health professional. The ESA letter is usually the only document that you need to present to allow your dog to stay with you. However, there are additional documents that may be helpful, which we will discuss next.
Laws that Protect Your Rights as an Emotional Support Animal Owner
There are two federal laws that directly apply to you as an emotional support dog owner. Note that there are different laws for service dogs and therapy dogs than there are for ESDs.
The Fair Housing Act
The Fair House Act, or FHA, was originally signed into law under the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It was later amended through the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) on September 13, 1988, and enforcement of the law began on March 12, 1989. The law primarily focuses on eliminating discrimination during the rental, sale, or financing of a dwelling. While the law originally protected race, religion, and nationality, the FHAA included protections for families with children and those of people with disabilities.
The FHA defines a person with a disability as:
- An individual with a physical or mental impairment that limits their ability to perform one or more major life activities.
- Individuals determined to have such impairment or have a record of such impairment
Qualifying for an ESA means that a licensed mental health professional examined you, made an assessment and determined that you have a mental health disorder that qualifies as mental impairment and thus through this law, you are protected against discrimination from renting, purchasing or receiving financing due to requiring an emotional support dog.
HUD obligates all housing providers that fall under the FHA law to allow assistance animals. This includes your emotional support dog, as part of the definition of “reasonable accommodation.” As long as you have a legal support animal, you are protected by law to live together with your pet with no additional fees—even when there are rules of “no pets allowed” enforced on the premises.
The Air Carrier Access Act
The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, or the ACAA, is an amendment to the 1958 Federal Aviation Act (FAA) that prohibits any commercial airline carrier from discriminating against any passengers with a disability or disabilities.
By the act’s provisions, an airline may not refuse transportation, limit, or require a disabled individual to provide advanced notice to receive service. Due to this prohibition, airlines are not allowed to discriminate against passengers with mental health disabilities as well, and this includes you as an emotional support dog owner. As long as you have the proper documentation and verified identification for your ESA, then you have the right to bring them aboard on a plane without paying any additional fees.
It’s important to note the term “proper documentation” for the Air Carrier Access Act, and thus you must bring your emotional support animal letter and any supporting documentation so that you can present them to the airline. Each airline also requires additional forms and documents so it would be best if you contacted their customer support hotline or go to their nearest kiosk before booking a flight.
Most airlines now require more than the ESA letter from your licensed mental health professional; however, if you can provide all the documentation, your ESA can board free of charge. Some of these documents include:
- Current Vaccination Records
- Veterinary Health Form officially signed by a licensed veterinarian
- A signed testament from your veterinarian about non-aggressive behavior of your dog
Please note that the list above is not exhaustive and that additional forms may be required, so make sure you do your due diligence to reduce any inconvenience when boarding with your canine best friend.
What Do These Laws Mean for You?
We want to remind you of a point we’ve been repeating throughout this guide that most people tend to forget that causes a great deal of misunderstanding for individuals with emotional support dogs. ESAs are not service animals. More laws protect the presence of service animals compared to ESAs, and we’ll give you some examples of each to make sure you don’t find yourself in a tight spot in the future.
An ESA is not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so they are not allowed to enter private establishments such as restaurants and grocery stores with their owners. Only service animals have this distinction, and thus you can’t force a restaurant owner to allow your ESA inside their establishment.
However, as per the FHA and the ACAA, both service animals and emotional support dogs/animals both enjoy the right to live and fly with their owners free of charge and you can’t be denied lodging, residence, or airline transport service because you are with your furry buddy. Do note that during travel ESAs and service animals are not required by law to wear vests that indicate their status, but we do highly recommend that they are provided one especially when they will be traveling with you to distant places for easy identification.
Remember, Emotional Support Dogs are Not Only Pets—They are Family!
We hope our emotional support dog guide helped you dispel some of the ignorance and misconception surrounding the acquisition and ownership of your support pet. We want to stress the idea that emotional support friends are not merely your pets—they are family! They are there to help you through your darkest times, and they will always be by your side to ensure your mental well-being, so please treat them well.
Let us end with a warning, as of this writing 22 states already have civil and criminal penalties for “service dog fraud” addressing both services that offer ESD training and for owners that are abusing the protections provided to service dogs and ESAs. You don’t get an ESA simply because you want to get the perks of flying your pet free or ensuring that you can live with your pets! Make sure you register with a trusted organization like US Service Animals.