An emotional support dog provides an invaluable service to their owner. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion over what emotional support dogs are and how they differ from other dogs providing services to their handlers or owners.
So today, I want to try to clear some of that confusion up to give you a better understanding of emotional service animals.
What is an Emotional Support Dog?
An emotional support dog is a pet dog that provides their owner with comfort, emotional support, and a sense of wellbeing simply by being present.
An emotional support dog is not trained to perform specific tasks that help their owner to function in a “normal” capacity.
An example of an emotional service dog may be a dog rescued from a shelter who provides their owner relief from mild anxiety simply by being present.
What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Unlike an emotional support dog, a psychiatric service dog’s main purpose is not to provide comfort (although they certainly do,) but to perform or assist their owner in performing tasks vital to everyday life.
Psychiatric service dogs must be trained to both recognize their handler’s need for assistance and to act in a specific way so as to help their handler in that time of need.
An example of a psychiatric service dog may be a dog rescued from a shelter and trained to recognize the symptoms of anxiety attacks in individuals with PTSD. These dogs may be trained to drape themselves over their handler to help them to realize that they are safe and bring them back to the present moment so that their anxiety can be reduced. These dogs may also be trained to fetch medication or a telephone so that the individual can ease their symptoms or call for assistance.
Owning Emotional Support Dogs Vs Psychiatric Service Dogs
In order to claim an emotional support dog, an individual must be certified by a licensed mental health professional as having a genuine need for the emotional support of their dog.
To legally claim an emotional support dog, the individual must have a letter from a mental health professional on professional letterhead attesting to the need for an emotional support animal.
In order to claim a psychiatric service dog, an individual must have a psychiatric disability that severely impacts their ability to function “normally” in their everyday life. There must also be a potential for a trained psychiatric service dog to improve the quality of life of the individual with a psychiatric disability by performing or assisting in performing certain tasks.
To legally claim a psychiatric service dog, an individual must have a qualifying debilitating illness or psychiatric disorder and a recommendation from a medical doctor or a licensed mental health professional. Additionally, the individual must be capable of taking part in the dog’s training process, be capable of caring for the trained service dog, and meet any other criteria set by the service dog provider.
Protection of Emotional Support Dogs Vs. Psychiatric Service Dogs
Unlike service dogs (psychiatric service dogs included), emotional support dogs are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they are not recognized as being service dogs.
With that said, there are certain protections afforded to emotional service animals and their owners.
- Individuals may request reasonable accommodations for their emotional service dog by their employer IF they can provide documentation as to how the dog will assist the individual to perform their job AND the dog does not pose a direct threat to the workplace or cause undue hardship to the employer. This right is protected by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
- Emotional support dogs are protected by the Fair Housing Act and housing organizations must make reasonable accommodations for emotional support dogs and their handlers. Some examples of accommodations may include waiving pet rent or pet deposits or permitting emotional service animals to reside in housing where pets are not permitted. When seeking protection under the FHA, individuals may be requested to provide in writing documentation of the need for the emotional support animal. Housing organizations may not discriminate emotional support dogs based on breed.
- Under the Air Carrier Access Act, emotional support animals are permitted to accompany their owners in the cabin of an aircraft. Specific airline policies differ, however, most require emotional support animal owners to contact them ahead of time to discuss their needs AS WELL as provide documentation as to the need for the emotional support animal.
Since they are not qualified as service animals, emotional support animals are not provided the following protections:
- Emotional support animals are not permitted entry to public institutions and stores where pets are not permitted.
- Emotional support animals are generally not permitted into educational institutions, however, they may be permitted on a case by case basis depending on the educational institution and the child’s individualized education plan. Additionally, more secondary education institutions are making additions to their animal policy to provide for emotional service animals.
- Emotional support animals are generally not permitted on public transportation (with the exception of airlines) that do not permit pets to travel.
Proving an Emotional Support Dog’s Need
When it comes to psychiatric service dogs, there are limitations on what can and cannot be asked in order to prove the need or qualification of the dog. These limitations are established and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Since emotional support dogs are not considered to be service dogs, they are not afforded the same protections. So just what can be asked from you in order to prove your need or qualification of your dog as an emotional support dog?
- When requesting accommodations in the workplace for an emotional support animal, individuals may be asked to prove the existence of a disability and how the animal would help in job performance.
- When seeking housing with an emotional support animal and seeking protection under the FHA, housing organizations may not ask individuals about the existence, nature, or extent of a disability requiring the emotional support dog. They may, however, request in writing confirmation that someone in the household has a disability, that the animal is needed to assist the individual with a disability, and that the animal does assist the individual with the disability. These certifications are not requested of those with qualified service dogs.
- When seeking protection for an emotional support dog under the Air Carrier Access Act, individuals may be asked to provide documentation that establishes that they have a disability and why the animal must travel with them. This is generally a current letter from a licensed mental health professional on professional letterhead that certifies that the individual has a mental health-related disability listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that the presence of the animal is necessary for the benefit of the mental health or treatment of the traveling passenger while traveling, that the author of the letter is a licensed mental health professional and is currently treating the individual who is traveling, the date, the type of mental health license the mental health practitioner holds and which state or jurisdiction it is valid in.
Failure to provide the requested documentation of an emotional support animal may result in refusal of benefits or provisions.
Interested in learning more about emotional support animals and service animals? Check out the ADA National Network site!