Dogs provide us with a series of benefits- we all know that.  From the increased exercise we get walking them to the mental health benefits, dogs enrich the lives of their owners.

Dogs can make great companions and provide emotional support.

Dogs make great companions and provide us with many benefits

There are many studies being produced that sow the positive effects that dogs have on anxiety, depression and other emotional disorders of their owners,  Some dogs have been trained to complete specific tasks to aid their owners such as detecting seizures, anticipating panic attacks, guiding the visually impaired and picking up items for owners.

There has been a recent increase in people stating their dogs are Emotional Support Animals- a key and valuable tool for people dealing with a variety of mental health issues including PTSD, anxiety, and depression.  However, there is some confusion on this topic.  This article seeks to clarify the differences between a service dog, a therapy dog and an emotional support dog.  In addition, we will cover how to have your dog considered an emotional support dog if needed.

There has been a recent increase in people stating their dogs are Emotional Support Animals- a key and valuable tool for people dealing with a variety of mental health issues including PTSD, anxiety, and depression.  However, there is some confusion on this topic.  This article seeks to clarify the differences between a service dog, a therapy dog and an emotional support dog.  In addition, we will cover how to have your dog considered an emotional support dog if needed.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

A dog can be considered an emotional support dog when the owner has a verifiable emotional or mental health condition that specifically benefits from the presence of the dog.  The owner must be under the treatment of a mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker), and have a letter from the professional.

Stating that an owner receives mental health benefits from the presence of the dog is very different from the typical “I love my dog and want to spend time with him” feeling.  Emotional support dogs serve a therapeutic purpose for their owners.  Many patients with social phobias, or anxiety are able to get through situations that would otherwise be unbearable for them without the presence of their emotional support dog.

Emotional support dogs can be an integral part of the mental health treatment for their owners.  As such, emotional support dogs are afforded special rights that companion dogs are not.

Before we delve into the benefits of having an emotional support dog, first, we should discuss the differences between a service dog, a therapy dog, and an emotional support dog.

Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs:

Let me take a moment to clarify a few points. Many people use the phrases “service dog”, “therapy dog”, and “emotional support dog” interchangeably.  This is not accurate, there are significant differences between these types of dogs.

service dogis a dog that has been specially trained to assist their owners with a  specific task to aid in their daily life.  The most common, or most well-known, example of this is the seeing eye dog.  the seeing eye dog has undergone extensive training to assist their blind or visually impaired owner to safely navigate the world.

Service dogs are governed by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Service dogs will often were a vest that states “Service Dog: Do not pet” on it.  These dogs are working dogs with a specific task for their owners.  Under the ADA, service dogs are permitted to accompany their owners in public locations not typically open to dogs such as movie theaters, public transportation and stores.  All service dogs must demonstrate a high degree of training and must be able to demonstrate the following:

  • not urinating or defecating unless being released to do so
  • not sniffing unless being released to do so
  • not seeking attention or food
  • not exhibiting any aggressive behavior including barking, growling, biting, jumping etc.
  • the dogs must be well behaved and calm in public situations

therapy dog also undergoes specific training.  However, the training is very different.  Therapy dogs accompany their handlers and may provide relief from stress, anxiety or depression.  These dogs are not trained to accommodate the needs of one particular person, but rather to provide benefit to many people. Therapy dogs do not have the same benefits under the ADA as service dogs do.  They are not permitted to enter places closed to dogs.  Therapy dogs are most often seen visiting nursing homes, hospitals, mental health clinics, and recently college campuses during exam weeks.

Therapy dogs must show good social behaviors, not be aggressive and be able to remain calm in a wide variety of situations.  Therapy dogs have been shown to be a valuable tool for rehabilitation of physical and mental health issues.

Emotional support dogs are dogs that provide emotional support to their owners.  Emotional support dogs can be an integral part of their owners treatment plan. They do not need to be specially trained to complete a task, but do need to be well behaved in public.  Emotional support dogs are also afforded some protections under the law.

Benefits of an Emotional Support Dog:

Emotional support animals provide just that- emotional support- to their owners.  While these dogs are not permitted in public locations not open to dogs (like movie theaters, public transportation and stores), emotions support dogs are permitted to fly in the cabin of an airplane with their owners and are permitted in housing that may be closed to pets or have breed and size restrictions.

Emotional support dogs may fly with their owners in the cabin of an aircraft

Emotional support dogs may accompany their owners in the cabin of an aircraft under the Air Carrier Access Act.  Given the special environment of an aircraft cabin, it is even more important that your emotional support dog be well behaved and calm in public, showing no signs of aggression.  Each airline has their own specific requirements for emotional support dogs, so be sure to check with your airline before arriving at the airport.  It is not enough to simply call your dog an emotional support dog, airlines will require specific documentation. Emotional support dogs may travel with their owners at no additional cost.

Landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations for service dogs and emotional support dogs under the Fair Housing Act.  This is true even when the building does not allow dogs or has breed and size restrictions.  Emotional support dogs must be well behaved and not present a danger to others in the building (i.e. it may not exhibit aggressive behaviors) or a nuisance (i.e. excessive barking, jumping or whining). If the emotional support dog does exhibit aggressive behaviors or is deemed to be a nuisance, it can be required to leave the building.

It is important to note that emotional support dogs do not have to allowed in “short term lodging”.  This includes hotels, motels and other lodging not used for full time living arrangements.  Owners of emotional support dogs are expected to provide them with care and to clean up after their pet.  It is the responsibility of the owner to ensure that their dog is not a threat to the health and safety of others.

How do I Register My Dog as an Emotional Support Dog?

There is a process for calling your dog an emotional support dog, although there is not a registry for emotional support dogs.  Having an emotional support dog requires the owner to get specific documentation and to be ready to present that documentation when asked for it.

Owners must first have a specific mental health or emotional disability (such as depression, anxiety, PTSD).  Owners must be under the treatment of a professional and have a letter from the treating professional.  The letter must include a few items:

  • that the owner has a mental health or emotional disability that is benefitted from the presence of the emotional support dog.
  • that the owner has been prescribed an emotional support dog for therapeutic purposes
  • that the emotional support dog is part of the treatment plan for the owner

These letters must be written on the treating professionals letterhead.  It must be signed and dated by the professional and include the professionals license number, the date and place the letter was issued.

As stated earlier, there is not a national registry for emotional support dogs.  It is the responsibility of the owner to be able to provide the required documentation when requested by airlines or landlords to prove that your dog is an emotional support dog.

A Few Final Thoughts:

Today it is more acceptable than ever to acknowledge a mental health or emotional problem, as it should be.  Lifting the stigma off of mental health issues is important for all of us- it increases research on treatment, opens up support and provides the patient with less shame.

Having an emotional support animal can be a huge benefit to patients with emotional disabilities or mental health issues.  Is it important to be honest about whether your dog is a companion pet, an emotional support dog, a therapy dog or a service dog.  Stating that a companion dog or emotional support dog is a service dog is illegal.  Laws vary by state, but every state considers it illegal to portray an emotional support dog as a service dog.

Emotional support animals provide a valuable form of treatment to those who need it, abusing this right, endangers this form of assistance for those who benefit from it.  Abuse also gives the public a poor perception of service dogs and emotional support dogs.  Any dog who is called a service dog or support dog that is not well trained, does a disservice to all service and emotional support dogs.

One final note, there are a lot of agencies that are happy to certify that your dog is a service dog without actually requiring the training. There are even more that will offer to send you a letter so your dog can be considered an emotional support dog.  Please do not go these routes.  As a pet owner, and former mental health professional, I know how important support dogs are in the treatment plans of patients.  If you feel that you would benefit from your dog being considered an emotional support dog, please see a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker and follow the protocol.  If your desire is to have your dog be registered as a service dog or therapy dog, get the appropriate training and follow the rules and regulations for that.  Doing so, helps to protect the image of service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs everywhere.

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