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What Do I Need to Know about Emotional Support Dogs?

Emotional support dogs (and other types of emotional support animals) are gaining popularity well outside the disabled community. However, despite their upward trend in recent years, there is still a lot that many people get wrong or simply don’t realize about emotional support dogs. Who are they for? What purpose do they serve? How does a person get an emotional support dog or other animal?

We are going to take a deeper dive into these and other questions about emotional support dogs. You might find that having one can help to put you at ease and provide you with a higher quality of life. Or, you might simply gain a new appreciation for what animals are truly capable of.

What is an Emotional Support Dog?

The official definition of an emotional support dog is “any dog that is prescribed by a licensed therapist or medical provider and provides its owner with some form of emotional support.” There’s some room for interpretation here, so let’s clarify a few things.

First and foremost, an emotional support dog is not a pet. It is an animal that provides assistance to a person with a mental disability. Because mental disabilities are often invisible to the casual observer, the difference between pet and assistance animal is often misunderstood. The person who has the emotional support animal must have a verifiable disability as assessed by a therapist or similar licensed professional. In many cases, an emotional support dog is key to helping an individual live independently.

Emotional support dogs are typically used by individuals that suffer from some form of emotional trauma, such as PTSD, anxiety, stress, panic attacks, depression, or even severe phobias. Having an emotional support dog helps to alleviate these feelings in the individual, which in turn can help them live a happier, healthier life.

Dogs are commonly used in these situations because of their seemingly inherent nature of providing support and comfort. Having a dog’s sweet cuddles, kisses, and affection can make anyone feel loved and secure. However, the main difference between a dog as a pet and a dog as an emotional support animal is the need for the animal on a consistent basis.

The other big difference is the way in which emotional support dogs are acquired. To be a true emotional support animal, the dog must be “prescribed” to the individual by a healthcare provider or therapist as part of a patient’s overall treatment for their mental or emotional disorder.

As long as a dog has all of these pieces of the puzzle, they can be considered an emotional support dog.

What Symptoms or Illnesses Can Emotional Support Dogs Help With?

Emotional support dogs are common companions for individuals with a range of mental health needs and illnesses. Anyone from children to college students to war veterans to elderly adults have benefited from the presence of an emotional support dog.

Some of the conditions that an emotional support dog has been shown to positively impact include:

  • PTSD for veterans
  • General Anxiety Disorder
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Patients with chronic illnesses
  • Phobias that interfere with daily living
  • Poor mental health due to living alone
  • Emotional trauma

While an emotional support dog can provide comfort and help alleviate symptoms, they should not be viewed as a cure-all. They are often part of a larger mental health treatment plan, which may also include the use of prescription medications, in-person therapy sessions, support groups, and lifestyle changes, among other things.

What are the Benefits of an Emotional Support Dog?

Having a dog as a pet provides a number of benefits to the owner, from constant companionship to encouraging you to exercise. But dogs that are also emotional support animals are seen as being crucial to helping its owner function on a daily basis.

Individuals that suffer from mental or emotional health issues, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or PTSD, have experienced positive changes in their ability to cope and function with an emotional support animal. Benefits include, but are not limited to:

  • Feelings of calmness and relaxation
  • Lower stress levels
  • Improvements in social interactions
  • Reduced pain
  • Increased happiness
  • Normalized heart rate
  • Improved symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Boosted self esteem

For some individuals, mental and emotional health symptoms appear on a daily basis. Symptoms may interfere with their daily living and make it hard to do things that many of us take for granted.

For others, symptoms may appear only under special circumstances, such as flying (aerophobia), going out in public (agoraphobia), or being in any type of social setting.

Regardless of the specific triggers, an emotional support dog could be key in helping an individual better navigate these situations.

Is an Emotional Support Dog a Service Animal?

Despite having a little bit of overlap, service animals and emotional support dogs should not be used interchangeably.

Some may argue that emotional support dogs do provide a valuable service to their owners, and in a way, that’s true. However, a true service dog is specially trained to provide specific services to an individual with disabilities.

An emotional support dog’s “service” is strictly for mental health. They cannot perform physical services, such as assisting with mobility or providing alerts for diabetic patients. However, a service dog can be trained to do these things and more.

Another difference is the type of animal. Emotional support animals aren’t limited to just dogs. In fact, just about any type of domestic pet can qualify as an emotional support animal. This isn’t the case for service animals, which are limited to dogs and miniature ponies.

Because of the roles they play in the owner’s life, emotional support dogs and service dogs will have different privileges in the eyes of the public. For example, a service dog may go anywhere its owner goes, such as the grocery store, retailer, or even the individual’s workplace. Emotional support dogs may or may not be allowed to visit these same places, even with documentation from the owner.

Do Emotional Support Dogs Have the Same Rights as a Service Dog?

While emotional support dogs do play a valuable role in helping an individual live and function normally, they are not always granted the same rights as a service dog. In fact, according to law, emotional support dogs have fewer rights than a service dog.

In some cases, your emotional support dog or other animal might be allowed to accompany you to your favorite store or your workplace. But their presence is not guaranteed under law, unlike service dogs. If you are allowed to take your emotional support dog to these places, it is because of the discretion of the place you are visiting. Many stores will allow their entry as a courtesy to their customers, but they are under no legal obligation to do so.

However, emotional support dogs do enjoy some of the same rights as a service dog. This is most evident under the Fair Housing Act and with some airlines.

Fair Housing Act and Emotional Support Dogs

HUD makes a number of statements regarding emotional support dogs and their owners’ rights under the Fair Housing Act.

For example, any tenant with an emotional support dog will be able to bring their dog inside their home, even if the property typically does not allow pets. Landlords may also not charge you extra in fees for having an emotional support dog. However, they may charge you for any damage caused by your dog after you move out.

Like service animals, landlords are not permitted to ask about your disability, nor are you obligated to disclose any information about your disability.

Landlords may also not place any bans or restrictions on your dog’s breed. However, they may consider the specific dog in question to see if it may pose a threat or safety issue to others. They must assess the dog’s conduct and provide objective evidence that the dog may be dangerous to others.

If you live in a housing complex, your emotional support dog should be allowed to go anywhere in the complex that you go. These areas typically include your rented unit as well as any common areas, such as a multi-purpose room where pets usually aren’t allowed.

The same goes for college dorms and campuses, too. If you’re a college student and need to bring your emotional support dog to your dorm, your university is under an obligation to allow it. It’s becoming more common to see emotional support dogs on college campuses due to the stress of classes, maintaining a reasonable GPA, and the fear of not being able to repay student loan debt upon graduation. The process for a college student gaining permission to house their emotional support dog is the same as any type of housing setting — provide your landlord with the ESA letter from your therapist or healthcare provider.

Last but not least, it’s worth noting that landlords cannot unreasonably delay their rental decision based on an emotional support animal. While some landlords may want to collect additional information about the tenant’s medical history, doing so repeatedly and over the course of several months can be seen as an unreasonable delay, even though the property did not outright deny the tenant’s request. While there is no predefined timeline, decisions must be made in a timely manner or the property owner or management company may risk facing legal consequences.

Important: if you feel as though you have been treated unfairly regarding your emotional support dog in regards to your housing situation, you can file a formal complaint with the FHEO.

Airlines and Emotional Support Dogs

There is some confusion as to whether emotional support dogs are allowed to fly on airlines.

In the past, emotional support animals were granted similar rights as service dogs on airlines. The animal could accompany the owner onto the flight in the regular cabin without having to pay any extra fees. This was often seen as a better solution for both the owner and the animal, as the animal could fly with the owner and avoid the stress of being crated and cargoed.

However, as of 2020, this is now no longer the case, at least on some airlines. A recent report noted that U.S. airlines are no longer required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to treat emotional support animals as service animals. It has instead adopted a definition of “service animal” that more closely aligns with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For anyone that still needs to fly with an emotional support dog or other animal on many major airlines, the animal is considered a pet and not a service animal. This means the animal will be subject to pet fees just like any other pet and might not be allowed to fly with you in the cabin.

However, many airlines are still allowing emotional support dogs and other animals on their flights and have no plans to discontinue this. Among them are Volaris, WestJet, and Latam Airlines.

Before booking any flight, it’s best to check with the airline about their specific policy on flying with an emotional support dog. In some cases, the proper documentation may help you to negotiate reasonable fees or at least allow your dog to fly with you in the cabin.

How Does a Dog Become an Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional support dogs do not require any special training or certification to become an emotional support animal. However, you do need official documentation for your dog to be recognized as an emotional support dog.

The process is quick and straightforward. The first piece of evidence you will need is a letter from a licensed therapist or health care provider stating that the dog is part of your emotional or mental health therapy. If you are currently seeing a therapist or doctor for your condition, they can furnish you with a letter that meets any requirements. You can present this letter to your landlord to ensure your pet can legally live with you without the fear of being charged unfair pet fees.

If you are not currently under the care of a therapist or a health care provider but feel that you may benefit from an emotional support dog, you can still get the documentation you need. Therapypet.org takes the guesswork out of the process and connects you to a licensed therapist who can determine your eligibility and provide you with a signed letter in as little as 72 hours.

Please note that therapypet.org is not the same as the websites offering registration or certifications for emotional support animals. There is no such thing when it comes to emotional support animals! Rather, the only thing you need is a letter from a licensed therapist stating they have assessed you as a patient and recommend an emotional support dog as part of your treatment. The letter itself does not “certify” or “register” any specific animal for your condition. Nor does the letter disclose private information about your condition or illness.

What are the Best Breeds for an Emotional Support Dog?

Any dog is eligible to become an emotional support dog, regardless of training, breed, age, or other characteristics. However, some of the most common breeds that take on the role of emotional support dog include the following:

  • Golden retrievers
  • German shepherds
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Poodles
  • Great Pyrenees
  • Corgis
  • Goldendoodles
  • Australian shepherds

These breeds are considered ideal for emotional support dogs because of their inherent docile nature, ability to house train, and the easy bond they form with their humans. They are usually loyal to a T, do well in social settings, and are not aggressive or overly headstrong.

However, the best breed depends on the owner. Any dog that you connect with and can depend on for love and loyalty can make an excellent emotional support dog.

When choosing a canine companion for support, you may want to look for certain qualities. For example, if you live in a small home or apartment, having a small breed might work better for your space. Or, if you have allergies, then choosing a dog with a low-shed coat might make for a better long-term relationship. Consider your unique emotional or mental conditions as well as your lifestyle and living situation to find that perfect match.

Do Emotional Support Dogs Need to Be Registered?

Registration for emotional support dogs is a bit of a grey area for many people. The simple answer is no, emotional support dogs do not need to be registered. That is because there is no such thing.

However, for any dog to be recognized as an emotional support dog, you do need a letter from a licensed health care provider or therapist stating that your dog provides emotional support to you.

Many companies that provide ESA letters also sell things like vests and certificates that can make your dog look more “official,” like a service dog. These items are certainly not required, but they may help you avoid questions when going into public places, such as a retail store.

Keep in mind that even with a letter from your therapist, your emotional support dog might not be welcome in the same situations as a service animal.

What Other Types of Animals Can Be Emotional Support Animals?

Legal service animals are restricted to dogs and miniature ponies only. However, just about any animal that can be a pet can also be an emotional support animal.

Some of the most common examples we see include:

  • Rabbits
  • Cats
  • Ducks and geese
  • Peacocks
  • Ferrets
  • Pigs
  • Hedgehogs
  • Horses

Something to consider is that an individual may have more than one emotional support animal. For example, if you have two dogs, you could get ESA letters for both dogs.

However, consider your unique living situation before choosing any emotional support animal. Many people use their ESA letter as an excuse to keep an exotic and dangerous pet, such as a snake. But some animals are simply not fit to live inside a home. The more exotic or offbeat, the harder it can be to explain the animal to your landlord or an airline.

This is why many people choose an emotional support dog as their ESA animal. They’re a reasonable animal that’s easy to explain and will often be welcome in public spaces without question.

How Do I Get an ESA Letter?

To have an emotional support dog or other animal, you first need to obtain an ESA letter. An ESA letter is simply an official letter from your therapist or healthcare provider stating the need for you to have an emotional support animal. Similar to a prescription for a medication, the ESA letter will contain the signature of your provider, making it an official document.

Before you apply for an ESA letter, it is important to first understand the role of an emotional support dog. This ensures that you set the right expectations for your dog, the process of making your dog an emotional support animal, and understanding the dog’s rights and benefits. The dog’s role is purely to improve your mental health and not provide any other type of services.

If you think that an emotional support dog would be beneficial to your everyday life, the next step is to consult with your licensed therapist or provider. Providers may include counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, registered nurses, or other licensed professionals. Your provider will determine your eligibility for an emotional support animal based on your specific conditions. It’s important to be as candid as possible with your provider for a thorough evaluation and an ideal outcome.

If your provider deems you eligible for an emotional support dog, he or she will write a letter that will serve as your “prescription.” You can use this letter to support your request to your landlord to have your dog treated as an ESA and not a regular pet, for example.

The ESA letter will typically be printed on professional letterhead and include your provider’s name, contact information, the date the letter was issued, a statement about the presence of a disability (without disclosing the nature or details of the disability), their professional recommendation for an emotional support animal, and the provider’s signature. This is all the official documentation you will ever need.

Once you have the letter in hand, you can submit it to your landlord to ensure your dog will be welcome in your home and the surrounding property without having to pay pet deposits or other fees.

However, keep in mind that you are still responsible for cleaning up after your dog and any damage they may cause to the unit or surrounding property.

Do I Qualify for an Emotional Support Dog?

For many individuals considering an emotional support animal the bottom-line question is this: do I qualify for an emotional support dog?

The best approach is to talk to your therapist, doctor, or other health care provider to see if an emotional support dog or other animal might benefit you. Your provider will conduct a mental health assessment to learn more about your specific symptoms and explain how a dog or other animal can help you to overcome any negative impacts.

If they determine that an emotional support dog might be right for you, they can provide you with an ESA letter and even connect you to dog adoption programs to help you find your new furry companion. Of course, if you already have a dog or other animal, your healthcare provider can provide the ESA letter and your pet can take on the new role of emotional support animal.

At therapypet.org, we aim to make the process of receiving your ESA letter as simple, fast, and straightforward as possible. Get started by filling out our form and connect with a licensed therapist today!