The term Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is becoming quite popular. An ESA is an animal, usually a dog, that provides companionship, relieves loneliness, and helps with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias (ADATA.com). These animals do not require training or the ability to perform specific tasks, they provide companionship and unconditional love (usdogregistry.org). The ESA designation is based on the emotional needs of the individual and not the animal’s qualifications or training. For this reason, ESAs are not considered service dogs and they are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that a facility may deny entry of an ESA if they have a “No Animals Allowed” sign posted. They are however covered under the Fair Housing Act, which allows them to live in a rental unit even if they do not allow animals or have size/breed restrictions.
In contrast, a Service Animal is a dog that has been trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with physical or mental disabilities (ADATA.com). While the most common type of service dog we encounter are seeing eye dogs, who help lead visually impaired individuals, there are many other types of service dogs including hearing dogs, psychiatric service dogs (i.e. PTSD support), and seizure response dogs. These animals undergo intensive training to learn how to assist the individual they are assigned to and to properly behave in public. Service Animals must be under the handler’s control at all times. Service Animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows the handler to have the dog with them with no restrictions, including flights and restaurants.
This chart from angelpawstherapy.org shows the differences between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs:
Most of the time ESA dogs are wearing vests with an id tag that is similar to service dogs, which makes the distinction between them difficult for some. However, there are significant differences involving both the requirements for certification and what it means legally. Because an ESA does not require any kind of training, the owner just needs to obtain a letter from a mental health professional they have been working with that states the need for the ESA. What we are seeing is an increase in the number of dogs with ESA certificates and it makes us wonder if the system is being abused and what can happen from this.
Recently I saw a post on Facebook from a person saying that their dog gets sad when she has to leave for work, so she is having her dog designated an ESA so she can take him to work with her. This is NOT what an ESA is. An ESA provides emotional support, not requires it. This dog needs help for separation anxiety.
A few weeks ago, one of my technicians was at a store and a couple had an unruly puppy getting into everything and not behaving at all and the pup was wearing an ESA vest, which is why he was allowed in. Some businesses are becoming aware of the legal differences and posting signs stating that only certified Service Dogs are allowed entry in the facility. This is unfortunate for individuals that do rely on ESA dogs outside of their home.
The result of abusing this privilege is that people who really need Emotional Support Animals will eventually lose their ability to have them. Without a certifying group ensuring that this is a needed therapy aid recommended by a clinician or mental health care professional, people suffering from anxiety, depression, or other psychological or emotional disorders may loose their ability to have their ESA animals with them. While organizations like the United States Dog Registry requires a letter from a doctor, some operate with the ‘honor code’, which sadly doesn’t mean much to some people. So, before you send out for an ESA certificate and vest for your dog, ask yourself a question: do you need emotional support or does your dog? If it is your dog that needs support, please take the time to work with them alongside a certified trainer and your veterinarian and help them so that their anxiety does not result in mental and physical harm to them. And don’t get mad when someone does not allow your ESA dog in their facility, because by law they don’t have to.
Here’s DrG discussing this topic on her “Find A Friend” segment on Daytime Columbus on NBC4 Columbus.
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