A frequent question I receive is what is an emotional support animal. And it is a valid question particularly since it’s been in the news quite a bit lately.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal.
A medical professional determines if an individual with a disability would benefit from an ESA. Let’s look at what they are NOT.
Emotional Support Animals:
ARE NOT A SERVICE DOG.
DO NOT perform a specific task or service for their human.
ARE NOT guaranteed access ANYWHERE.
ARE NOT granted access to ANY BUILDING OR BUSINESS
DO NOT qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Individuals with a disability are able to have an emotional support animal when a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, indicates a need. This disability need not be physical, it might be psychiatric or intellectual. An emotional support animal does not require special training.
Legislation for Emotional Support Animals
The Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require landlords to reasonably accommodate disabled persons. By extension their emotional support animals. However, there may be requirements to PROVE an emotional support animal is necessary to get a pet waiver if the landlord does not allow for pets.
Regardless you will need a letter, on letterhead, from the treating mental health professional. Generally, a therapist with their Psychology Doctorate or a Psychiatrist qualifies. These letters are typically valid for one year from the date of issue.
Emotional support animals receive some leniency on airlines. Although the rules are changing due to excessive abuse to the system. Emotional support animals are able to fly in the cabin regardless of size. There are requirements that vary by airline as to what you have to provide for them to accommodate your emotional support animal.
Controversy of Emotional Support Animals
There is A LOT of controversy related to emotional support animals and I can see why. They are essentially pets. There is no requirement for ANY training. The owner just has to see a mental health professional once a year to get a letter.
I fully support the need for emotional support animals. However, there should be a requirement for training the emotional support animal. This training does NOT and should not be on the same scale as service animals. In my opinion, emotional support animals should be required to pass the Canine Good Citizen test from the AKC.
This is a simple test of ten tasks that a dog should be able to perform. I get that not every emotional support animal is a dog so there would be modification for other animals.
Training Emotional Support Animal
Here’s my argument why it is necessary. If your animal is truly offering you emotional support is it possible for them to do that if they cause issues at home or in public? Does a dog who lunges at people or dogs make the owner feel calm or in control? Does a dog that has no recall in public really listen to the person and make them feel comfortable? I could go on and on.
Service animals undergo thousands of hours of training and cost a significant amount of money. Shouldn’t an emotional support animal pass a basic skill level test to qualify? To do Therapy Work, dogs are generally required to have their CGC or be tested to perform similar skills, check out my post on Therapy dogs here.
If your animal receives any special treatment they should be held to a much higher standard than the average pet. As a pet owner I have a responsibility to ensure my dog is a good dog in public. If I’m an owner of an emotional support dog I should have an exceptional dog in public. When owning a service dog I have a dog that is perfect in public.
Special Treatment Requirements
As the level of special treatment increases the ability of the service animal should increase as well. It is not ok to have a dog lunging on an airplane at people or other dogs. It is not ok to receive a waiver for housing and have your animal constantly making noise disrupting the lives of others. The majority of emotional support animals are pets. And that’s alright, pets are excellent comfort animals and no pet owner needs to be told that.
I implore people to stop abusing the system. There are people who legitimately need an animal to calm their anxiety or other mental health issue.
If you truly need your animal in your home or on the plane take the step to make it an animal that people respect being around.
As someone who takes training very seriously my dog has her Canine Good Citizen (CGC), AKC Community Canine (CGCA), and Urban Canine Good Citizen (CGCU) and each of these has made her a better dog. Whenever we are in public situations we receive many compliments. It makes me feel good knowing that we’ve done well.
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