Written by Stephanie Gibeault, MSc, CPDT for AKC
What Is an Emotional Support Dog?
Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their owner, to legally be considered an emotional support dog, also called an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety or give them a focus in life. The dogs can be of any age and any breed.
Emotional Support Dog vs. Service Dogs
ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. However, they are not service dogs, and ESA users do not receive the same accommodations as service dog users.
A service dog, such as a guide dog or psychiatric service dog, is generally allowed anywhere the public is allowed; ESAs are not. For example, ESAs generally cannot accompany their owners into restaurants or shopping malls.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The act clearly states that animals that simply provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals. Some state and local laws have a broader definition, so be sure to check with local government agencies to learn if ESAs qualify for public access in your area.
The key difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, service dogs are trained to alert a hearing-impaired person to an alarm or guide a visually impaired person around an obstacle or provide pressure on someone with PTSD who is suffering from a panic attack.
Behaviors such as cuddling on cue, although comforting, do not qualify. The tasks need to be specifically trained to mitigate a particular disability, not something instinctive the dog would do anyway.
Emotional Support Dogs Are Not Psychiatric Service Dogs
There are service dogs, known as psychiatric service dogs that require extensive training to work specifically with people whose disability is due to mental illness. These dogs detect the beginning of psychiatric episodes and help ease their effects. Although this sounds similar to the role of an ESA, the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an ESA is again in the tasks performed by the dog and the training received to perform these tasks.
Psychiatric service dogs (recognized by the ADA as service dogs) have been trained to do certain jobs that help the handler cope with a mental illness. For example, the dog might remind a person to take prescribed medications, keep a disoriented person in a dissociative episode from wandering into a hazardous situation such as traffic or perform room searches for a person with post-traumatic stress disorder. If it is simply the dog’s presence that helps the person cope, then the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog.
Housing Accommodations for Individuals Who Use Emotional Support Dogs
Individuals who use ESAs are provided certain accommodations under federal law in the areas of housing and air travel. The Fair Housing Act includes ESAs in its definition of assistance animals. Under the act, people cannot be discriminated against due to a disability when obtaining housing. Rules such as pet bans or restrictions are waived for people who have a prescription for an ESA, and they cannot be charged a pet deposit for having their ESA live with them.
Are Emotional Support Dogs Allowed on Flights?
In December 2020, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) announced final revisions to its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The final rule, effective in January 2021, defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. This change in the DOT’s definition of “service animal” aligns closely with the definition that the Department of Justice uses under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The changes also clarify that emotional support animals (ESAs), comfort animals, companionship animals, animals being trained to be service animals, and species other than dogs are not considered to be “service animals” under the new DOT definition. Instead, airlines may recognize and accommodate emotional support animals as pets. For most airlines, the new no-fly policy for ESAs started on January 11. Some airlines now require passengers with service dogs to complete a DOT-authorized form prior to travel that confirms their training, health, and certification.
In the past, the AKC has expressed concern for safety with the previous recognition of ESAs as service animals, including the growing number of people misrepresenting their pets as service animals.
Emotional support dogs can perform an important role in the life of a person with mental or emotional conditions. When people who do not have a disability abuse the system by misrepresenting a pet as an ESA to obtain special accommodation, they undermine important accommodations for individuals with a legitimate need for this assistance.