Studies demonstrate that around one in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness. If you do the math that equates to approximately 44 million people in the United States, or about 20 percent of the population.
There are numerous ways that medical experts attempt to treat emotional conditions and mental health disorders. Often a well-rounded approach is necessary and not with a singular solution. In the last few decades, the use of emotional support dogs (ESA) have become more and more common for helping people cope with mental illness.
Emotional support dogs provide emotional support, affection, and unconditional love that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. Some dogs become full-time animals to a handler that receive love and attention from them on a daily basis. Meanwhile, some emotional support animals become regular at places like hospitals and senior living homes because they can offer companionship for a number of different people.
Emotional support dog training helps prepare dogs for living with a handler full-time, or visiting settings like an airport, hospital, or assisted living home. It is not a necessity, unlike training that is required for service dogs. However, doing some training for ESA dogs can help with the support they provide.
There are a number of different aspects you need to understand if you plan to have an emotional support dog full-time or wish to have a pet become one to provide therapy for others. The article will examine everything you need to know about ESA dogs.
Emotional Support Dogs (ESA) vs. Service Dogs
The first thing you need to know is that emotional support dogs are not the same as service dogs even if the terms are often used interchangeably. There is actually a stark difference even though both have therapeutic values.
The biggest difference is the purpose that they serve. Service dogs are designed to fulfill a specific purpose or series of tasks. They often work with people that have physical disabilities that inhibit them from having a fully functional lifestyle. For example, a person that is blind can get a lot of value from having a service dog.
Service dogs receive advanced training. The process of getting a service animal is quite extensive and requires a lot of loopholes to jump through. The dogs are specifically trained to carry out certain tasks for a handler. They are trained after a match is confirmed and are only designed to work one on one with the handler. They are not group therapy animals.
Meanwhile, emotional support dogs are designed to assist with mental and emotional conditions. They do not need to receive specialized training though some may undergo some basic training to become more compatible for the purpose they serve. However, training is not mandatory to become an ESA dog. Licensing is also not required.
Emotional support dogs are capable of working one on one with an individual or in group settings. They are appropriate animals for visiting places where people are down on their luck such as at the hospital or senior living community. Like the name implies ESA dogs provide a lot of love and affection for the individual(s) it serves. They are great companion animals that help ease the symptoms of many troubling mental health disorders and conditions.
Requirements of Emotional Support Dogs (ESA)
There are not nearly as many requirements for emotional support animals compared to service dogs. They are also regulated with far less strict standards.
It is important to note that ESA dogs are not required by law to receive any type of formal training. However, there are certainly different characteristics that make some types of canines better support animals compared to others. Not every dog should be treated as a support dog. Some are better at being successful than others.
Regardless, there is no governing agency that decides which type of dog is better than another for ESA work. While formal training is not required some handlers decide to do some type of classes to make the adjustment easier.
Emotional support dogs are generally well behaved in public. They are naturally outgoing and don’t mind being petted by strangers. While an ESA approved dog vest or harness can indicate that the animal does not want to get petted by strangers, often they are comfortable with interacting with a number of different people and of all ages.
The only requirement of a person that could benefit from having an emotional support animal is to get a prescribed letter from a mental health professional. The letter basically indicates that the mental health provider acknowledges some type of emotional or psychological condition and that the individual could benefit from having an ESA dog.
The letter must get renewed annually. However, the legal requirements end there unlike service dogs. There is no certification program dogs must pass in order to receive clearance. By law, you are allowed to train your own service dog and the rules also apply to ESA dogs. They are also not required by law to have a vest or harness with identification though many handlers prefer to invest in one for a variety of reasons.
Laws that Protect ESA Handlers
Another reason why you need to understand that there is a distinction between service dogs and emotional support dogs is because of the laws that govern both types of therapy animals.
Service dogs are allowed to enter public places and privately owned establishments that would not otherwise allow animals with the right licensing and identification. By law, a manager or owner cannot legally prevent a handler with a service dog from entering the premise.
The same rules do not apply for emotional support dogs. If the place does not allow animals on a normal basis you need to ask for permission beforehand. If you enter the facility without permission beforehand you may be asked to leave. However, many supervisors are understanding of the role that ESA dogs serve for their handler. So if you ask beforehand they are often willing to accommodate. Regardless, you should still understand the different rules between service animals and ESA.
Emotional support dog handlers have some other rights. The Fair Housing Amendments (FHAA) protects handlers in housing situations. The law basically explains that even if the property does not allow pets on a regular basis they must make an exception for people with an ESA.
Therefore, a housing manager or landlord cannot force you to live without the ESA dog. Furthermore, they cannot require extra fees like a pet deposit for this privilege. If you are threatened by a landlord regarding its stay at the facility you have rights under FHAA.
Unfortunately, there is no more legal protection for ESAs at airports. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) only allows service animals to fly with their handler, and does not include emotional support animals. An ESA will be treated like a normal pet on airlines, so read up on their pet policy to know what you should expect.
ESA Registration and Certificates
Emotional support animals are not required by law to be certified. Any service that attempts to tell you that this is mandatory is fraudulent. However with that being said it is possible to still register the animal and gain certification.
Some handlers prefer to go through this process in order to make the ESA more legitimate. Furthermore, some handlers believe having a formal certificate helps settle disputes that you may encounter in public places or private businesses. Regardless of the certificate, ESAs are still not entitled to the same rights as service dogs. You still need to get permission beforehand from the owner or manager of the establishment.
The identification and certificate of an ESA can get displayed directly on a dog vest or harness. The common solution is to have an ID badge sewn on the vest. Another option is to attach the identification on a welded ring available on some types of vests. ESA tags and badges can get customized. It can include things like a photo or name of your dog. It can also be designed in a number of different sizes. Pockets on the vest can house an ID or paperwork containing the official certificate or registry.
Emotional Support Dog Vests
If you’ve been out in public before and noticed an animal where they are generally not allowed you probably noticed that the canine was fitted with some type of harness or vest. Service dogs have vests that help make them easily identifiable. It also usually includes directions like “Please Do Not Pet” or “Service Animal: Exercise Caution”.
Emotional support dogs are not required by law to have to wear a dog vest or harness. However, many handlers find it appropriate and helpful. Why? The vest clearly identifies the animal as ESA. It can help avoid questioning when you visit a facility in which you already got permission. Additionally, it can help keep little kids and even adults from petting the animal without first getting authorization from the handler.
As a result, ESA vests help minimize misunderstandings. It makes the dog easily identifiable and can also protect their own safety and well-being. Many vests have reflective material so they also make the animal more easily identifiable during early morning or late evening hours. It is especially important for handlers that do a fair amount of walking with their ESA.
Although vests are not mandatory they can also help clear up confusion in cases that regard FHAA or ACAA. If the animal is certified you can also display the patch or badge directly on the vest. The harnesses and vests are available in a number of different types, material, and cost.
Some handlers decide to invest in an ESA kit. The kit can include a number of different items offered at a discounted price. It can include things like a high-quality ESA dog vest, ESA collar tag, a few copies of an emotional support animal ID, official certificate, and ESA approved leash.
Qualifying for an Emotional Support Dog (ESA)
It is a fairly straightforward process to qualify for an ESA. If you are suffering from an emotional or psychological condition the first thing to do is get help. There are a variety of different treatments that help people deal with mental health issues.
In some instances, a type of prescription medication can help provide enough relief. Some people find a lot of help in attending counseling sessions or meeting with a psychologist one-on-one. There are a number of different support groups available. There are simple, positive things you can do for your body and mind like eating healthy and exercising regularly. Certain breathing exercises are helpful. Some people find a lot of relief in meditation, yoga, or prayer.
Often addressing mental health conditions is not as simple as finding a singular solution. It can involve a comprehensive plan. Sometimes that plan also includes having an emotional support animal live with you full-time.
In order to get qualified all you need to do is visit a medical professional and explain your situation. You should be open and honest with the physician. If you have considered having an ESA in the past and believe you are a prime candidate please make those intentions known with the provider.
All a medical professional needs to do is write a letter that recommends you as a candidate for an emotional support animal. While dogs are the most common type of ESA it is also worth noting that other types of animals make great ESA. Cats, birds, fish, and ferrets are all examples of animals that can also provide emotional support and require less time, attention, and care compared to canines – which are needier.
The letter of recommendation should include a few things:
- The licensed therapist or medical health professional acknowledges a mental or emotional disorder.
- The animal could present therapeutic benefits to the patient by helping mitigate some of the symptoms of the disability.
It is important to note that you should renew the letter each year. A letter that is older than a year may not get accepted as valid identification.
Secondly, you should keep in mind whether you would make an appropriate handler for an ESA full-time. Dogs require a decent amount of time, effort, and additional costs. They are only truly effective when they are fully healthy. So that means making sure they are regularly fed, receive a good diet, as well as a correct amount of water and exercise. They are no different from other pets in that they need regular veterinary checkups and the right medications.
Emotional support animals should live in comfortable living circumstances. They are more effective when they are properly taken care of, receive a fair amount of attention, and therefore have less stress and discomfort.
Mental Health Conditions ESA Dogs Support
Emotional support animals are designed to provide relief from a number of different emotional or mental conditions. The list available below only presents a few examples of the many different psychological disorders an ESA can help assist:
- General Anxiety Disorder: Enduring higher levels of anxiety than normal is extremely discomforting. ESA dogs have demonstrated an ability to help subdue fear and worry.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: Some people struggle deary with getting out in public and interacting with others. The thought of attending an event or large gathering is troubling. Animals can help ease anxiety and worry associated with social events.
- Depression: The loneliness and isolation that is often felt for people with depression is eased by having an ESA live with them. The affection and love provided is hard to replicate elsewhere.
- Postpartum Depression: The positive effects are comparable to what emotional support dogs have provided for people with standard depression. Research is showing positive trends when it comes to reducing symptoms or the severity of them.
- Phobias and Fears: People that struggle with severe phobias or fears of certain things (i.e. heights) can help get through troubling situations with the support of an ESA.
- Panic Disorder: When someone is on the verge of a panic attack it may get avoided, or the symptoms less severe with the companionship of an emotional support dog.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: The overlooked disorder affects patients day to day life. However, the aid of an ESA can enable OCD people to relax and settle down more easily.
- Impulse Control Disorder: Those that act upon urges and impulses really easily can get help from an ESA. The dog can serve as a positive distraction to giving into urges rapidly.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder: Those that deal with depression at certain times of the year (i.e. fall turning to winter) are prepared to get relief by leaning on an ESA. The emotional support dog can provide companionship during seasons of isolation and negative feelings.
- Bipolar Disorder: Studies demonstrate that people that suffer from bipolar disorder get a lot of relief from having an ESA. The dog can help with the awful symptoms associated with the disorder.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Former military and other people that have gone through terrible trauma are getting a lot of support and relief from an ESA. It has been one of the more successful types of treatment for PTSD.
Characteristics of a Good Emotional Support Dog
Though there is no regulatory service that decides which dogs are valid ESA and which ones are not appropriate – you can still make a determination based on general logic and common sense. Not all dogs are fitting for ESA service.
These are some common characteristics of good ESA dogs:
- Outgoing: Dogs that are naturally outgoing and comfortable around people, particularly strangers make the best type of ESA. They are comfortable living with a new person that may have emotional or mental issues. Furthermore, they can exist well in group settings and unfamiliar environments such as the hospital or airport.
- Obedient: Emotional support dogs may not be required by law to get professional trained yet they should have a decent level of obedience. For example, dogs that pull on a leash when you walk them are a safety hazard. They may jump on people when they are not supposed to or bark at unfamiliar faces. Of course, these types of things are discomforting to someone that may be dealing with problems like anxiety, depression, or excess fear.
- Comfortable Around Other Animals: Along with getting well with humans ESA dogs are comfortable in a variety of environments and with the potential of being around other animals. It not only includes domesticated animals like other dogs and cats, but also species out in the wild. For example, a dog that goes berserk every time it spots a bird or squirrel could spontaneously react too aggressively if it spotted one while being in a therapy setting.
- Comfortable Being Touched: One of the top qualities of having an emotional support animal is the opportunity to give it affection just like it provides to you. Therefore, it is a good idea to find a dog that doesn’t mind being petted. It should not only be comfortable with being touched by strangers but also having every part of its body rubbed. Dogs that have quirks like not liking being petted on the feet or having their tail grabbed could react negatively when being held by someone that doesn’t know any better. If the dog has demonstrated any form of aggression in the past it is not appropriate as an ESA.
- React Well to Changing Environments: Emotional support dogs are often taken to public places or other busy environments. If a canine snaps easily when strange or startling sounds are made they are not appropriate for ESA service. In addition to loud noises and shouting, dogs may encounter crutches, wheelchairs, and gurneys on a regular basis. Training can help them react better yet good therapy dogs are naturally calm to begin with and not jumpy.
- Good Hygiene: Emotional support dogs need to get bathed and brushed often. Nails need to keep trimmed to avoid scratching. Good hygiene is especially important before going on a visit. They could get held or petted by a variety of foreign hands and also may visit places with a lot of germs. Please make sure the animal is up to date on veterinary checkups.
Emotional Support Dog Training
It is not mandatory that emotional support dogs receive formal training in order to become ESA. However, many handlers prefer to have some type of training in place to utilize the animal more effectively.
Dogs are very smart and can pick up on a number of different cues. After selecting a dog that demonstrates the characteristics of a good support animal you can train the dog further to become more receptive.
Most dogs make terrific companions because they have a natural tendency to remain devoted to their handler. They love giving affection much more than other types of pets and are beloved for their unconditional love. They do not judge people like humans.
There is a reason dogs are known as “man’s best friend”. Dogs that are not overly excited or too rambunctious make great ESA because of their calm demeanor and outgoing personality. In order to get the most out of them keeping them well trained is important.
People often train emotional support dogs for one of two reasons:
- The handler is the person dealing with an emotional or mental disorder and wants to make the dog better behaved.
- The handler is not the one suffering from the condition and likes to take the animal to places where others receive therapeutic value. The handler, therefore, has a responsibility to make sure the dog is well mannered and trained well.
The best candidates for advanced training are dogs that have a laid back personality and are around a year old. When canines become too old they may get set in their ways and have more problems learning new tricks or forms of obedience. Puppies have the best ability to receive advanced training though it is a lot of work in addition to regular training. Breeds like a labrador and golden retrievers, poodles, and Goldendoodles have proven to represent great ESA in the past.
Good emotional support dog training should cover the basics like:
- Lie Down
- Leave It/Drop It
Even though most young dogs can learn some basic commands in a matter of a few weeks training an ESA should never end. Dogs are anxious to learn if you provide them the opportunity. It is also important to note that dog training is as much about creating a special bond between handler and canine as it is about obedience.
Handlers should work with dogs in training in a calm and level voice. You should never get too aggressive with dogs and always exercise good patience. Positive reinforcement like “Ok” and “Good” help provide encouragement when a canine does something well.
Trainers should also work past basic commands. Well mannered dogs do not excessively bark, jump or lunge at people, beg for food or sneak food whenever possible, or do other annoying habits trademark of poorly trained canines.
Airlines (even with the ACCA in place) can ask handlers to remove dogs that demonstrate forms of aggression toward flight staff. Establishments that allow ESA on request can ask the dog removed if it becomes disruptive or out of control. Therefore having some basic training in place helps ensure emotional support dogs become effective therapy pets.
If you feel uncomfortable training a pet on your own you can always hire a professional or enroll in an obedience class. You are not required by law to have an ESA receive specialized training, unlike service dogs. However, it does help a lot to have at least basic commands and good manners under control.