The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent quarantines and shutdowns opened many people’s eyes to the importance — and the very real health benefits — of having a dog or cat as an emotional support companion. But there’s a big difference between saying “my dog is my emotional support animal” and actually gaining the proper credentials of having the “emotional support” title. So if you’re interested in adopting or training the pet in your life to be an emotional support service animal, here’s what you need to know.
When it comes to the official title of “service dog,” or “service animal,” there’s a lot of training involved, and the tasks these animals perform for their owners are specific to the disability or medical condition the owner has. For instance, a service dog for a person who is blind is trained to guide their owner safely from one place to another. A service dog for a person with seizures can sense and alert their owner to an oncoming seizure before it actually occurs. As such, service animals have very specific jobs to perform, and they and their owners have rights that most emotional support animals don’t have.
“A service dog has received specific training to perform identifiable tasks for a person with a disability. In comparison, an emotional support animal does not perform specific tasks for their person. Training may be involved, but is not strictly necessary. The rights of people with service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There are fewer accommodations for emotional support animals, but they are covered under the Fair Housing Act,” Dr. Jennifer Coats, DVM, a veterinarian who serves on the advisory board for Pet News Daily, says. This means that if you have an emotional support animal and seek housing at a location with breed restrictions or pet restrictions, the landlord can’t deny you housing due to your pet.
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There is no legal requirement to register or specifically license an emotional support animal (or service animal, for that matter). That said, landlords can request proof that your animal is designated as a support animal.
“A licensed therapist or other medical provider has to be involved in the designation of an emotional support animal,” Coats says. “There’s no need to involve a ‘registry’ or any type of certification. In general, a letter from a medical professional is sufficient.”
Just keep in mind, a therapist is under no obligation to grant you such a letter, although therapists or medical professionals who are familiar with your medical history are likely to recognize the importance of this support.
“I write emotional support letters for most of my patients who need it,” Dr. Monica Kreinberg, Ph.D., LMHT, LMFT, CCTP, psychotherapist and founder of Mind Wellness Center says. “Most of the time their pet does provide emotional support and helps with their daily life. Many are anxious or have depression and an emotional support animal helps reduce that.”
And while there’s no legal requirement to credential or register an emotional support animal, Kreinberg suggests making sure your dog has been through basic obedience training.
“It’s advised that they at least train to receive their Canine Good Citizen certification. You can get this certification by applying at an obedience school for dogs or looking online [to find out] who actually tests for this. The animal can get certified by passing the test whether they’ve been trained by a trainer or just with their owner.”
While these trainings won’t necessarily help a dog become a better emotional support animal, Kreinberg emphasizes a well-trained dog is less likely to be viewed as an issue by others when bringing them into public spaces such as an airport or restaurant.
Because the designation of “emotional support animal” isn’t covered under the ADA, you can’t assume that an airline will allow you to fly with your support animal. In fact, most airlines have strict rules regarding animals flying in the cabin of a plane, with size being a major factor.
“Currently, airlines don’t allow emotional support animals to fly for free. Emotional support animals can still fly in cabins (depending on size), but a ticket has to be paid for them. Usually, they have to be small enough to fit in a pet carrier that can go under the seat,” Kreinberg says.
Also, it’s important to remember that every airline has their own rules.
“People flying with emotional support animals may be asked to provide documentation of their own medical needs for that animal. Different airlines have different requirements, so make sure you contact the company before booking a flight,” Coats says.
Aside from the national laws protecting owners of service animals under the ADA and the owners of support animals under the Fair Housing Act, the rules and regulations regarding support animals fall to the individual state. So if you want to know what your rights are as the owner of an emotional support animal, you need to read up on your state’s specific laws.
“Each state has different laws. You can find information on those laws on your government website. Each state has one. You can find the specific laws pertaining to emotional support animals under the state statutes,” Kreinberg says.
At the end of the day, emotional support animals can play an important role in supporting your mental and emotional health, but you can’t assume that you can keep your animal with you wherever you go. Do your research and take steps to be a responsible pet owner by ensuring your pet has received basic obedience training.
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