Everything You Need to Know about Emotional Support Dogs

Your Complete Guide to Emotional Support Dogs

While owning and caring for an emotional support animal – specifically an emotional support dog – can be both comforting and helpful, there are many policies and procedures that come with this responsibility. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about emotional support animals, as well as how to get an official ESA letter explaining your need for an emotional support dog.

What Are Emotional Support Dogs?

Pets can alleviate their owners’ anxiety and stress and help them deal with daily life challenges. But sometimes, when individuals struggle with mental health issues, the presence of an emotional support animal is crucial for them to function well. In these cases, pets are more than just pets – they are emotional support animals.

What Does an Emotional Support Animal Do?

Emotional support dogs provide comfort, affection, and warmth through their companionship to help individuals suffering from mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and more.

woman carrying a dog

How Can a Licensed Mental Health Professional Help?

To secure official status for your emotional support animal, a licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or licensed therapist needs to verify that you have a legitimate need for an ESA. They will write you an emotional support animal letter supporting this need. An ESA letter is also known as an emotional support animal prescription.

Is an Emotional Support Dog a Service Dog?

It's important to remember that although they are assistance animals and companion animals, emotional support animals aren't service animals. Service animals, which are typically dogs, have undergone rigorous training to perform tasks for individuals who have physical or mental disabilities. They must also have impeccable behavior. 

Service dogs are legally permitted to accompany their owners practically anywhere since they are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Local government agencies sometimes have specific laws about service dogs, which should be adhered to.

Where Can You Take an Emotional Support Dog?

Unlike psychiatric service dogs, emotional support animals are not entitled to the same special permissions as service animals. Their role is to provide emotional support and comfort to individuals with mental illnesses, rather than perform specific tasks that their owners cannot perform for themselves. 

This means that emotional support animals are not automatically entitled to access places like restaurants, hotels, and public transportation. It is entirely up to the manager or proprietor to decide whether they will accommodate emotional support animals.

State and local laws can differ for emotional support animals, so it's worth researching public establishments, airlines, and educational facilities in your area to ensure you have the proper documentation for your service animal.

Can you live anywhere with an emotional support dog?

Emotional support animals are covered by the federal Fair Housing Act, which states that landlords must reasonably accommodate tenants who own emotional support animals. This also applies to college dormitories. Under the terms of the Fair Housing Act, even if the building has a policy that ordinarily prohibits pets or charges a pet fee, the landlord cannot charge you for your emotional support animal or deny you housing.

Are emotional support dogs allowed on planes?

Unlike service animals that perform tasks, emotional support animals are not granted special protection by the Air Carrier Access Act. This means that if you want your emotional support dog to travel with you on an airplane, you will need to follow the airline’s usual pet policies, such as using a pet carrier or paying the relevant fees.

However, if you have an ESA letter proving your legitimate need for your companion animal, you may be granted a special allowance by the airline, although this is entirely at their discretion.

How Can I Get an Emotional Support Dog?

There is no specific procedure for adopting an emotional support dog. Any breed of dog can become an emotional support animal, including your existing pet. If you do not own a dog, you can always visit a local shelter and adopt a dog that you feel a strong connection with.

Can Any Dog Be an Emotional Support Dog?

While any breed of dog can become an emotional support animal, it's preferable to look for a dog that is easily manageable, low-maintenance, and has a calm temperament. For example, if you live in a small place, small dog breeds are best. If you have limited free time, choose a dog that doesn’t require constant walks and exercise. 

Do Emotional Support Animals Need Training?

Unlike service animals, emotional support dogs do not require training. The bond that you and your emotional support animal share will provide stress relief for you, with no extensive training or expectation to perform tasks. In some cases, ESA dogs can be trained to help their owners cope with particularly challenging situations such as panic attacks or anxiety episodes, but this is not the norm.

Although there are no specific requirements, an ESA owner should ensure that their dog behaves well in public, especially around other animals. This is especially important if you want to bring your dog with you to places like restaurants, libraries, and cinemas – with permission from the proprietor, of course. 

How to Register an Emotional Support Dog

Unlike a service animal, which requires specific certification, there is no requirement to register your emotional support dog. All you need is an emotional support animal letter from a licensed mental health professional for your dog to officially become an emotional support animal. You don’t need to register your emotional support animal through a registration site. Typically, if someone charges you to register your emotional support animal, it is most likely a scam.

When meeting with a licensed mental health professional, it is essential to be honest about your situation. Don't shy away from telling your mental health professional about the problems you are experiencing. 

Individuals suffering from a mental or emotional disability can qualify for an emotional support dog. Some of these conditions include:

  • Depression: Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think, and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.
  • Anxiety disorder: An anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one's daily activities.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a condition involving difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying or traumatizing event.
  • Bipolar disorder: Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression).
  • Phobias: A phobia is an anxiety disorder defined by a persistent and excessive fear of an object or situation. Phobias typically result in a rapid onset of fear and are usually present for more than six months.

What to Know About ESA Dogs

Emotional support dogs provide invaluable comfort and companionship to their owners in stressful circumstances, helping them to manage situations that they might otherwise be unable to cope with. Even without specialized training, emotional support dogs are a source of strength and therapeutic benefit for their owners simply through their very presence.