Emotional Support Animal FAQ
What is a emotional support animal (ESA)?
An ESA is any animal (but usually a dog) that is prescribed as part of a medical treatment plan to mitigate certain psychological symptoms (depression, anxiety, and certain phobias), provide companionship, and prevent loneliness. They are NOT considered service animals unless they are trained to perform specific tasks to assist a person with a disability. This means they do not have the same kind of legal protection in terms of public access as service dogs, although many businesses, airlines, and landlords choose to extend those privileges to handlers with ESAs as long as the animal is really, really well-behaved and groomed. But remember, under the law, your ESA is a pet, not medical equipment, and in many places it is illegal to represent your ESA (or any other pet) as a service dog. It's also just wrong, so don't do it.
ESAs get bad publicity every time somebody brings a poorly-behaved animal into a public access situation. In some circles, ESAs have become synonymous with "fake service dogs" because there is no standard of training and no handler education on public access etiquette. But the fact is that some people experience a huge boost to their quality of life due to the presence of an ESA, and not everyone who gets this benefit would be considered disabled under the law. For instance, many adults have depression or anxiety and are medicated so they can still get up and go to work. They might be miserable and feel like crap all the time, but they're not disabled.
Wait, what is a disability then?
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity or a record of such an impairment. If you have a condition in which you live in a constant state of misery and sadness but you're not substantially limited with respect to a major life activity (like holding a job), you aren't disabled under the ADA. You might still have a very real diagnosis though, such as adult attention deficit, PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc., in which case you may qualify for an ESA with a prescription from your therapist or doctor.
Why does my ESA need special training?
If you're going to take your ESA out in public, you and your dog need public access training and appropriate equipment. You have no rights to public access, so you must leave if you are asked. Period. No legal recourse. However, in many cases if your dog acts like a model canine citizen, you and your dog are welcome to stay.
The other reason you might benefit from special training is that your ESA can do her job better with some trained skills. This is where the line between ESA and psychiatric service dog can get a little blurry, as a polite dog with skills trained to mitigate a disability could in fact be a service dog. However, if you don't have a disability in the legal sense, your dog isn't a service dog.
Where do the dogs come from?
Most people interested in our ESA training program already have a dog they would like trained to themselves. Some people want us to make a good match for them instead. Either way is fine and both have benefits and drawbacks. When we choose the dog, the dog is usually better at their job because we had a wider pool to choose from. When you choose the dog, they might not be as naturally skilled, but you can accept his limitations because you--hopefully--already have a bond. It's a win-win, really.
Are there restrictions? How about mutts?
Dogs must be at least 1 year old and they must be spayed or neutered.
There are no restrictions on which breeds can participate in the basic obedience and specialized training portion of our ESA program. However, we do not endorse breeds stereotyped for aggressive behavior having public access privileges. These include rotties, dobies, boxers, any pitbull-type dog, and any mixed-breed dog showing anatomical features of these breeds. This is because many members of the public are afraid of these dog types, not because of assumptions about the dogs' temperament or behavior. In other words, you're going to be asked to leave anyway, so just no.
As for mixed-breed versus pure-bred, there are no restrictions as long as they are physically healthy and well-groomed. ESAs should be clean, odorless, and well-groomed if they are going out in public.
What is the ESA program like?
We start with temperament screening. Things that would immediately disqualify a dog are aggression, excessive fear, or avoidance without recovery.
Things that we would flag for not being appropriate for public access include excessive barking, inappropriate potty habits, poor leash manners, poor handler focus, obesity, and jumping up. We would have to mitigate these issues in a separate consultation before proceeding.
If a dog passes, ESAs start off mastering basic obedience (1-2 weeks, hopefully). The skills required for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test are the gold standard for public access, so we work on those first. Then we can move on to specific skills. Aspiring ESAs can either board at Downstay or come for daycare to be trained.
What are some examples of specific skills an ESA can perform?
Like service dogs, ESAs are trained to the needs of a specific handler. Many people want their ESA to alert to emotional escalation, which can be sadness, anger, anxiety, or other strong emotional states. Alerting can mean nudging, licking, touching with a paw, or whatever behavior would work best for the handler. Another skill is deep pressure therapy (DPT) where the dog uses his or her body weight on the handler's thighs or chest. This can be very soothing and calming for a number of conditions.
A couple of favorites are creating space for the handler, searching (non-aggressively) for intruders, turning the lights on during a nightmare, reminding to take medication and go to bed or wake up, interrupt repetitive behavior and more. Again, the task list is customized to your needs.
What is the cost of the ESA program?
The cost is different for every dog depending on how much work you're willing to do yourself. If your dog already has his CGC title and you just need the specialized training, your cost would likely be between $2,000 and $4,000 depending on how many weeks of training your dog needs and how much of the training you're willing to do yourself. If your dog is a good candidate but also needs some basic training, think more like $4,000-$8,000. I always provide written quotes so you won't be surprised. Note that we don't require the CGC, just that your dog could pass the test.
If you want us to choose an ESA for you, you should also factor in the initial cost of the dog and any veterinary expenses. This can range from $300 for a rescue to $2,500 for a purpose-bred puppy.
Many people choose to do group classes for basic obedience, which can be more economical than our training programs. However, think carefully about whether it's really a good deal. Often the group classes are slower-paced so you end up actually paying more to get the same material, and you're not getting your money's worth if you don't keep up with the homework exercises. Furthermore, these types of classes are time consuming and often don't provide follow-up support in the event of a problem. If you have the bandwidth and skill to deal with all that, definitely go with a group class! Downstay doesn't offer group dog training classes--we only train individuals and their dogs because it gives the best result.
I have a puppy I would like to train to be an ESA.
Awesome! You are a perfect candidate for Downstay's Puppy Program, which trains and socializes pups to be assistance dogs or just amazing family members. It's an accelerated puppy class, basic obedience, and the beginning of advanced obedience all in one. We produce outstanding puppies, and provide all the follow-up support you need.
If that's not in your budget, you can try a group puppy class. This will definitely get you started on the right paw, but you'll have to do more work to keep your pup trained and socialized for ESA work.
Can I get an ESA trained for my child?
I'm about to totally bum you out. Downstay does not provide ESAs for people under 16 years old. ESAs require a handler who can make sound decisions on behalf of their dog, and the parent as a "backup handler" just doesn't work. In fact, despite what you may hear about service dogs for autistic children, most responsible service dog organizations will not provide assistance dogs to young children.