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Emotional Support Animal FAQ

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 may choose to extend those privileges to handlers with ESAs as long as the animal is really, really well-behaved and groomed. We recommend calling in advance to ask if you're not sure if your pooch is welcome. You have no rights to public access, so you must leave if you are asked for any reason. Period. No legal recourse.

Out of respect for other patrons, please never bring any pet, including an ESA into a dining or food establishment. ONLY service dogs are allowed in these areas.

But isn't my ESA a service animal?

No. Under US 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.

Remember also that if your dog interferes with or distracts a service dog, it's not your dog being a jerk, it's you. In fact, depending on the severity of the interaction, you might even be breaking the law. Never, never bring a reactive, distracting, or overly dog-friendly animal into any public access scenario. They may encounter a service dog, which is a highly-trained, very expensive, necessary piece of medical equipment. Many service dogs become reactive themselves after being attacked by someone's pet is a public space. These cases often take years to rehabilitate to the point of being able to perform their duties successfully again.

If you need help with your ESA's behavior, admit it to yourself and get help from a trainer or animal behaviorist. 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 technically disabled because they're still functional.

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 attention deficit disorder, 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?

According to the law, your ESA doesn't need any training at all. According to my professional opinion and basic human decency, if you're going to take your ESA out in public, you and your dog need public access training and appropriate equipment.

I shouldn't have to say this, but ESAs should always be on a leash (or in a crate) in any public space, no matter how delightful or well-mannered they are. Flexileads are not acceptable. I recommend a 4 to 6-foot leash attached securely to your body or in your hand at all times.

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 no matter how skilled they are.

Where do the dogs come from?

Most people interested in ESAs already have a dog they would like trained to themselves. Some people want a service to make a good match for them instead. Either way is fine and both have benefits and drawbacks. When a professional chooses the dog, the dog is usually better at their job because the animal is chosen based on criteria like responsiveness, teachability, and resilience. 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?

 Sorry, Daisy. A few bad apples. :(

Sorry, Daisy. A few bad apples. :(

There are no restrictions on which breeds (or species) can be ESAs. 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 probably going to be asked to leave anyway, so just skip it.

As for mixed-breed versus pure-bred, there are no restrictions as long as they are physically healthy and well-groomed.  ESAs should be polite, quiet, clean, odorless, and well-groomed if they are going out in public.

How do I train my dog to be an ESA?

ESAs don't require training, but we suggest you get some anyway. Things that would immediately disqualify a dog from public access are aggression, excessive fear, or avoidance without recovery. ESAs with these issues may still help you feel better at home, but they should never be in public where they might encounter a service dog or any other trigger.

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, poor grooming or hygiene, and jumping up. Most of these can be mitigated with appropriate teaching and care.

I suggest ESAs start off mastering basic obedience. The skills required for the AKC Canine Good Citizen test are the gold standard for public access, so work on those.

What are some examples of specific skills an ESA can perform?

 Yukon is a guide dog in training. He does not have public access privileges because his handler isn't disabled and he's only in training. Many places let him and his handler come in anyway because he has good manners. Yukon's handler always calls first to make sure it's okay to bring him along.

Yukon is a guide dog in training. He does not have public access privileges because his handler isn't disabled and he's only in training. Many places let him and his handler come in anyway because he has good manners. Yukon's handler always calls first to make sure it's okay to bring him along.

Like service dogs, ESAs can be 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, interrupting repetitive behavior and more.

I have a puppy I would like to train to be an ESA.

Just as training your own service dog can be challenging because of the very disability you need the dog to mediate, training an ESA (or any pet) can be extra challenging and complicated for people who are emotionally disregulated. Get help from a therapist or doctor if you occasionally have aggressive or violent outbursts, rage, tantrums, or cannot control yourself. ESAs need a stable handler capable of making good decisions for them and dealing with their shenanigans in a calm, firm, and patient manner. More on that in a future blog post.

If you're still interested, go to a reputable group puppy class. This will definitely get you started on the right paw. Keep gentle socialization and training up for at least the first year of your puppy's life. Try to get your pup exercise with humans---rather than other dogs---as much as possible, as this will increase your bond and your pup's interest in you. Some playtime with other dogs is good, but should only constitute a quarter of his or her socialization.

 Millie is learning to "take it" and "drop it".

Millie is learning to "take it" and "drop it".

Can I get an ESA trained for my child?

I'm about to totally bum you out. All dogs, from pets to service dogs, require a handler who can make sound decisions. If your child is old enough to properly handle and manage a dog on their own, maybe. Keep in mind that despite the recent surge in service dogs and support animals for autistic children, most responsible service dog organizations will not provide assistance dogs to young children for this reason.

What do you think about ESA peacocks, rabbits, etc.?

What you do in your own home is your business, but you're probably not going to get very far with public access with exotic or unusual species. An ESA is really defined by the handler's subjective experience of emotional support, so an ESA peacock could really be a thing. But unless your peacock can pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, it probably shouldn't be in a public space (or an aircraft cabin).

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