service dog

Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals

Our Series on Service Animals, Therapy Animals and now, ESA and Psychiatric Service Animals

Our first article in this series, about our amazing working animal companions, addressed service dogs and miniature horses who perform vital tasks for persons with disabilities, as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Service dogs and miniature horses are individually trained to work for one specific person with a defined disability.

Our second installment was all about therapy animals who, like service animals can be highly trained and are working dogs but are not required or trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a specific disability.  In fact, therapy animals (most commonly dogs) provide psychological support to people OTHER than their owners/handlers.  Unlike service animals, therapy animals are encouraged to interact with anyone who may need or want the type of comfort and therapy one can only get from our four-legged companions.

This third and last installment in our series is an in-depth look at Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Psychiatric Service Animals.

Emotional Support or Therapy Animal

emotional service dogUnlike therapy animals, Emotional Support Animals work with one person and unlike service animals, ESAs do not have to have any specialized training.  The primary role of an ESA is to provide their human companion with emotional support and comfort.  In a way, each of us who has four-legged companions has benefited from their emotional support in an informal way.  ESAs are commonly used by persons who suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD and other related issues.  If, for example, someone has suicidal tendencies, forming a close bond with an ESA, feeling responsible for the animal’s welfare and having that animal present at all times can keep the person from acting on those suicidal tendencies.

ESAs in No-Pet Housing and Flying with an ESA

As stated on the Please Don’t Pet Me website, “while the ADA does not grant owners of emotional support animals the right to be accompanied by these animals in establishments that do not permit pets, the DOJ/HUD’s Fair Housing Act does allow for disabled owners of emotional support animals to reside in housing that has a “No Pets” policy, as a reasonable accommodation.  The DOT’s Air Carrier Access Act also allows those with proof of a disability the accommodation of being accompanied by an emotional support animal.”

In order to have an ESA in housing which otherwise prohibits pets or to travel with an ESA in the cabin of an airplane, you will normally have to get a letter from your physician or other licensed health care provider stating that you would benefit from having an ESA.  Service Dog Central provides a comprehensive analysis of the legal requirements to fly on a commercial airline with an ESA as well as a sample letter for your physician.

Psychiatric Service Animals

psychiatric dogNow that we understand what an ESA is – and is not – what is a Psychiatric Service Animal (most commonly a dog so often referred to as Psychiatric Service Dog or PSD)?  A PSD can be thought of as a sub-set of service dogs.  PSDs are trained to work with and help one specific person who suffers from a psychiatric disorder such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bi-polar disorder etc. Unlike ESAs, PSDs are highly trained to reduce the adverse effects of their person’s particular psychiatric issues. If, for example, a dog has been trained to sense the onset of a manic episode and take specific actions to help their person minimize the effects of the episode, that dog would be considered a PSD.  An ESA would provide comfort just be being present but would not necessarily take any actions to deal with the impact of the person’s psychological issues.

When can PSDs go?

 As detailed in our article on service animals, “under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.”
service dogWhile there are a few states which still exclude PSDs from the definition of service animals (and therefore PSDs and their owners have no additional rights under state law) most states follow the lead of the ADA regulations and mandate full access to PDSs.  Florida Statute §413.08, for example, limits service animals to dogs and miniature horses who are “trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric [emphasis added], intellectual, or other mental disability. The work done or tasks performed must be directly related to the individual’s disability and may include, but are not limited to….helping an individual with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors, reminding an individual with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming an individual with post traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack, [emphasis added] or doing other specific work or performing other special tasks. A service animal is not a pet….The crime-deterrent effect of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for purposes of this definition.”

The Florida Statute also specifies that “An individual with a disability has the right to be accompanied by a service animal in all areas of a public accommodation that the public or customers are normally permitted to occupy” and specifies that the service animal must be under the handler’s control, is not required to produce documentation regarding the animal’s training and limits the questions that may be asked to whether the service animal is required because of a disability and what work or tasks the animal has been trained to perform.

Bottom Line

There are significant and important differences between service animals, including PSDs, therapy animals and emotional support animals.  Be wary of internet services which offer to provide you with ESA ‘certificates’ and avoid the temptation to try to game the system and get your precious companion certified just because you want him to travel with you in the cabin of an airplane or sit inside a restaurant with you.  There are plenty of options out there for great housing, restaurants, parks and hotels which will happily welcome you AND your four-legged companions so the best thing to do is patronize those locations until the less-welcoming ones get the message and open their doors to everyone in your family.



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