Just What are Emotional Support Dogs?

It Just Gets Stranger dog Duncan. Photos by Eli McCann
It Just Gets Stranger dog Duncan. Photos by Eli McCann /

Where do emotional support dogs fit into the working dog landscape?

Dogs play important roles in our lives. Not only do they offer companionship from childhood to the end of life, but emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and service dogs all provide a diverse range of services to people who need assistance. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll highlight the roles of these essential dogs and how they help people in need of assistance live better lives.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are pets that provide emotional support, comfort, contribute to well-being, through companionship to individuals with a diagnosable mental health illness, such as depression or anxiety. Research suggests that ESAs can reduce loneliness [Powell et al., 2019] distract from physical symptoms, facilitate social interaction, and provide a sense of identity [Brooks et al., 2018]. While a  wide variety of animals can serve as an ESAs, I’m going to focus on dogs.

The growing trend in which health care providers write prescriptions for emotional support dogs [Younggren et al. 2020]  has made ESAs ubiquitous in the United States, leading to confusion about their role among  owners and the community at large.

Emotional support dogs require no specialized training, nor is there a requirement for patient education when a healthcare professional’s prescription is written for an ESA. The animal provides comfort and support by being present.

In contrast to the work done by service dogs, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not recognize the support provided by emotional support dogs. This means that they do not have the public access rights afforded to service dogs. In other words, they do not have a legal right to enter grocery stores, coffee shops, department stores, and similar public spaces. However, many emotional support dogs wear vests comparable to those of service dogs, and store owners are often afraid to ask if it’s an emotional support dog fearing potential litigation. Poorly behaved dogs then poison the environment for well-trained service dogs who are legally allowed access.

Currently, the Department of Transportation states that an emotional support dog (one that was prescribed by the owner’s mental health provider) is allowed to fly free in the airline cabin, and, in most cases, can can live in no-pet housing.

A proliferation of companies that provide documentation to household pets so they can fly free, coupled with a few high profile bites by emotional support dogs, have led the airlines to reconsider their policies, so always call before flying as these regulations are a moving target. Remember, your dog’s access rights end at the airport. Cabs, trains, busses are only obligated to provide access to service dogs. Similarly, with hotels and motels, although there are many pet-friendly facilities around the country.

To recap, an ESA is an animal (dogs for our purposes) that provides support and emotional comfort to a person with a diagnosable mental illness through companionship and can be an essential part of a person’s plan of care. When prescribed by the individual’s health care provider, the dog may be allowed to live in no-pet housing and fly free in an airline cabin.

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Did you know these facts about emotional support dogs?