What is an Emotional Support Animal?

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

When you first start investigating the world of service dogs, and especially if you’re looking into psychiatric service dogs, you’ll quickly come across the term ESA, or emotional support animal. ESA’s have a few things in common with service dogs (SDs), which is why people get them confused, but legally and practically, they’re completely different.

Terminology Matters

In the U.S., emotional support animal is a legal term. The definition is very specific: An Emotional Support Animal is an animal who aids an owner who has a psychiatric or mental disability by providing therapeutic companionship. Note the two key parts of this definition:

  • You must have a psychiatric or mental disability
  • The animal’s key function is to provide therapeutic companionship

An Emotional Support Animal can be virtually any type of animal, although dogs and cats are the most common choices. Some people refer to a dog that is an ESA as an emotional support dog (ESD), but the term ESA encompasses all.

How Are They Different?

The key difference between an emotional support animal and a service dog is that a service dog is individually trained to help mitigate the effects your disability and an ESA is not. Service dogs perform needed tasks such as assisting with balance, picking up items, or providing deep pressure therapy on command, as needed. A service dog will also provide companionship, of course, but that’s just icing on the cake. For an ESA, companionship is the cake.

An emotional support animal may be impressively trained in obedience or not trained at all, as long as it provides companionship to you that helps with your disability.

Some people also confuse the terms emotional support animal and therapy dog. A therapy dog provides companionship and love to other people who need it, an ESA gives these things to you, its owner.

Another area of confusion is the difference between an ESA and a psychiatric service dog (PSD). This is because PSDs serve owners who have psychiatric disabilities. People who have psychiatric disabilities often need emotional support. A psychiatric service dog, however, provides more than emotional support. Like every other type of service dog, it is trained in specific tasks and work that go far beyond that.

Legally Speaking, ESA Owners Have Special, but Different Rights

Another reason people confuse ESAs and service dogs (especially psychiatric service dogs), is that owners of both types of dogs receive special rights and protections under U.S. laws. The protections they receive, however, are quite different.

ESA + Public Access = Not Permitted

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides rights for a service dog handler to be accompanied by her service dog in virtually any public place. The ADA doesn’t apply to ESA’s at all, and their owners have no legal right to bring their dog to public places such as stores where pets aren’t allowed. Legally and practically, this is one of the biggest differences between ESA’s and service dogs. Many states allow service dogs in training (SDiTs) to accompany their owners to public places, but none do the same for ESA’s.

ESA + Flying = Permitted

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is the legislation that determines when a dog must be permitted to travel with its owner in the cabin of a commercial airplane. Both Emotional Support Animals and Service Dog teams are eligible for this special privilege. There is a key difference, however. Flying with an ESA requires you to provide advance notice and evidence of your disability and need for your dog (usually in the form of a letter). With most types of service dogs, you can simply show up at the gate and they have to accommodate you. Psychiatric service dog teams, unfortunately, don’t receive equal treatment with other SD’s under this law. Even though they are legally recognized as service dogs by the federal government, they’re owners are required to provide the extra documentation, just like owners of ESA’s.

ESA + No-Pets Housing = Permitted

Like service dogs, emotional support animals are legally permitted to reside with their owners in “no pets” housing. The owner or landlord doesn’t have a say in this, except in the rare cases where the Fair Housing Act (FHA) doesn’t apply. However, you can’t just bring your emotional support animal or service dog to your new digs without giving the landlord advance notice. You must apply for a “reasonable accommodation” in advance to moving in. Your landlord is legally required to grant it in virtually every case, although there are a few exceptions.

ESA Status for SDiT’s

Service Dogs in Training (SDiT’s) are not covered under many of the above-mentioned laws. Some states have implemented laws that effectively give SDiT’s the same public access rights as service dogs, and fortunately the FHA does cover SDiT’s. However, the ADA and ACAA still don’t apply.

When it comes to flying, you may benefit from the legal overlap between psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals. If your dog is in training to become a PSD, then by definition you have a psychiatric disability. If your psychiatric SDiT is providing necessary emotional support to you in addition to its other duties, then they qualify as an emotional support animal. As long as your dog meets these requirements, there’s no reason they can’t be a service dog in training and an emotional support animal at the same time. This is a legitimate approach to flying with your psychiatric SDiT as you continue to train your dog up to full service dog status. Unfortunately, if your SDiT is not for psychiatric needs, it’s unethical to take this route.

Not Less, Just Different

Emotional support animals provide valuable support and companionship to their owners that should not be underestimated or undervalued. U.S. laws recognize this by giving special treatment to people who require them. Although ESA’s have less training or different training than service dogs, they can still make a powerful difference in quality of life for their owners.

Anne Martinez
Anne is a freelance writer who specializes in health and technology. Her book Saved by the Dog: Unleashing Potential with Psychiatric Service Dogs is available on Amazon.com, or through the companion website, Servicedogspot.com.