The world can be a stressful place, and the worries of everyday life can be overwhelming. To help cope with these feelings, many people turn to pets as a source of comfort. But an Emotional Support Dog (ESD) is much more than just an ordinary pet.
Individuals that suffer from a disability in the form of a mental illness have found that the presence of a loving, devoted dog can help them navigate their way through the struggles that arise from their condition.
In this article, we will dive into what it means to have an Emotional Support Dog, how you can go about qualifying for one, and how to “certify” an Emotional Support Dog. We will explain how to legitimately qualify your animal companion as an ESD.
If you are suffering from mental health issues and would like to see if you qualify for an Emotional Support Dog, but you do not have access to a licensed therapist, we can help connect you to one at the link below.
Disabilities that Qualify for an Emotional Support Dog
Many people who suffer from various illnesses, including mild to severe depression, phobias, PTSD, anxiety, and panic attacks, have found relief with the companionship of an Emotional Support Dog, sometimes when the use of prescription medications failed or had adverse side effects.
To qualify for an ESD, your therapist or other licensed healthcare professional will determine whether you have a disability and whether an ESD would help alleviate symptoms of your condition. A “disability” for purposes of qualifying for an Emotional Support Dog means a mental health condition like depression or severe anxiety that substantially limits one or more major life activities, like the ability to sleep, work or learn.
Please note that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Emotional Support Dogs are not considered Service Dogs and are therefore not given the same rights and privileges. Service Dogs have the right to go places Emotional Support Dogs may be disallowed, such as restaurants and grocery stores.
Emotional Support Dogs have the right, however, to accompany their owners in their home pursuant to the Fair Housing Act, without having to pay any fees or deposits. Emotional Support Dog owners have that right even if their building has a “no-pets” policy. Certain airlines will also allow your ESD to board the plane free of charge.
How Do I Get an Emotional Support Dog?
An Emotional Support Dog can be any type of canine companion that helps alleviate symptoms of the owner’s mental illness or emotional distress. An ESD can give its owner the confidence and support they need to live a normal and productive life.
Any breed of dog could make a wonderful Emotional Support Dog. You can find dogs in shelters and rescues that could potentially make great Emotional Support Dogs. You can qualify for an ESA letter before or after adopting a dog. Unlike a Service Dog, Emotional Support Dogs do not need to be specially trained to perform tasks for their owners; they are intended instead to provide comfort and support through their companionship.
Any breed can be an Emotional Support Dog, but when searching for the perfect companion, be sure to look for a dog that is manageable for you. For example, if you live in an apartment, a small dog may be easier to handle versus a large dog that may need greater amounts of exercise and room to roam.
You will also want to consider how the dog may affect you. For example, if you have severe anxiety, a canine that is hyperactive may not be the best choice, and you may want a dog that has more of a calming influence. Visit a number of canines and ask questions about different breeds until you find a dog that is right for you. It is important to find the right type of dog for you, and also to be able to provide the right type of environment for the dog.
How Do I Certify My Emotional Support Dog?
Some people use the phrase “certifying a dog” interchangeably with getting an ESA letter. Here is a spoiler: you do not actually “certify” an Emotional Support Dog! Certifications are meaningless when it comes to qualifying your dog as an ESD. This is a common mistake, and there is a very important distinction between “certifying” a dog and obtaining an ESA letter.
There is no such thing as a certificate or a certification program that officially qualifies a dog as an emotional support animal under law. The only legitimate way to qualify your dog as an Emotional Support Animal is by obtaining a legitimate ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional. If you do not have a therapist or are having trouble finding one, you can connect with a mental health professional through the online platform here.
A landlord or anyone else that asks you for a registration number, certificate, or ID proving your dog is an emotional support animal is misinformed. The only proof you need is the ESA letter written by a licensed professional stating your need for an emotional support dog.
To be absolutely clear, if you do obtain an ESA letter, you are also not required to “register” your dog on any website. The Fair Housing Act and related guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing do not recognize certifications or registrations of emotional support animals.
Steps to Certifying your Emotional Support Dog
- Recognize your need for an ESA
- Connect with a licensed therapist/doctor
- Demonstrate your need for an ESA
- Get your document(s)
- That’s it. No need to register your dog.
Note, however, that sometimes landlords and airlines may require additional forms regarding your ESD to be submitted in addition to the ESA letter.
The ESA Letter
To make your dog an Emotional Support Dog, you must qualify for an ESA letter written by a licensed health care professional.
If you qualify, the ESA letter from your licensed mental health professional (LMHP) will:
- Be written on your LMHP’s letterhead
- Establish that you have a disability
- Recommend an emotional support animal to help alleviate symptoms of that disability
- Contain the LMHP’s license number
- Contain the LMHP’s signature and date
Note that for purposes of air travel, the ESA letter is only valid for one year and must be renewed after that.
Having a valid ESA letter is necessary for ensuring that your Emotional Support Dog is accommodated in housing with “no pets” policies and in the cabin of an aircraft without paying additional fees (for airlines that accept ESAs). Normal policies that apply to pets do not apply to Emotional Support Dogs. That means if your building restricts dogs because they are a certain weight or breed or charges fees or deposits for pets, those restrictions, fees, and deposits cannot be applied to an Emotional Support Dog.
If you are interested in seeing if you qualify for an Emotional Support Dog, you should speak to your existing therapist. If you do not have a therapist, you can look for a therapist in your area or connect to a licensed professional through a website like ESADoctors.com.
Emotional Support Dog Rights
Emotional support animals are protected by federal and state laws when it comes to housing. Some airlines also accommodate valid emotional support animals as a courtesy.
In January of 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing released new guidance regarding the accommodation of Emotional Support Dogs in housing. HUD’s guidance affirms that landlords must provide reasonable accommodation to tenants who have valid ESA letters from a licensed health care professional. HUD specifically warns against sites that sell certifications, licenses, and registrations to qualify emotional support animals. In addition, HUD also confirmed that licensed health care professionals can provide ESA-related services remotely, including online. That is great news for anyone suffering from a mental illness that is unable to see a therapist in person for any reason, including due to cost or a busy schedule.
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued new rules for ESAs on flights that went into effect on January 11, 2021. As a result of these new rules, airlines are no longer mandated to accommodate emotional support animals by law but can do so on a voluntary basis. All airlines are required to grant access to Psychiatric Service Dogs.
Many airlines have ended their ESA programs as a result of this rule change. For airlines that no longer accept ESAs, your animal companion may only board the cabin if it meets the airline’s requirements for pets and if you pay a pet fee each way. It’s important to check with your airline before booking to see what their latest policy is regarding Emotional Support Dogs.
You & Your Emotional Support Dog
There’s no shame in needing an ESA to deal with your mental health issues and emotional distress. Emotional Support Dogs are giving a new lease on life to many suffering individuals, and the effects ESDs have can be profound.
If you think you could benefit from the presence of an Emotional Support Dog, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. If you do not have access to a doctor or mental health professional, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a professional licensed for your state. To begin the process, you can click the link below.