Emotional support dogs are becoming an increasingly popular option for people coping with mental and emotional health issues. Many current dog owners are aware of the therapeutic benefits and support their canine friends provide. An emotional support animal is a type of legally recognized assistance animal that is allowed to accompany their owner in residential buildings free of charge and on flights in the airplane cabin.

In this post we will discuss how you may be able to qualify your current or future dog as an emotional support animal (ESA).

Qualifying a dog to become an emotional support animal involves the following steps:

  1. Understand what an emotional support dog is
  2. Connect with a licensed professional to assess whether an ESA is right for you
  3. Request an ESA letter
  4. Adopt an emotional support dog if you do not already have one
  5. Submit your ESA letter to your landlord or airline

To receive full benefits conferred to owners of emotional support dogs, proper documentation is required and specific steps must be followed. In this post, we will explore what these steps are and highlight some other factors prospective emotional support dog owners should consider.

1). Understand what an Emotional Support Dog is

An emotional support animal is typically a dog, cat, or another small domesticated animal that provides mental and emotional health benefits for its owner. An emotional support animal does not need any specialized training. ESAs provide support through their companionship and presence. A wide variety of animals serve as ESAs, but dogs are perhaps the most popular due to their affection, loyalty, and emotional intelligence. 

Under federal and state laws, owners of emotional support dogs have certain legal rights for housing and air travel. Under federal Fair Housing rules, landlords must allow for emotional support dogs as a reasonable accommodation for a tenant’s disability. A disability is defined for this purpose as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Common disabilities that people who own emotional support dogs have are depression, severe anxiety, and phobias. A licensed health care professional must assess whether you have a disability and whether an emotional support dog can help you.

2). Connect with a licensed professional to assess whether an ESA is right for you

In order to effectively qualify your dog as an emotional support animal, you will need to an ESA letter from a licensed professional. A wide range of licensed professionals can help evaluate whether an ESA is right for you. These practitioners include people such as counselors, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, registered nurses, family and marriage therapists and other licensed professionals.

The best place to start is with a licensed provider you already have a relationship with. It is helpful to seek assistance from someone that has knowledge about your mental health history. So while a physician is technically able to write an ESA letter, it may be more appropriate for your counselor or therapist to assess your need for an ESA. The licensed professional will do two things: evaluate whether you have a disability that meets the relevant criteria for purposes of federal housing and airline rules and, if appropriate, make a recommendation for an ESA to help with symptoms of that disability.

Sometimes therapists are able to evaluate a client’s mental health, but is unable to write an ESA letter because they are unfamiliar with ESAs and ESA rules. If you do not currently have a therapist familiar with ESAs or are having difficulty locating one, online therapists that provide ESA services remotely may be a great option for you. This is a convenient choice for both people that are face challenges finding help as well as people who cannot easily leave their home or schedule in-person visitations.

Regardless of where you turn to for help, it is important to discuss your mental health issues with a licensed professional as openly as possible. You can be candid about what options you think may be helpful to address your issues, including the aid of an emotional support dog. If you’re searching for assistance, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a practitioner familiar with ESAs that is licensed for your state.

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3). If you qualify, request an ESA Letter

If your licensed practitioner determines that you qualify for an emotional support dog, they can write an ESA letter for you. This is the document that you will submit to your landlord or airline in order to obtain reasonable accommodation for your emotional support dog.

A typical ESA letter will be on the professional’s letterhead and contain the following information:

  1. Contact information of the provider.
  2. The date the letter was issued.
  3. The provider’s license information
  4. A statement establishing you have a disability for purposes of the Fair Housing Act or Air Carrier Access Act.
  5. A recommendation for you to have an emotional support animal to help address symptoms of your disability.
  6. The provider’s signature.

It is important that the ESA letter contains the provider’s contact and license information. Landlords and airlines are not allowed to request detailed information regarding your condition, but they can verify that the letter was written by an actively licensed professional. It is important to note that things like registrations, certifications and IDs are not by themselves sufficient to establish your need for an emotional support animal. Landlords and airlines will insist on seeing an ESA letter for your emotional support dog from a licensed professional.

If you believe you may qualify for an ESA letter but do not have access to a licensed healthcare professional at this time, we would be happy to assist you.

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4). Adopt an emotional support dog if you do not already have one

As previously mentioned, an emotional support dog does not need any specialized training. Any type of dog breed can potentially be an effective ESA. If you currently have a dog, it may already be providing you with therapeutic benefits. A valid ESA letter will transform your dog from a pet into a recognized emotional support animal.

If you do not already have a dog, there are various factors to consider when selecting a dog. The temperament of the dog is one very important factor. An ESA should have a personality and demeanor that complements your own personality and that also ideally helps assist with the mental health issues you are dealing with. For example, if you suffer from severe anxiety, it may help to have an emotional support dog with a calming presence. Others that suffer from social phobia or depression may prefer a very active emotional support dog that helps them get up in the morning and venture outside of the house.

You should also consider the size of the dog, and whether you can provide the dog with a comfortable and safe environment within the confines of your home or apartment. The amount of grooming required is also a consideration. A dog that sheds continuously may not be ideal for someone who doesn’t want to be constantly vacuuming their home. If you live in a small apartment with neighbors within close proximity, a large vocal dog may not be the best choice. Emotional support dog owners, like all pet owners, should be realistic about whether they can live with the particular dog’s traits and carefully consider the commitment it will take to properly care for and maintain the dog.

Even though emotional support dogs do not require specialized training to address the owner’s disability, they should still undergo basic training. An ESA owner is always responsible for the actions of their dog, so if you have an emotional support animal that damages property or attacks another tenant, you could be on the hook for damages. In addition, an emotional support dog that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others can give a landlord justification for evicting the dog.

Like any other dog that is kept as a companion, it is important to ensure your emotional support dog is well-behaved and obedient in all settings. Group training sessions with other dog owners can be a great way to train your dog and improve its ability to socialize with other dogs and humans.

5). Submit your ESA letter to your landlord or airline

Housing providers and airlines are allowed to request proof that a dog is actually an emotional support animal. That proof comes in the form of the ESA letter obtained for your licensed healthcare professional.

Once you have your ESA letter, you can submit the letter to your landlord. A landlord can only reject an ESA request in a few circumstances. For example, if the landlord has determined your emotional support dog poses a safety and health risk to others, they may be able to properly deny your request. A landlord has to consider an ESA request whenever the tenant submits it. However, to stay in the good graces of the landlord, tenants should ideally submit their request prior to moving the dog in, especially if the tenant lives in a building that prohibits dogs.

Emotional support dog owners are allowed to bring their dog home even if they live in a building that explicitly prohibits pets. Many types of dogs can make for excellent emotional support animals and landlords are not permitted to deny an ESA solely because it is a certain breed or weight. Landlords also cannot charge fees or deposits for an emotional support dog, even though other residents that own pets are required to pay such fees and deposits.

Having an ESA letter also qualifies you for certain rights when it comes to flying. Emotional support dogs are allowed to travel with their owners free of charge in the cabin. To travel with an emotional support dog, you should notify the airline at least 48 hours ahead of your scheduled departure. It is recommended that you reach out to the airline as soon as possible. Each airline will have their own policy regarding emotional support dogs, and may require the submission of additional forms from your licensed health care provider and your veterinarian prior to clearance for flight.

Other restrictions may also apply – for example, some airlines may not allow very large dogs to fly in the cabin. It is advisable to check with your particular airline to see what their rules are for emotional support dogs. You never want to just show up for your flight on the departure date with an ESA letter expecting to board with your dog – airlines must approve your request in advanced and some of the information they require may take time for you to collect.

Emotional Support Dogs to the Rescue

If you believe an emotional support dog may help with your mental or emotional health, be sure to ask your health professional about whether having one may be right for you. Whether you are using a current canine companion or are searching for one to adopt, having the perfect furry support may one of the best things you can do for your mental and emotional wellbeing.

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