In the world of assistance animals, emotional support animals (ESA) are frequently mixed up with psychiatric service dogs (PSD). Both ESAs and PSDs are used by their owners to help with similar types of mental and emotional illnesses and learning disabilities. However, that’s generally where the similarities end. There are key differences between them, including the legal rights they have.
In this post, we’ll explain what those differences are and answer a commonly asked question ESA owners have: Can my ESA also be a psychiatric service dog? The short answer is maybe—a PSD is not suitable for all ESA owners, and not all ESAs can become PSDs. The answer depends on a few factors because for an animal to qualify as a PSD, both the owner and the PSD have to meet certain legal criteria.
- What are the legal rights of emotional support animals versus psychiatric service dogs?
- What’s the difference between my ESA and a psychiatric service dog?
- How do you qualify for a psychiatric service dog versus an ESA?
- Can an ESA become a psychiatric service dog?
- How do I get a letter for my Psychiatric Service Dog?
- How can I train my ESA to become a PSD?
- How does someone verify whether you have a PSD or an ESA?
- Final thoughts
1. What are the legal rights of emotional support animals versus psychiatric service dogs?
Emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals are regulated by different laws and have different privileges. A PSD has broad public access rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while ESAs do not. A PSD, for the most part, can go anywhere members of the public can go. That means a PSD can accompany their handler at a store, library, arena, hotel, or beach that prohibits dogs, but an ESA owner doesn’t have that same right.
Both PSDs and ESA owners have rights under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which allows them to live with their animals in most housing types, even in buildings that prohibit pets.
PSDs also have special rights when it comes to flying on planes. You may have heard that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently overhauled their rules regarding assistance animals on planes. As of January 11th, 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals, although they may continue to do so voluntarily. However, psychiatric service dogs will continue to be able to board flights free of charge, subject to new documentation requirements.
2. What’s the difference between my emotional support animal and a psychiatric service dog?
Both emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs help people with invisible disabilities such as severe depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobias, and other psychiatric conditions. They can also help with autism and learning disabilities. The difference between an ESA and PSD lies in how they provide support to their owners.
A PSD must be trained to perform tasks related to the owner’s disability. By contrast, ESAs do not require any specialized training. ESAs provide comfort for their owners just by being present during times of difficulty. ESAs can also be a wide range of animals. They are most commonly dogs and cats, but rabbits, fish, hamsters, iguanas, and many other species serve as emotional support animals.
Unlike ESAs, psychiatric service animals can only be trained dogs. A PSD must be fully trained to perform tasks specifically relating to the owner’s disability. PSDs are used for an incredible variety of work, including the following:
- Reminding their handler to take medication
- Interrupting episodes such as crying, dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares
- Interrupting harmful actions, such as scratching, picking, and self-harm
- Providing pressure and tactile stimulation to calm
- Grounding and orienting the handler during panic attacks
- Lying on the handler during psychotic episodes
- Applying gentle pressure with teeth or nuzzling to disrupt psychiatric episodes
- Interrupting repetitive behaviors
- Helping the handler maintain a stable routine
- Preventing the handler from oversleeping
To further understand the difference between an ESA and a PSD, the ADA gives the following example: If a dog has been trained to sense an imminent anxiety attack and takes specific action to help avoid or mitigate the attack, then it would be a psychiatric service dog. However, if the dog is used to comfort a person’s anxiety just through its presence, it would not be considered an ADA service dog and is more likely an emotional support animal.
3. How do you qualify for a psychiatric service dog versus an emotional support animal?
Much like emotional support animals, psychiatric service dogs are used by people with psychiatric disabilities. A “disability” for purposes of assistance animal laws means a “mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities.” A mental impairment includes things like emotional or mental illnesses and learning disabilities.
In essence, to qualify for a psychiatric service dog, the owner must have a mental illness or learning disability that limits their function in a major life activity such as working, sleeping, or learning. The standard to qualify for an emotional support animal is similar. PSD and ESA owners use their assistance animals to help them deal with conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, autism, learning disabilities, and phobias.
If you believe you may have a qualifying condition, a licensed healthcare professional is the best way to get confirmation. A licensed therapist can evaluate whether the symptoms and challenges you’re facing rise to the level of a psychiatric disability that an assistance animal can help with. A therapist can determine how severe your mental or emotional illness is and whether it impacts essential life activities. A professional can also recommend ways to address your issues, which may include the use of an assistance animal. If you’ve been struggling with your mental and emotional health, you should always seek the help of a professional.
4. Can an emotional support animal become a psychiatric service dog?
If you have an ESA that is a dog, it is possible to train your ESA to become a psychiatric service dog if certain conditions are met:
- If your psychiatric disability doesn’t require your dog to perform any tasks to provide the support you need, then it is an emotional support animal, and you do not need a PSD.
- If you need your assistance dog to perform a task that helps with your disability, such as the ones we previously discussed, then your ESA may qualify as a PSD. Note that a PSD has to be fully trained to perform its task—a service dog in training is not yet considered an official service dog with all of the attendant legal rights.
Psychiatric service dogs must also be trained to behave in public. Unlike emotional support animals, PSDs can be taken wherever the public is allowed to go. A psychiatric service dog has to perform its tasks anywhere the handler goes, including crowded, busy environments with lots of distractions.
A PSD that is not behaving in public, for example by running around, barking or growling, acting aggressively, or jumping on others, can be asked to leave an establishment. Under the DOT’s air travel rules, a psychiatric service dog that demonstrates these traits has not been properly trained and can be asked to leave the airport or plane. If your assistance animal is not capable of being composed and focused on its tasks in spaces with other people and animals, it is not suited to be a psychiatric service dog.
5. How do I get a letter for my psychiatric service dog?
In order to qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must have a qualified psychiatric disability and train your dog to provide a task or service for that disability. If you require further documentation or if you are unsure that your disability qualifies for a PSD, you can ask your doctor or therapist for a psychiatric service dog letter or PSD letter. If your current doctor or therapist is unable to accommodate your request you can request your PSD letter online.
- Determine your needs for a PSD
- Ask your doctor or therapist
- Use an online service to connect you with a doctor or therapist
A PSD letter is a letter written by a doctor, therapist, or other health care professional and states your eligibility for an assistance animal. Having a psychiatric service dog gives you rights in housing, flights and public areas. A PSD letter contains your doctor’s or therapist’s contact information and will address whether you have a qualifying condition for a psychiatric service animal. To get started on qualifying for a psychiatric service dog letter, complete the PSD questionnaire here.
6. How can I train my ESA to become a PSD?
If you have a psychiatric disability that a trained dog can perform tasks to assist with, it may be possible to train an existing emotional support animal to become a psychiatric service dog. A psychiatric service dog does not need to be professionally trained or certified by an organization. While there are organizations and professional trainers available that can help with training, both the ADA and the DOT allow owners to do the training themselves.
There is no official certification process for the completion of training for psychiatric service dogs, but there are organizations that promote unofficial guidelines and standards.
7. How does someone verify whether you have a PSD or an ESA?
How a third party is able to verify whether you have a PSD or ESA depends on the circumstances. If you own a PSD and enter a public space such as a store, the staff members are allowed to ask you two questions:
- Is the psychiatric service dog required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the PSD been trained to perform?
The staff members cannot demand any written documentation, insist on the PSD to demonstrate its task, or ask intrusive questions about the owner’s disability.
Psychiatric service dogs are not required to wear vests, ID tags, specific harnesses, and owners do not need to carry around ID cards or certifications. Many PSD owners use these items voluntarily to help them manage interactions in public. PSD owners, in particular, can be self-conscious about their invisible disability and use a Psychiatric Service Dog letter or service dog gear to ward off potentially embarrassing inquiries. The DOT has also stated that airlines can weigh the presence of things like harnesses, vests, and tags to determine whether a dog is a PSD.
If you’re flying with a psychiatric service dog, starting on January 11th, 2021, airlines can require that you submit a form created by the DOT prior to your flight. The form requires PSD owners to certify various statements, including the following:
- The PSD has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the owner.
- The PSD has been trained to behave in public.
- The PSD will be under the handler’s control at all times.
- If the PSD misbehaves, the airlines can elect not to treat the PSD as a service animal.
- The handler is liable for damages caused by their PSD.
The handler must also certify that the PSD is vaccinated. The form is self-certifying, meaning that the handler must sign the document and make all of the certifications themselves. Lying on the form can result in fines and other penalties under Federal law. You can find a sample of the DOT Service Animal Transportation Form below.
For emotional support animals, a letter of recommendation from a licensed healthcare professional is required. Landlords can request a tenant present a signed letter from a licensed therapist before agreeing to accommodate an ESA. Prior to the DOT’s latest rules, ESAs were also allowed on flights if the passenger submitted an ESA letter. After the new DOT rules take effect on January 11th, 2021, it’s unclear whether airlines will continue to accept ESA letters or begin to treat ESAs as normal pets, subject to pet fees and restrictions.
8. Final thoughts
If you’re thinking about training your emotional support animal to become a psychiatric service dog, there are many things to consider. ESAs and PSDs are often used by people with the same kinds of conditions, but most individuals with a mental illness do not have a condition that requires the involvement of a task trained service animal.
However, if you’re an ESA owner and have a mental or emotional disability where a trained service dog could provide assistance, an ESA can be trained as a PSD. You may even have an ESA that is already performing certain tasks to help you manage your mental illness or learning disability. To qualify for a PSD letter, complete the PSD Questionnaire here.
Remember, a PSD must be fully task-trained, and the task must directly relate to the owner’s psychiatric disability. In addition, if the PSD is being taken into public areas and on planes, it must be trained to cope with high-stress environments filled with other people, children, and animals. Not all emotional support animals will have the temperament or innate personality traits to do so.
Training a dog to become a PSD is not an easy endeavor, but it can be done on your own or with the assistance of an organization or a professional trainer. If you think you may qualify for a PSD but are unsure, the best place to start is to discuss your mental health needs with a licensed mental health professional.