What Is An Emotional Support Dog?

Written by: Deanna deBara

January 7, 2019

If you have a pet (or you’ve been anywhere near a plane in the last year or so), chances are you’ve heard the term “emotional support animal.”

Emotional support animals (including emotional support dogs) have been the topic of debate in recent months, but most people agree that emotional support animals can be completely life changing for people who struggle with mental health issues.

But what, exactly, are emotional support dogs? Can any dog be an emotional support dog? And if you do get your dog registered as an emotional support animal, what are your rights?

What Is An Emotional Support Dog?

girl and puppy

Before we jump into the rules and regulations surrounding emotional support animals, let’s talk about what an emotional support animal actually is.

Emotional support animals are exactly what they sound like. They’re animals meant to provide emotional support to people with mental illness or emotional disabilities.

Now, obviously, anyone can benefit from getting emotional support from their dog; who doesn’t love when their dog comes up to snuggle them after a challenging day? But for people who have mental illness or emotional disabilities, it’s different. The comfort, safety, and stability an animal provides can make a positive impact on their owner’s mental health. So, for example, having their emotional support animal present may help a person with a panic disorder stay calm during a long flight.

Technically, any animal can be an emotional support animal, but because dogs form such a strong emotional bond with their owners (and because so many people already have pups as pets), they are by far the most common.

How Do I Register My Dog As An Emotional Support Dog?

dog laying down

If you want to register your dog as an emotional support dog, you need an official letter from a mental health professional (like a psychologist, therapist, or clinical social worker). The letter should be on the professional’s official letterhead and must state that:

  • You are a currently a patient under the clinician’s care;
  • You are currently being treated by the clinician for a disability which is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) IV or V;
  • Your disability limits your ability to participate in one or more major life activities; and
  • Having an emotional support animal is a crucial part of treatment for your disability

The letter must also be dated, signed, and include the mental health professional’s license number and date of licensure as well as the type of animal prescribed as an ESA.

There’s no “official” certification process for emotional support animals; once you have your letter, your animal is considered an ESA.

A word of caution—there are a lot of businesses out there that allow you to “buy” a letter to register your dog as an emotional support animal. These letter-buying businesses are shady at best—and completely illegitimate at worst. If you need a letter to register your dog as an emotional support animal, you’ll need to see a clinician.

Are Emotional Support Dogs Covered Under ADA?

Pit Bull Puppy Cuddling Human

While emotional support dogs undoubtedly provide a crucial service to their owners, technically, they’re not considered service dogs—and so they’re not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the ADA, service dogs are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Because emotional support dogs don’t receive any special training in order to support their owners, they don’t fall under the service dog umbrella.

But that doesn’t mean your emotional support dog doesn’t have any rights! Under the Fair Housing Act, you can’t be denied housing because of an emotional disability. That means that housing rules like “no pets allowed,” breed restrictions or size limitations don’t apply to emotional support animals. Landlords are also not allowed to charge a pet deposit or any additional fees for an emotional support animal.

Emotional support animals are also covered under the Air Carrier Access Act. Your emotional support dog can travel:

  • In the cabin of an airplane
  • Without a carrier
  • Free of charge

While emotional support animals are allowed to fly, each airline has its own set of restrictions. In addition to your letter, many airlines will require additional documentation from your veterinarian. Make sure to contact the airline well before your flight to make sure you have everything you need to travel with your pup.

Where Can You Bring Your Emotional Support Animal?

Noodle the Pug

So, according to law, you can live and fly freely with your emotional support dog. But what about everywhere else like hotels, stores, and restaurants?

Again, an emotional support dog isn’t a service dog and isn’t covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Which means that businesses aren’t obligated to allow you to bring your emotional support animal into their establishment.

But just because they’re not obligated to let your emotional support dog into their establishment doesn’t mean they won’t! If you need to bring your emotional support dog with you to a business (for example, if you’re staying at a hotel during your travels or are going out to eat), call ahead and ask the manager for their policies about emotional support animals.

You could also just choose to be a patron of pet friendly businesses. Any business that’s pet-friendly will definitely welcome emotional support animals. So, if you want to avoid any potential hassle, seek out businesses with an open pet policy.

Are Emotional Support Dogs Tax Deductible?

pug with money

Another big question when it comes to emotional support animals is are they tax deductible? And the answer, unfortunately, is no.

We sound like a broken record, but it comes back to the “not a service dog” issue. The IRS classifies service animals (including the cost of the dog, grooming, and any veterinary bills) as a tax-deductible medical expense. But because emotional support animals aren’t considered a service dog, it doesn’t apply.

Other Things To Keep In Mind With Your Emotional Support Dog

dog and man

If you’re struggling with a mental illness or emotional disability, getting an emotional support animal can be a total gamechanger. But there are definitely a few things you want to keep in mind to make sure you, your pup, and the people around you have a positive experience:

  • Train your dog. Just because there’s no official training required to register your dog as an emotional support animal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train them! If you plan to take your emotional support dog in public with you—especially on a plane—it’s important they’re well-behaved and trained with basic commands.
  • Don’t abuse the system. Emotional support animals have gotten a bad rap because so many people try to “game” the system and get an ESA when they don’t need one. Don’t be that person! Emotional support dogs should be reserved for people who have a legitimate mental illness or emotional disability that impedes their ability to function—and if you don’t fall under that umbrella, don’t register your dog.
  • Remember—any breed can be an emotional support animal. You don’t have to go out and get a designer dog to be an emotional support animal. Any breed or size can provide emotional support!

When it comes to emotional support dogs, the most important thing to keep in mind? Be responsible. You deserve the emotional support you need—but be conscious of other people and make sure you’re being responsible in training, taking care of, and managing your emotional support animal.

Treat Your Emotional Support Dog With BarkBox

Little White Dog With BarkBox

Emotional support animals do a lot of work. So why not reward them?

With BarkBox, you’ll get a carefully curated selection of toys, treats, and chews delivered to your door each month. Think of it as emotional support for your emotional support pup!

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Written by: Deanna deBara

January 7, 2019

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