Understanding Emotional Support Animals vs. Psychiatric Service Dogs: What You Need to Know

In the realm of mental health, animals often play an invaluable role in providing comfort, companionship, and assistance to individuals experiencing emotional or psychological distress. However, it's essential to understand the distinctions between different types of support animals to ensure that individuals receive the appropriate assistance they need. In this post, we'll delve into the differences between emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), shedding light on their unique roles and benefits.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs):

Emotional support animals are pets that offer therapeutic benefits to individuals struggling with emotional or psychological conditions. These animals provide companionship, affection, and a sense of security to their owners, helping to alleviate symptoms associated with various mental health issues. Unlike service animals, ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks but rather offer comfort through their presence and companionship.

Key Characteristics of Emotional Support Animals:

  1. No Specific Training Required: ESAs do not undergo specialized training to perform tasks related to a disability. Instead, their mere presence is therapeutic for their owners.

  2. Prescribed by Mental Health Professionals: To qualify for an ESA, individuals must obtain a recommendation letter from a licensed mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, affirming the need for the animal's support.

  3. Accommodation Rights: Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), ESAs are afforded certain legal protections, allowing individuals to live with their animals in housing that has a "no pets" policy and travel with them on airplanes without additional fees.

Thrive for Life Counseling has maintained a policy against writing recommendation letters for ESAs due to the risk of liability since these service animals do not receive any specialized training.  If you are interested in an ESA, Thrive refers out to Pettable 

When clients have a diagnosable mental health condition and a trainable dog, then Thrive will often recommend that client to a Psychiatric Service Dog training program.  

Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs):

Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained to assist individuals with psychiatric disabilities by performing specific tasks that mitigate the effects of their condition. These highly trained animals undergo rigorous training to perform tasks tailored to their owner's needs, providing practical assistance and support in managing their symptoms and daily activities.

Key Characteristics of Psychiatric Service Dogs:

  1. Specialized Training: PSDs undergo extensive training to perform tasks that aid their owners in managing psychiatric symptoms, such as interrupting panic attacks, providing grounding during dissociative episodes, or retrieving medication.  Pettable is a reputable company that offers PSD training options.  

  2. Protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): PSDs are recognized as service animals under the ADA, granting their owners the right to be accompanied by their dog in public places where animals are typically prohibited.

  3. Individualized Assistance: Unlike ESAs, PSDs are trained to respond to specific cues and provide tailored assistance based on their owner's needs, making them invaluable companions for individuals with psychiatric disabilities.

To fly with a psychiatric service dog, the owner will need to:

On flights, the service dog can remain (outside of a carrier) at the owner's feet or in the owner’s lap if smaller than a 1 year old child.  

Under the ADA, hotels & AirBnBs are legally required to accommodate reservations with service animals, including psychiatric service dogs, in all of their properties.  You  cannot be charged a pet fee for service animals, even if their listing or hotel has  "no pets"  policy.

For example, if a client has intense anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), then a dog can be trained to recognize the symptoms of an anxiety attack, lick their owner to remind him/her to take their medication and/or can provide deep pressure to their owner to ease the anxiety attack.  This would qualify a dog to be a psychiatric service animal.  

Understanding the Differences:

While both emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs offer valuable support to individuals with mental health challenges, it's essential to recognize their distinct roles and legal protections. ESAs primarily provide emotional comfort and companionship, whereas PSDs are trained to perform tasks that directly assist their owners in managing psychiatric symptoms.

Ultimately, the decision to obtain an emotional support animal or a psychiatric service dog depends on an individual's specific needs, preferences, and the nature of their mental health condition. Consulting with a mental health professional can help individuals determine the most suitable form of animal assistance and navigate the process of obtaining appropriate accommodations and support.

By understanding the differences between emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs, individuals can make informed decisions to enhance their mental well-being and access the valuable support they need to thrive.

Wendy Galyen would be happy to share more about her experience training her dog, Stella, to be a psychiatric service dog.  Feel free to reach out with any questions.

Thrive for Life Counseling is dedicated to providing comprehensive mental health support and resources to individuals seeking guidance and assistance in their journey toward healing and personal growth. If you have any questions about emotional support animals, psychiatric service dogs, or other mental health-related topics, feel free to contact us for support and guidance.  To learn more about acquiring an ESA or PSD, you will find that Pettable is a helpful resource.