There are many terms and expressions when it comes to assistance dogs, some of which are pretty self-explanatory, and some that are a little more complicated. A term that has been heard and used more and more over the past several years is emotional support animal (ESA). While this is regarded as a valid and legitimate type of support, the definitions and rules can be a bit confusing.

What is an emotional support animal?

Anyone who has or has had a pet can testify to how emotionally connected you become. Our pets definitely offer emotional support, but not all pets qualify as ESAs simply because of that. Any animal can be an ESA, though ― cats, pigs, birds, ferrets, you name it. But in this particular case, we’re talking about emotional support dogs, as dogs are by far the most common animal in this role.

Simply put, an emotional support dog is a dog that a licensed mental health professional has determined beneficial or necessary for a patient’s wellbeing. The dog’s presence is intended to support a person with a disabling mental illness. This can refer to how having a dog (or any pet) may offer a sense of stability, or ease anxiety or symptoms of depression. Just like an ESA can be virtually any domesticated species, an emotional support dog can be any age or breed. Here, it’s all about the dog’s connection to their owner.

Just the closeness and stability of an emotional support animal can drastically improve the life of a person with mental illness.

Different types of assistance dogs

There are many different kinds of assistance dogs, all intended for different purposes and to help with different disabilities. Unlike assistance dogs, though, an emotional support dog doesn’t receive the same accommodations, as the definitions look different. An assistance dog (i.e. service dog) will be able to accompany their human into shops and restaurants, for example. In short, they’re generally allowed in any public spaces, while emotional support dogs are not.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an assistance dog as a dog that is specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. This clearly states that emotional support dogs don’t qualify, as any dog can be an emotional support dog, regardless of training or lack thereof. Some local laws may be a little broader with their definitions, though, so look into what applies to where you live.

Basically, the behavior and performed tasks of an assistance dog need to be deliberate and taught ― they can’t just be things the dog would instinctively do, anyway. For instance, an assistance dog may be trained to guide a visually impaired person through busy streets, or to alert a hearing impaired person to danger. An emotional support dog is just naturally good at offering comfort, and while this can make all the difference for someone’s wellbeing, they haven’t been formally trained to do it. This is a very important distinction.

So, what kind of perks do emotional support dogs and their owners enjoy? Well, there’s housing, for one thing; buildings that prohibit pets often allow an ESA. You can also bring your emotional support dog on a plane, for instance. When it comes to the workplace and schools, it varies, but overall, an emotional support dog is still considered valid by most. If you can provide a legitimate letter of “certification”, your dog will no longer qualify as just a pet.

Emotional support dog vs. psychiatric assistance dog

The term emotional support dog is often used interchangeably with psychiatric assistance dog, and it’s understandable why. Their tasks and functions are very similar, and they work with very similar types of mental illness and problems. But like other assistance dogs, a psychiatric assistance dog is trained to do these things, and they are definitely not the same thing as an emotional support dog.

A psychiatric assistance dog requires extensive training to work with people whose disability is due to mental illness. These dogs learn to detect the beginnings of a psychotic episode, for example, or perform room-searches for someone with PTSD. They’re trained for things like keeping a person experiencing a dissociative episode from wandering into traffic, or to just remind someone to take their medication. While an emotional support dog often fills the same role in terms of offering comfort and a grounding sense of balance, they aren’t trained to perform these tasks. And that’s why an emotional support dog and a psychiatric assistance dog are not the same thing, and therefore don’t receive the same accommodations.

Getting certified

First of all, the term “certified” is here applied rather loosely. In reality, a licensed mental health professional rather prescribes an ESA through a letter, and that’s what is usually casually referred to as a certification. Many websites and companies will try to convince you otherwise, though, and will offer certification and registration of your emotional support dog through various hoops and fees. But “registering” your dog on one of these websites won’t qualify your dog for air travel or housing, for instance, and won’t make your dog’s emotional support dog title any more real. Don’t be fooled by these sites’ well-worded pitches and “official” vests and ID cards ― they cannot and will not give you the legitimate letter needed to qualify your dog as an ESA.

All of that said, an emotional support dog may not be an assistance dog, but they still need their title on paper, so to speak. And while sites like those above should be avoided like the plague, defining an emotional support dog still isn’t smooth. There are no requirements for behavior, for instance, which means that an emotional support dog might end up being the sweetest to their human, but mean to strangers. This is often not the case, as most people take this very seriously, but loose rules and definitions lead to a lot of gray areas, which isn’t ideal. A licensed mental health professional is the only one qualified to “label” an emotional support dog, but that doesn’t mean they know dog behavior well enough to determine whether or not said dog is appropriate to bring everywhere.

It’s important to keep this in mind; no matter what you have on paper, the lack of formal assistance dog training makes your emotional support dog’s behavior solely your responsibility.

The breed or age of a dog doesn’t matter when it comes to being an emotional support animal – it’s all about the connection and how they improve a person’s life and mental health.

Differing opinions on ESAs

Any given person seems to have their own opinion on ESAs, and especially emotional support dogs, as those are the ones most commonly encountered. There are concerns about dogs that might be aggressive, or overall difficult to handle, being allowed in spaces where dogs normally wouldn’t be. There is some validity to this, since, as mentioned previously, there are no criteria or requirements for an emotional support dog, other than its impact on its owner’s everyday life. While most people with an emotional support dog are responsible and take this seriously, there sadly are those who don’t fall into that category. These are the people that give the whole concept of ESAs a bad rap.

There are plenty of stories out there about bad, sometimes downright dangerous, encounters with an emotional support dog. These stories speak more to the people abusing the system rather than the system itself, but it still spreads a lot of misinformation. Most who get a skewed impression, due to these encounters and stories, don’t realize how misleading it is, and therefore maintain and reinforce the damaging opinions already out there. The only way to beat this is to make it harder to sell and distribute fake certifications ― legislation changes across the US are slowly making this happen. Some breeds receive more negative press than others, too. While for example “pit bull breeds” are considered some of the temperamentally best-suited dogs in terms of ESAs, people have certain kneejerk reactions to seeing one in an airplane seat. Here, once again, information and legitimate practices are key in changing things.

Things to keep in mind

An emotional support dog ― or any ESA ― can make a massive difference in a person’s life. For someone with depression, such a dog can be the one thing that gets them out of bed that day. For someone with anxiety, they can be the one thing staving off a panic attack. They can help a PTSD-sufferer feel anchored and safe when everything is falling apart, or be a stable constant in the rollercoaster world of someone with bipolar disorder. The impact and value of an emotional support dog shouldn’t be undermined or trivialized. Many people consider the whole concept of an emotional support dog a kind of frivolous luxury, but it can in extreme cases truly be a matter of life and death. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and mental illness can wreak havoc on someone’s life to the same degree.

The main obstacle in getting ESAs more accepted seems to be ignorance, both from those who want one and from those who encounter them. If someone doesn’t know or understand (or, in some cases, care) that their dog’s behavior toward others matters, this can reinforce negative stereotypes. Those who do know and understand may still be tricked by all the fraudulent websites that just want their money. And those who only encounter ill-behaved emotional support dogs will maintain the idea that it’s an irresponsible practice. If you’re looking into qualifying your dog as an emotional support dog, talk to a licensed mental health professional. A legitimate site that will help you get in contact with one is CertaPet ― they won’t try to sell you any letters or fake certifications, either.

In the end, an ESA can drastically change the life of someone with mental illness, and that’s what really matters.