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What's an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional Support AnimalsOur team deals with this question daily both on the phone and through e-mail. What is an Emotional Support Animal? Isn't it the same as a service dog? Isn't it the same as a therapy dog? The short answer is no and no. An emotional support animal (or ESA) is technically not either of those - having said that, an ESA K-9 could be trained to be a therapy dog as well. And a service dog most certainly provides emotional support to the person it is assisting.  Confused yet? Let's break this down in more detail.

We will go into more depth about service dogs and therapy dogs in another article, but let's just touch really quick on why an ESA is a separate and unique classification.

  1. An emotional support animal is not the same as a service dog, and is not covered under the Federal ADA, because it is not trained to assist a disabled handler in a way that is tailored to a specific task related to the handler's disability. This isn't a negative thing, so don't view it that way - it is just a different classification. A specific task of a service animal may be something like opening a door or picking up an object that was dropped.
  2. An ESA support k-9 is not a therapy dog (although it could be trained to be) because it is not being used in a capacity as a benefit to people other than the handler. A classic and easy to understand example of a therapy dog is the doggy brigade at your local hospital. These dogs have been trained to be taken into that hospital to visit patients.
Those are very brief examples of some high-level differences between these different types of working dogs. So what's an Emotional Support Animal exactly? An emotional support animal provides companionship or therapeutic benefits to its owner. Because these dogs provide a type of therapy to their handler, they are sometimes mislabeled as a therapy dog (we are seeing these terms used as synonyms more and more). These dogs will be trained to the point where the are well-behaved and typically good natured animals, but "sit", "stay" and "come" are not the same things a service animal are trained to do. Even a service dog that has been trained to help with a mental disability has been task-specific trained.
Many people have an anxiety impairment that may, as an example, cause extreme fear when flying. The presence of their dog provides a calming effect.  This is an ESA at work. An individual who's blood pressure remains more stable when he or she is with their dog is experiencing the benefits of an emotional support animal. Again, the dog is having a calming effect on them. There is a clear pattern to recognize here - the emotional support animal usually provides its benefit by simply being with the handler - this is not task-specific training as seen in a service dog.
It is important to note that if your dog is an ESA to call it that.  Don't call your dog a service animal if it is not.  That's against federal, state and local laws. If you have an ESA, you should know that when proper protocol is followed they are typically allowed to fly on commercial airlines and many times they are even allowed to reside in no-pet housing.