Service or Support? Finding the Right Companion for You

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BY|Theo Gagen View Bio|10th Jun 2019

Companionship from an animal is something that a lot of people can appreciate, but in the last decade it has become clear that animals can be a strong asset to those who have physical or mental health issues.

If you’re looking for an animal companion to help cope with your health issues, it is important that you understand the difference between a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) and an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).  

A Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog who has been trained for an extended period of time to assist someone with a specific task.  These tasks include retrieving objects, carrying medicine, providing tactile stimulation, guiding, identifying triggers and alerting people nearby, and many other tasks depending on the needs of their handlers. These dogs are normally trained by experts in this field, and are vetted to ensure they have the right temperament and personality to be able to successfully execute the service they were trained for.  It usually takes 1-2 years for these dogs to be trained properly, and many do not pass the test due to medical conditions, aggressive tendencies, or nervousness. It is not recommended that you try to turn your family pet into a service animal, as it would be confusing for the dog, and most family pets are not suitable for these serious tasks (no offense to your dogs, we’re sure they’re still wonderful).

An Emotional Support Animal is any animal that provides its owner with a level of emotional support on a regular basis.  The tasks assigned to ESAs are less specific than those for PSDs, and often are things like calming the handler down, boosting the handler’s mood, or providing companionship. These animals do not require specific training, and can be any domesticated animal that you so desire.  For an animal to be classified as an ESA, their owner needs to prescribed an emotional support animal by a licensed medical professional.

Since there are very different requirements for PSDs and ESAs, their liberties are very different as well. While we won’t cover every difference in this blog, here are some of the big ones:

Psychiatric Service Dog

  • PSD is legally defined by the Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act as, “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”  
  • A PSD can only be a dog, or in very specific circumstances a miniature horse.  No other animal can be a certified service animal.
  • A PSD must be housebroken, under the control of the handler at all times, and vaccinated in accordance with state and local laws.
  • A PSD must be allowed to enter public facilities, buildings, or anywhere a member of the public is allowed to go.  If there are “No Pet” signs, the service dog is still to be allowed on premises.
  • No one is allowed to ask for service dog identification, or about the nature of the handler’s disability.
  • No person with a service dog can be denied transportation or required to sit in a specific spot, even if there is a “No Pets” policy on said transportation.

Emotional Support Animal

  • Animals who are trained to provide emotional support do NOT qualify as a service animal under the ADA.
  • An ESA can be any domesticated animal, including but not limited to dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, hedgehogs, minipigs, mice and rats.
  • There are no specific training requirements for ESAs, but generally it is assumed that they will not create a nuisance or act inappropriately at home or in public.
  • An ESA is not allowed in public facilities or buildings.
  • ESAs can be denied transportation.

The Similarities between PSDs and ESAs

  • The Fair Housing Act (FHA) states that individuals with service dogs or emotional support animals may not be discriminated against or turned away because of their animal.  Individuals with service or emotional support animals have the right to live in housing where it is stated “No Pets”, and do not have to pay any type of “Pet Rent” or “Pet Deposit.”
    • This includes discrimination based on breed, species, weight, or size.  All housing is required to accommodate any service animal, regardless of their characteristics.
  • The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires both psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals to be allowed in the aircraft cabin if they have shown their credentials to the airline. If your service animal is “in training”, some airlines may not allow the animal in the cabin.  Similarly, if your emotional support animal is of an uncommon species (such as a bird, reptile, etc.) airlines may deny their entry into the cabin. Further, different countries have different laws regarding service and emotional support animals, and it is always in you best interest to research the appropriate legislation before traveling.

We hope this was helpful in your search for a companion.  We would like to say that an animal, for service or otherwise, is a life-long commitment and should be taken seriously. If you are not sure if you’d like to get a service dog or an emotional support animal, it may be beneficial to explore other avenues before bringing an animal into your life.