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Navigating the World of Emotional Support Dogs: A Comprehensive Guide

Emotional support dog with her owner

Written by The Halo Team

February 1, 2024

Getting an emotional support animal (ESA) offers more than the joy of companionship, providing a transformative alliance that promotes emotional stability and well-being.

In this guide, we help you learn the difference between emotional assistance animals and service animals so you understand the legal implications and requirements. Plus, we explain the importance of having a mental health diagnosis and a letter from a licensed mental health professional to receive accommodations. In addition, you’ll discover the emotional and psychological benefits and learn how to choose an emotional support dog and obtain the necessary training and certification requirements.

Emotional Support Dogs vs. Service Dogs

An ESA is a companion animal that helps soothe the challenging emotions that come with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. On the other hand, a service animal is defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act as a dog that’s individually trained to perform tasks someone with a disability is unable to do.

What’s more, the act specifically states that an emotional support dog isn’t a service animal because providing emotional support isn’t directly related to a person’s disability.

For example, someone with a mental disability such as severe post-traumatic stress disorder might have a psychiatric service dog that’s trained to lick their hand before a panic attack or provide deep pressure therapy. Likewise, someone with a physical impairment such as epilepsy might need a seizure-response dog to keep them safe. A service dog is only given to someone who qualifies to receive federal financial assistance.

Another federal law clearly stating that companion animals aren’t considered service animals is the Air Carrier Access Act. It states that service animals (for example, psychiatric service dogs and mobility assistance dogs) receive extensive training to perform specific tasks that benefit a qualified individual with a disability. That might mean a physical, sensory, intellectual or psychiatric disability.

That said, an ESA has a recognized therapeutic benefit, helping ease symptoms of mental illness that can make daily functioning challenging. In addition, people with emotional support animals are entitled to reasonable accommodations when it comes to housing, provided you have a legitimate emotional support animal letter. Only licensed mental health professionals can provide this type of letter.

Then there’s another category — therapy animals. Unlike service dogs and emotional support dogs, which typically offer therapeutic benefits to a single owner, therapy animals visit locations such as hospitals and schools to offer support to a wide range of people.

The Emotional and Psychological Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a mental health professional can prescribe an ESA. Usually, an ESA is a dog or, less frequently, a miniature horse.

Whether it’s a debilitating moment of anxiety or panic attack — or any other mental health condition — an emotional companion dog can help in a number of ways, such as:

  • Providing unconditional regard to its owner, promoting emotional stability
  • Helping people get into a consistent routine
  • Helping the person regulate emotions and self-soothe by distracting them from negative thought patterns and feelings
  • Helping people manage and reduce stress — experts say pets lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar
  • Providing a sense of connectedness to people who live alone by sharing their home with an ESA
  • Promoting regular physical exercise, particularly for dog owners, and physical activity that can help ease depression symptoms
  • Increasing the probability of meeting other pet owners on walks or when visiting the grooming salon, promoting social connection and relieving feelings related to isolation

Teenage girl with her cute dog resting on green grass

Choosing the Right Emotional Support Dog

Typically, a domesticated animal is better as an ESA than an exotic animal because its species has lived alongside people for thousands of years and developed a special bond. Most experts agree that dogs, with their uniquely close relationship to humans, make the best ESAs.

Here are some traits to prioritize when choosing an emotional support dog:

  • A calm, friendly temperament
  • Being intuitive about emotional needs and reacting reassuringly to sadness and fear
  • No signs of aggression
  • A breed that’s easily trainable, such as a Labrador retriever, golden retriever, poodle or Cavalier King Charles spaniel
  • An animal that’s affectionate but not clingy to avoid placing an emotional burden on the person seeking support

Emotional Support Animal Legal Rights and Responsibilities

Emotional support animals are regulated by federal, state and local laws, so it’s important to check the rules regarding ESA ownership with government agencies in your area. Some regulations are universal.

For example, unlike a psychiatric service dog or other service animal, the U.S. Department of Transport doesn’t give an emotional support animal special considerations during air travel.

Likewise, the Fair Housing Act applies to all states, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dictating certain provisions. Crucially, housing providers must make reasonable accommodations to permit ESA owners, even if pet policies prohibit regular pets. Other accommodations include:

  • Imposing breed or size limits is prohibited.
  • No pet deposit is required.
  • Any pet fee should be waived.

To qualify, you need proper documentation of a DSM-5 recognized mental illness and a letter from a mental health professional. As an ESA owner, you must provide your pet with adequate care, comply with local laws and regulations and maintain its health records.

Training and Certification for Emotional Support Dogs

It’s crucial that your emotional support dog is well-trained in basic commands, socialization and obedience, using positive behavior reinforcement as the main motivator. Address behavioral issues creatively as an opportunity to bond and grow together, and be patient and consistent while working through them. While there’s no formal certification for ESAs, you must make sure your companion animal’s status is ESA registered.

Tools such as the Halo Collar 3 can help you deliver positive reinforcement during training, keep it safe during off-leash sessions and provide consistent and immediate feedback.

Living With an Emotional Support Dog Prescribed by a Licensed Mental Health Professional

Welcoming an emotional support dog into your home means establishing a consistent routine and prioritizing its needs. It’s crucial that you can afford proper nutrition, veterinary care and vaccinations and have time to dedicate to emotional support dog training and socialization protocols. Invest in tech like the Halo Collar 3, which has a virtual ringfence to keep your dog safe and prevent you from stressing over boundaries. In return for the joy and companionship your ESA brings, be sure to provide it with a safe and happy environment.

Challenges and Solutions

Here are some common challenges and solutions to be aware of when it comes to having an emotional support animal.

  • Public misconceptions: The most common challenge people with an ESA face is stigma or judgment from people who don’t understand the role of an emotional support dog. Combat this by sharing your experience and educating people on the benefits of a companion animal for mental health.
  • Behavioral concerns: Because an emotional support animal isn’t bound by rules or regulations regarding extensive training like a service animal, you should seek to provide the very best training or consider working with a professional dog trainer to prevent any risky behaviors taking root.
  • Community support: Many people who require emotional support animals lack a support network. Don’t feel bad if that resonates with you! Join your local ESA community or find a group online where you can share experiences and insights.

Empowering Your Journey With Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support animals and the unconditional companionship they provide can play a vital role in enhancing well-being and relieving stress. Through attentive care, you can build a lifelong bond that contributes to improved emotional self-regulation for many people.

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