Emotional Support Dogs — What to Know About Certification, Public Access and How to Get One

A happy Golden Retriever dog looking up and smiling.
A happy Golden Retriever dog looking up and smiling. Photography ©KalebKroetsch | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

There’s a lot of misinformation online about emotional support dogs (and service dogs, for that matter). There are kits marketed on social media and just about everywhere that guarantee they’ll certify your dog as an emotional support dog. It can be hard to know what’s real, and what’s a scam. Plus, emotional support animals have been getting a lot of negative attention in the news, especially after a woman attempted to board a United Airlines flight claiming that her peacock was an emotional support animal.

It can be hard to understand what is legally allowed — what an emotional support dog is, who qualifies for one, and how emotional support dogs are different from service dogs. Let’s address some of those questions about emotional support dogs here.

What are the differences between emotional support dogs and service dogs?

A therapy or emotional support dog in a hospital.
What is the difference between emotional support dogs and service dogs? Photography ©monkeybusinessimages | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Emotional support dogs and service dogs often get confused as the same thing, particularly when it comes to psychiatric service dogs versus emotional support dogs. But there’s a big difference between having an emotional support dog and working with a service dog. (Learn more about service dogs, all the different jobs they do, and how they work to assist people with different kinds of disabilities here.)

A common misconception is that everyone can have or is entitled to emotional support dogs. But, similar to service dogs, you must have a disability and emotional support dogs must be prescribed by a doctor.

Emotional support dogs may live with their disabled owners in housing, even if the house or apartment isn’t dog friendly, but in many ways that is where the similarities between service dogs and emotional support dogs end. Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks that mitigate the disabilities of their owners. Emotional support dogs are prescribed because their mere presence provides comfort, but they have no specialized training. Emotional support dogs are not permitted to accompany their owners to public places where dogs aren’t allowed (with a few specific exceptions).

Where are emotional support animals allowed?

Service dogs can go anywhere with their disabled handlers. Emotional support dogs do not have public-access rights — meaning they cannot accompany their person into public spaces like stores and restaurants, with the exception of businesses that are dog friendly. Before you take your emotional support dog to any place or on a carrier (see below for details on emotional support dogs on airplanes), read the place or carrier’s policy to see if they allow dogs and what documentation is needed.

Emotional support dogs are allowed to live with their disabled owners in any housing, regardless of if that house or apartment is dog/pet friendly. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD’s Fair Housing Act covers the right to keep an emotional support dog.

The HUD Fair Housing Act states: “The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in policies or practices when a person with a disability requires such accommodations, including refusing to allow a live-in aide and refusing to grant waivers to ‘no-pet’ policies for persons who require assistance or support animals. Additionally, the law makes it unlawful to make housing unavailable to any person because of a disability.” 

What about having emotional support dogs, and other emotional support pets, on airplane flights?

The Air Carrier Access Act is one blurry aspect of access for emotional support dogs in terms of public access. This act allows both service dogs and emotional support dogs to accompany their owners in the cabin of an aircraft so long as they provide appropriate documentation.

Transportation.gov says: “In the case of someone requesting the accommodation of an emotional support animal, this could include obtaining recent current documentation (i.e., no older than one year from the date of the passenger’s scheduled initial flight) on the letterhead of a licensed mental health professional (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, including a medical doctor specifically treating the passenger’s mental or emotional disability) stating the following: (1) The passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — Fourth Edition (DSM IV); (2) The passenger needs the emotional support animal as an accommodation for the voyage; (3) The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional, and the passenger is under his or her professional care; and (4) The date and type of the mental health professional’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.”

While emotional support dogs are allowed on flights, they can’t be a nuisance or danger to others. Unfortunately, increasing incidents like a recent news story where a child was bitten in the face by an emotional support dog on a Southwest Airlines flight bring up the importance of ensuring that emotional support dogs who are going to accompany their handlers into airports and onto flights are trained to be comfortable being in public, crowded spaces.

Recently, I flew from Los Angeles. In the airport, I saw an emotional support dog wearing a remote shock collar (which is never appropriate!). The dog was very activated by crowds. He was growling and even lunged at a small dog in an under-seat carrier. His owner repeatedly shocked the dog while trying to get through the security line and inquired if she had to remove the shock collar for her dog to go through the metal detector.  Regardless of this handler’s mental-health condition and need for an emotional support dog, it was clear to me that this dog was distressed, and not an appropriate candidate for an emotional support dog in a crowded airport.

Stay tuned this week when we discuss airline safety, rules and regulations for dogs and dog parents. 

How do you get your dog certified as a bonafide emotional support dog?

A human holding a dog paw for support or saying goodbye.
How do you get your dog certified as an emotional support dog? Photography ©sanjagrujic | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

There are a number of online sites claiming to help people turn their pets into emotional support dogs. However, there is actually no such thing as a certified emotional support animal. If you have a mental health condition that is debilitating and the presence of a dog improves your condition, or helps ease symptoms of your condition, the best thing to do is to talk with your doctor, therapist or other professional members of your care team. Discuss mental-health benefits that you see from having a dog, and they will be able to determine if you qualify as disabled, and if so will write you a prescription for an emotional support dog.

Though not required, you may also want to meet with a dog trainer. While emotional support dogs don’t have public-access rights in most instances, training is beneficial for all dogs. If you are likely to fly with your emotional support dog, training is particularly important. Also note that if your dog is a nuisance barker, or a safety concern, landlords can request that the dog is removed from the property — regardless of if they are an emotional support dog,

What are the regulations associated with emotional support dogs?

While all of us get emotional benefits from having our dogs around, it doesn’t mean that every person is entitled to have an emotional support dog. Wanting to have a dog but living in a rental property that doesn’t allow pets is not a justifiable reason for an emotional support dog, and neither is worrying about having to fly with a large dog. The only people who are entitled to emotional support dogs are people with diagnosed disabilities, and a healthcare provider must prescribe the dog as part of your overall treatment plan to improve your condition and quality of life.

Tell us: What other questions do you have about emotional support dogs?

Thumbnail: Photography ©KalebKroetsch | iStock / Getty Images Plus. 

Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author. Her novels have been honored by organizations ranging from the Lambda Literary Foundation to the American Library Association. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor and assists with dog agility classes. Sassafras lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, a senior Chihuahua mix, a rescued Shepherd mix and a Newfoundland puppy, along with two bossy cats and a semi-feral kitten. Learn more at www.sassafraslowrey.com.

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14 thoughts on “Emotional Support Dogs — What to Know About Certification, Public Access and How to Get One”

  1. An emotional support system is basically like a living support system for anyone who has mental disabilities or illnesses. This works in the form of therapy for anyone who needs emotional support and companionship. Just think of it like this that the animal is basically helping you to cure your mental issues with its presence. Most mental issues are characterized by anxiety, depression, and feeling of loneliness. A support system offers you a solution to your mental disturbances, and this is where an ESA proves to come in handy. ESA is much different from service animals because it is not trained for a specific purpose. I was not really aware of these differences but then I was diagnosed with anxiety which required me to get an emotional support animal and I came across this article https://esacare.com/adopting-emotional-support-animal-guide/. It is a complete guide and through this, I got what I needed and I am much happier now. The process was very simple and I didn’t have to stress much about it. I guess this provision of ESAs was a brilliant and helpful move for all people needing emotional support. Like it can be any animal. Dog, cat, or guinea pig. The basic thing that matters is these animals fill that emotional void in life.

  2. My dog wakes me up when I stop breathing. I have diagnosed sleep apnea. He paws at me and licks my face until I wake up. I have a letter from doctor. My question is how to get him certified as a Therapy Dog? Is him waking me up a qualified task?

  3. Pingback: Let’s Meet Some of the Best Service Dog Breeds – Etshirtsy

  4. Thanks! People nowadays have a mindset that pets create problems but they don’t see the other side of the coin. Pets provide a lot of benefits allowing pet owners to lead a stress-free life. Pet restrictions in housing and travel can be avoided by getting an emotional support animal letter. To get an ESA letter, you need to show that you are getting emotional support from your pet. This can be done by consulting with an expert doctor like My ESA Doctor.

  5. I have a letter from my health provider so that I can get an emotional support certification. What is the next step that I take?

    1. Hi Nancy,
      This might help:

  6. I get great help from my emotional support animal. When I am in a crisis my dog does her best, by sitting on me, waking me from nightmares, picks things up that I drop. She will stop me from cutting on myself and other things. Richard Hunt, you are wrong about there being no evidence that the disabled get any special benefit. You should speak to K9’s for Warriors, and other real programs. I owner trained my dog and still working on some things with her. The ADA doesn’t not allow people to ask a lot of questions concerning service dogs. I take my dog in public places and tell them she is a Psychiatric Service dog in training. You are only allowed to ask if the animal is a service dog, and does the dog perform tasks for you. I don’t know where I would be without my dog and
    my other support team. this article should have printed the ADA laws too.

    1. Hi Ruth,

      Thanks for writing us. Could you provide a link to the ADA laws you’re referring to, and we will amend the article if we think there is a need?

    2. Hi Ruth,
      I asked my Psychologist today, if he could write something to give to the landlord, to allow me to have a pet (dog) he did….. for Emotional Support… Bi/Polar, severe depression, anxity, ADHD & PTS.
      Q: I live in CA, any dog breed? Like a German Shepard vs Beagle ? My 18 yr old Son murdered 5 yrs ago shortly My dog “Sammy” became painfully ill. So, I had to put him down. We had to move and the owner of home we leased said NO animals… She was insensitive…
      Or who can I call?
      Thank you in advance Ms Ruth…Audrey

  7. Thanks for this overview of a complicated subject, especially the mention of talking to a mental health professional. Unfortunately, many people think that suffering from any kind of mental impairment (depression, anxiety, PTSD etc) makes them disabled. In fact a disability requires an impairment that significantly interferes with a major life activity. Many people with the kinds of impairments listed above do not meet this requirement and are not disabled. Being stressed out is not a disability; nor is feeling bad. There is also almost no evidence that people with these kinds of impairments, even when they are disabled, get any special benefit from an emotional support animal. Unfortunately the complex business of deciding whether someone is really disabled and what will help them has been ignored because of the noise created by those who abuse the law for profit.

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