Emotional Support Dogs and Psychiatric Service Dog: Are they the Same?

In Emotional Support Animal, Service Animal by Michael

Is an Emotional Support Dogs the same thing as a Psychiatric Service Dog?

No, definitely not.

There are actually three terms that we need to distinguish here, because people often often confuse them:

  1. Service Dog
  2. Emotional Support Dog
  3. Psychiatric Support Dog.

Though these three categories of helper dogs sound similar, they’re very difference.

Service Dog

Service dogs have special abilities to help the disabled. These include leader dogs for the blind, mobility assistance dogs and seizure response dogs. Though they may provide great companionship, their primary function is not a companion pet – it’s to use a special ability to assist a disabled person. They rely on extensive training and their unique abilities to allow a disabled person to better attend to their needs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that places of business and public places allow people who require service animals to bring them along. It is generally against the law in the U.S. to forbid entry of a service animal to a business.

Service animals are usually acquired through non-profit organizations.

Emotional Support Dog

Emotional Support Dogs provide emotional support. They are the most common type of emotional support animal, or ESA. They don’t necessarily have special training. Their only requirement is that they provide relief to some type of emotional or mental condition, usually just through their presence. Of course, they should also behave well in public, especially if the owner has a letter certifying that they’re allowed on flights.

For your pet to be an emotional support animal, you must have a verifiable mental disability that is improved with the presence of an ESA. To prove this, a letter from a mental health professional is often requested in situations where the pet is not otherwise allowed, such as in certain housing or on flights.

Emotional support dogs are very different than service dogs, though the two are often confused. People coming to this site are interested in emotional support animals, NOT service animals.

Though people with ESAs have certain rights, those rights differ greatly than those who require service animals. Owners do not have the right to bring their emotional support animal with them into a business. However, an ESA is allowed in housing that otherwise restricts pets. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 requires that housing provide “reasonable accommodation” to people with disabilities. Since ESAs are not technically pets, landlords are not allowed to charge a pet fee to accommodate an ESA.

The ADA is very clear that emotional support dogs are distinct from service animals and are not covered under the ADA:

“Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” – How ‘Service Animal’ Is Defined on ada.gov

Beyond housing privileges, emotional support dogs are also allowed to fly in the cabin of commercial aircraft. With proper documentation, the Air Carrier Access Act allows people with a mental disability to be accompanied on flights by an emotional support animal.

Airlines are not allowed to charge you extra to allow your ESA to accompany you.

To qualify for an emotional support dog (or other emotional support animal), a letter from a health professional (typically licensed mental health practitioner, but also a physician) is required. verifying that the emotional support animal would provide some degree of comfort, is provided.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

“Pyschiatric Service Dog” sounds like it could be another term for an ESA. After all, people who seek ESAs often have psychiatric issues, such as generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD, etc. However, psychiatric service dogs are very different than ESAs.

Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained to assist with certain psychiatric conditions. In fact, they’re just a specific type of service dog. There are many different specialities of service dog, like a leader dog for the blind, an autism service dog or a hearing service dog.  Psychiatric service dogs are just another category.

Wikipedia illustrates the type of training that psychiatric service dogs may undergo in to assist their handler:

“Training to mitigate a psychiatric disability may include providing environmental assessment (in such cases as paranoia or hallucinations), signaling behaviors (such as interrupting repetitive or injurious behaviors), reminding the handler to take medication, retrieving objects, guiding the handler from stressful situations, or acting as a brace if the handler becomes dizzy.”

Of course, psychiatric service dogs are protected under the ADA, just as all service dogs are.

The bottom line is that there’s a big difference between service dogs (psychiatric or otherwise) and emotional support dogs. The training involved and the rights of the owner differ greatly. For those of you seeking the companion of a dog to alleviate mental or emotional issues, be sure to use the term “emotional support animal” or “emotional support dog.” Using the term “service dog” is not accurate – that term should be reserved for dogs that lead the blind, warn about an impending seizure, etc.