What is an Emotional Support Animal?
An emotional support animal provides emotional support through companionship. These animals help people struggling with mental health issues by acting as companions. The presence of an animal can be very calming and may alleviate the symptoms of a person’s mental illness. People with conditions such as anxiety or depression can benefit greatly from having one.
Technically, any animal could be an emotional support animal, but dogs are a common choice. Having a dog as an emotional support animal is much more practical than a more exotic animal such as a parrot or peacock. Dogs are easier to care for, and much more accepted in public than some other animals would be.
What’s the difference between a Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal?
The first big difference between these two is that as a rule, only dogs can be Service Animals (though occasionally miniature horses are used in some circumstances). Service Dogs are not pets (though they are no less loved!) but working animals, trained to perform specific tasks. Charities often provide service dogs, though a person who is able afford the costs of training and care could purchase their own service dog. Service dogs and their owners have special rights and legal protections.
Emotional support animals can be of any species, though dogs are a common choice. They can be pets, and they don’t always receive specific training to fulfil their role. Although it varies from country to country, in general a letter from a doctor or therapist is needed for a pet to be designated as an emotional support animal. Having an emotional support dog is a bit like being prescribed medicine: having that dog is a treatment, prescribed by a doctor or therapist; that is vital for your mental health.
Do they need special training?
Emotional Support Animals are a fairly new concept, so the regulations about them are either still being written or are not all-encompassing. They are also very variable in different parts of the world. In general it seems that an Emotional Support Dog does not require special training by law. As their main role is to provide comfort through companionship, specific task-training is not required.
That said, training can be a very good idea in order for an Emotional Support Dog if you plan on bringing them to public areas. A potential support animal’s character should be assessed to see if they are a good fit for the job. An energetic and anxious dog is unlikely to do well as a support dog, but a calm and intelligent dog will probably do well. The good news is that just about any breed of dog can be a support animal, though certain breeds such as Labradors tend to excel at this task.
A trained support dog should be able to behave quietly and politely in public, sit in public areas (such as cafes or parks) without disturbing anyone, are just some of what a good emotional support dog may be expected to do. If you are interested in training your dog to be a support animal, please consult a professional dog trainers, and perhaps a veterinarian, for further advice.
Do Emotional Supports Dogs and their owners have any special rights?
If you have an Emotional Support Dog, depending on where you are in the world, you may have particular rights regarding your dog. For example, in the USA, if you provide a letter from a mental health practitioner or doctor that supports your need for an emotional support animal, you should be given rights such as access to no-pets housing or being allowed to fly with your animal.
Some countries do not recognise emotional support animals. Although a person may benefit from having a dog or other animal for therapeutic reasons, they and their animal have no special rights the way service dogs do.
Pet Peeves and Canine Controversy
Unfortunately, Emotional Support Animals have become controversial due to people misusing and abusing the term. Many people attempt to pass off untrained pets as support animals. These dogs are often not trained to behave as proper assistance animals. At best, they may cause inconvenience, and at worst, they can be dangerous to other people and animals.
Many people obtain fake documentation to “prove” that their dog is a service dog, when in fact in many countries no official documentation for emotional support animals exists. They may also buy vests emblazoned with the words “therapy dog” or “service dog” to make their dog seem like a convincing service animal. The reality is that in many countries (such as the USA), there is NO official registry for emotional support animals. If someone tries to prove otherwise with documentation, they are either lying or mistaken.
Another common ploy is acquiring a false letter from a mental health practitioner or doctor; in some countries your emotional support animal will be recognised and given certain rights (such as taking your dog on an airplane) if you provide this letter, so this is a common deception.
Pretending that your dog is a service animal has detrimental effects on people who need real emotional support animals. Poorly trained animals and deceptive owners give all people with emotional support animals (and even service dogs) a bad name.
An unruly “emotional support dog” that walks into a restaurant barking at customers and stealing food, while its owner fails to rein it in, will make that establishment unlikely to accept more people with support dogs (shops, restaurants and other establishments are entitled to have a no-dogs policy, except in the case of service dogs). This makes life more difficult for people who genuinely need emotional support dogs due to mental health issues.