Guide to Psychiatric Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Women pets ESA dog at desk

There’s a lot of heated conversation over the increased popularity of Emotional Support animals and people improperly claiming their dog as a Service Animal. When people present their dog as a Service Animal but they don’t behave like a specially trained Service Animal, people with legitimate disabilities suffer the consequences. People with psychiatric disabilities, which tend to be invisible disabilities, are likely to face increased conflict due to fake Service Animals. Because of misuse, business owners and landlords have become skeptical of dogs supporting their handlers with psychiatric disabilities when in fact Psychiatric Service Dogs are in incredibly high demand and can provide life changing support.

First it’s important to cover the difference between a Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal.

A Service Animal is specially trained to perform a task that directly assists a person with their disability.

Under the American Disability Act, Service Animals are permitted to accompany their handlers almost anywhere the general public can go. To determine if a dog is a Service Animal, a person may only ask two questions.

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability.
  2. What work or task is the dog trained to perform.

It is not permitted to ask about the nature of a person’s disability, require documentation, or ask to see the task. Even so, some staff expect to see identification, so many people choose to voluntarily identify their Service Animal with ID cards, vests, or other identifiers to avoid conflict in the first place.

An Emotional Support Animal provides general comfort and emotional wellbeing.

They require general behavioral training. ESAs do not have the same access as Service Animals, but they are permitted to travel in airplane cabins with their owners and are generally exempt from your lease/landlord’s pet policy. Each airline has slightly different requirements for traveling with an ESA so it’s best to check with the airline each time and provide documentation in advance. Landlords or commercial buildings often expect to see a certificate stating the animal is an ESA. This should be enough for them to provide reasonable accommodation in accordance with the Fair House Housing Act.

Therapy Dogs volunteer with handlers at schools, hospitals, or nursing homes, and provide comfort in high stress situations.

Therapy dogs do not have special access outside of their volunteer programs.

By definition, to have a Service Animal, you must have a disability that your animal directly helps you cope with.

Some psychiatric disabilities that may be lessened by a Psychiatric Service Animal include severe depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, and panic attacks. Symptoms or conditions that may be associated with these disorders could be OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, Paranoia, or Schizophrenia. In any case, if the mental disorder impairs or limits one or more of your daily life activities, it may be considered to be a disability.

There is no checking a box to determine if you have a disability, rather if you are unable to go about your routine, for example, showing up to work on time, missing social events, or you’re unable to complete essential tasks like buying groceries, you most certainly will qualify as dealing with a disability.

Just like other Service Dogs, Psychiatric Service Animals support their handler with a task that helps them cope.

Specifically, they help people who suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, phobias or other trauma. Tasks they may be trained to perform can include:

  • Detecting warning signs of an anxiety or panic attack before it begins
  • Fetching medication or other form of relief during an anxiety or panic attack
  • Bringing someone to help the person in distress
  • Creating space between others and the person in distress
  • Creating a distraction during an attack such as licking or pawing, or applying deep pressure to calm their handler
  • Performing a sweep of a room for people with PTSD

In accordance with the ADA any person may independently train their service dog to perform a task related to their disability or seek support through a private trainer or specialized organization. Pawsitivity Service Dogs trains dogs to support people with psychiatric disabilities as well as Autism and Epilepsy.

Training your dog yourself does have its benefits.

It’s nearly free, happens on your schedule, and creates an unbreakable bond between the handler and dog. A book we always recommend for any foundational training is The Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller. We also recommend Training Your Own Service Dog and Psychiatric Service Bundle by Max Matthews which has detailed instructions and information on Service Animal laws and expectations. Training your own Psychiatric Service Animal is a wonderful way to invest your time and effort towards improving your ability to cope with a disability.

Fundamental dog training   Training service dog and psychiatric service animals

If you are looking to improve your mental wellbeing but don’t have a condition that affects your daily routine, you may still benefit from the presence of an Emotional Support Animal.

Just being around dogs can have wide reaching benefits such as getting more exercise, spending time outdoors, experiencing companionships, and finding relief from stress. Exercise and spending time in nature can improve symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve a person’s mood.

The presence of a dog can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which is not only emotionally painful, it is destructive to the body. Social isolation triggers cellular changes that result in chronic inflammation, predisposing people who are lonely to serious physical conditions like heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. And having a family dog has shown to reduce anxiety in children.

It’s no wonder Emotional Support Animals have increased so much in popularity.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect almost 20% of adults in the United States and less than 40% seek or receive treatment. Those affected may experience restlessness, sleeplessness, fatigue, issues with concentration, irritability, elevated heart rate, shaking, and shortness of breath. Preceding an event people can experience extreme worry, feeling out of control and the sense of impending doom and panic.

When these symptoms become unmanageable a person’s entire life can be affected. They may withdraw from friends, skip social events, and may even be affected at work, impacting their ability to hold a job and support themselves financially.

Employees with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations that will allow them to do their work. An accommodation may be a change to their environment, a modified schedule, or in some cases, accommodating a Psychiatric Service Animal. If you are personally in need of an accommodation, it’s your responsibility to make a request with your employer.

If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or other psychological ailments, it’s important to understand how it’s affecting your life.

Assess how frequently and how severely your routine is affected. Ask yourself, could the symptoms be improved with better diet and exercise, or is it something more serious that could benefit from therapeutic or medical intervention. Getting a dog is a serious and lifelong commitment that won’t solve a serious problem overnight. If it’s a commitment you’re ready to embark on, consider how a dog could best support you or a loved one – as a family pet, an Emotional Support Animal, or a Service Animal.

Now that you understand how Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals can support people with different needs, you can select the best fit for you or your family and identify your dog responsibly.


To VOLUNTARILY identify your dog as a service dog or emotional support animal, register below.

Register your dog as a Service Dog, ESA, or Therapy Dog and obtain your digital certification immediately.


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