As of 5.21.20, we have edited this post based on feedback received from members of the service animal community. We have made the following edits to clearly convey what an emotional support animal is (and is not) and how they differ from a service animal:
- Any mention of “registration” has been removed to clarify that service animals of any kind do not require registration in the United States, and their owners should not purchase such registration.
- We removed any links to organizations that sell emotional service animal registration letters and we regret to have included these in our original post.
- We included a link to The American with Disabilities Act for a legal definition of what a service animal is as compared to an emotional support animal.
- We elaborated on the legal protections afforded to service animals and noted the differences for emotional support animals.
May is Mental Health Month. The purpose of this month is to raise awareness and start conversations around mental health issues, break the stigma around the topic, and provide resources to improve people’s mental health. In that spirit, we are highlighting emotional support dogs as a resource for those in need.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, an emotional support dog provides “companionship and emotional support for people diagnosed with a psychological disorder” and “are documented by a letter from a human health professional.”
The benefits of working with an emotional support dog
The CDC highlights the benefits of having a dog as contributing to decreased blood pressure, a decreased sense of loneliness, and increased opportunities for socialization. For those dealing with depression, dogs are known to decrease stress and anxiety and provide constant companionship. On a deeper level, dogs can give an individual with a mental health issue a greater sense of purpose. Having a pet to care for offers a sense of perspective outside of oneself and motivation to stay productive on their behalf.
Gigi Griffis, an owner of an emotional support dog, spoke to how her dog Luna helped her through her depression. For her, “ESAs are about the freedom and health of a disabled person. They are about allowing someone with an invisible disability the same freedom—to visit their families, move across the country, or simply find a place to live”.
Emotional support dogs vs. service dogs
It’s easy to mix up the two terms in passing conversation, but they serve very different functions. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The AKC explains that the key difference between them is that service dogs are trained to perform a specific task to mitigate their owner’s disability. Such tasks that relate to mental health may be to “remind a person to take prescribed medications” or to “perform room searches for a person with post-traumatic stress disorder.” Another major difference is that service dogs have public access rights. Emotional support animals can be denied entry to public places such as restaurants or stores.
An emotional support dog does not require training; they only need to be considered a benefit to a patient’s mental health by a professional such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. The Americans with Disabilities Act specifies that “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals .”
Please note: the only way to have a dog prescribed to you as an emotional support animal is with a letter from a licensed mental health professional such as a therapist. Emotional support dogs are a good option for people who already go to a therapist and have an ongoing dialogue with them. It is not recommended to start going to a therapist for the sole intent of getting a letter for an emotional support animal. In addition, depending on where you live, falsely presenting a dog as a service dog is illegal and can be fined.
Breeds especially suited for emotional support
An emotional support dog can be any breed or mix of breeds as long as they form a bond with their owner. There are certain qualities found in specific breeds that are helpful, though.
Labradors are often placed as service dogs because of their gentle demeanor and loyalty. A Labrador’s calm and steady temperament makes it a great fit for emotional support.
One of the most popular family dogs makes a great companion for emotional support. Goldens are calm, friendly, and eager to please. They are also highly trainable.
This breed is highly affectionate and will help with feelings of loneliness and isolation. They are great for people who have to travel frequently because of their small size.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
This breed is all about forming close bonds with their people and keeping them comfortable. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a constant source of companionship.
As a herding breed, the Border Collie has an instinct to check in on its flock to make sure everything’s okay. This highly intelligent, sweet, and loyal dog requires a lot of exercise, which in itself is a great source of stress relief.
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, please visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264).