assistance dog

For a person coping with a disabling condition, an emotional support animal (ESA) can provide comfort and companionship. But as the number of emotional support animals increases, so does confusion about what they are and where they’re allowed to go.

“There has been a significant rise in the number of ESAs in recent years, likely due to the increased awareness around assistance dogs for people with physical and sensory disabilities,” says Jeanine Konopelski, national director of marketing for Canine Companions for Independence. The California-based non-profit trains assistance dogs but not emotional support animals.

“Emotional support animals do not have public access or require training, so they are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Konopelski explains. Service dogs, who go through years of training, are allowed public access under the ADA.

Where They’re Allowed

So where are emotional support animals allowed to go?

“They are recognized under the Air Carrier Access Act to fly on planes and the Fair Housing Act to allow emotional support animals in housing where pet dogs are not allowed,” Konopelski says.

Under the Fair Housing Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the key requirement to have a pet live in a space where they’re not usually allowed is that the “animal mitigates or provides a therapeutic benefit related to the disability,” says Rebecca Wisch, a lawyer and associate editor of Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center.

“If the person is disabled due to major depression or panic disorder, for instance, the animal must help to ease the symptoms of that particular disability. So, to that end, any animal that fulfills that role can be an ESA.

“I am cautious to use the word ‘pet,’” Wisch adds, “because HUD specifically states ‘an assistance animal is not a pet.’”

Typically, Wisch says, a person who wants permission for an emotional support animal to live with them makes a request to a housing provider. The tenant can be asked to provide a letter from their physician, psychiatrist or therapist explaining their need for the animal.

“These letters are the only proof on good faith of a practitioner that they have certified both the proof of disability and the legitimate need for an ESA,” Konopelski says.

Beware of Online Registries

There is no further training or certification process for ESAs, despite what you might read online.

A quick Internet search about emotional support animals results in many sites claiming to be registries for the animals, but they are typically “not legitimate due to the fact that there is no legal requirement to register either an assistance dog or an ESA,” Konopelski says.

“Registries typically require substantial fees for the certifying materials for ESAs and erode the good-faith practice of medical and mental health professionals who recommend the use of ESAs to benefit a person with a mental health or emotional disability,” she warns.

Ripe for Confusion

While the increase in emotional support animals may be helpful to people they assist, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

“Significant confusion within the public, including outside of airlines and housing, has occurred surrounding the access rights of emotional support animals,” Konopelski says. “Most public entities are either unclear [about] or hesitant to enforce access laws which restrict the presence of ESAs in their facilities due to this confusion.

“The implications for legitimate assistance dogs are enormous,” she says. “ESAs do not require behavioral training and can cause harmful effects on working assistance dogs, including a denial of access due to previous negative experiences with dogs in the public space or physical threat to the working assistance dog from out-of-control ESAs or fraudulent assistance dogs.”

Despite this confusion, neither Konopelski or Wisch knows of any movement to standardize the training of ESAs.

“Since the purpose of the ESA is to comfort, calm or support an individual with an emotional disability, I am not sure there can ever be any specific training,” Wisch notes. “Each assistance animal is evaluated individually as is each attempt to reasonably accommodate the disability.”

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