Last Updated: May 22nd, 2023
Many people keep companion animals because they bring joy and unconditional love into their lives. But some animals have an even more targeted role to play in the mental health of their humans. These are Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD).
Emotional Support Animals (ESA) provide comfort and companionship to their humans in stressful times. While ESAs are often dogs, they can be almost any animal, including cats, horses, rabbits, ducks, ferrets—or even snakes.
Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD), on the other hand, are dogs that have been trained to help people with mental illnesses that limit their ability to live independently. Such illnesses include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Like other service dogs, PSAs perform specific tasks that their person would have difficulty accomplishing on their own.
Their ability to take a specific action is what differentiate Psychiatric Service Dogs from Emotional Support Animals.
For example, a PSD for a person suffering from debilitating anxiety would be trained to calm their person by:
• bringing anti-anxiety medicine during an anxiety attack
• placing their weight on the person’s chest or lap to provide a sense of grounding
• interrupting an emotional spiral by providing tactile stimulation, such as licking the person’s face, or
• leading the person to someone who can provide further assistance.
PSAs differ from emotional support animals in that under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), only dogs can fulfill this function.
Obtaining a Psychiatric Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal
To obtain a Psychiatric Service Dog, you’ll need a signed statement from your therapist or healthcare provider. This document will confirm that you have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disability that requires the assistance of a service dog.
Experts generally recommend looking for a professionally-trained service dog. These dogs will know how to perform the tasks you need help with. They’ll also remain calm and focused even in hectic circumstances. If you know how, you can train your PSA yourself.
For an Emotional Support Animal, you’ll need a formal letter from a mental health professional. This letter will state that you have an emotional disability (without specifying which one) and that a support animal could assist with symptoms.
An ESA doesn’t have to be specially trained, so a pet may become an emotional support animal if it provides assistance related to an emotional disability. However, the animal should be well-behaved whenever it’s out in public.
PSDs and ESAs: Housing and Public Spaces
PSDs and ESAs do not have equal rights. The ADA entitles Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD) to accompany their human into all public spaces, including restaurants, hospitals, stores, schools, and hotels. The Fair Housing Act permits them to live with their humans in many types of public and private housing.
The ADA does not guarantee support animals access to public spaces, including shops or restaurants. However, the Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against renters with a valid ESA letter.
Psychiatric Service Dog, Emotional Support Animal and Air Travel
If you plan to travel with a PSD or an ESA, you’ll need to plan ahead.
Federal law requires airlines to accept Psychiatric Service Dogs in the cabin at no charge to the owner.
Make sure to complete the Department of Transportation Service Animal Transportation Form. This is the most important document you’ll absolutely need to travel with a Psychiatric Service Dogs. Other document to bring include the PSD letter.
This form attests to the PSD’s official status as a trained service dog and its general health and must be submitted at least 48 hours prior to the flight.
In contrast, airlines get to decide whether or not they accept emotional support animals. Those that do essentially treat them as a carry-on pets and charge a carry-on pet-fee. Make sure to bring the ESA letter with you to travel safely.
If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll need to make sure you won’t run into trouble bringing your PSD or ESA back into the U.S.
With some exceptions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not allow people to bring either type of animal back into the country if they’ve been in a place deemed high risk for dog rabies for longer than six months. This is a temporary restriction, so check the CDC’s website to see if it’s still in effect during your travel period.
Talk to a Skilled Therapist to Learn Other Coping Strategies
A service dog or support animal can be a wonderful aide, but it’s important to also focus on your broader mental health goals. Additional strategies and therapies can supplement your use of a psychiatric service dog, from meditation to improved nutrition to medication.
Therapy can also help you develop strategies and tools to use during moments of intense anxiety or other emotional disturbance to help you self-regulate while traveling.
A therapist can help you develop a long-term strategy for dealing with complex psychiatric issues, whether that plan involves a service dog, support animal, or a mix of therapies.
Remember: You don’t have to handle this on your own. At Manhattan Mental Health Counseling, we offer easy, affordable, and high-quality therapy in person and online. Contact us today to be matched with a therapist.