Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: Emotional support animals

6-month old Bruno. Photo courtesy of Bruno's mom.

I am in need of an emotional support animal. I suffer from anxiety and am prescribed quite a lot of drugs to help me with certain situations. If I had a trained ESA dog, I could take less medication and feel a whole lot calmer; I know this because I have a medical background and have owned a dog all my life. I’ve researched Service Dog Associations and ESA organizations extensively, and cannot find the help I need.

I hope you, with all your experience, will be able to answer some of my questions:

      – What qualifies a dog to be an ESA?

      – Can a qualified trainer train a dog to be an ESA dog?

      – Could you be my ESA trainer?

      – Is there a completion certificate available to prove that one has an ESA dog?

      – Can I take my ESA dog on public transportation?

      – Will I be asked to prove that I have an ESA dog if I go into a store?

Well, I hope those aren’t too many questions. And I really hope you can train my dog. His name is Bruno, and he’s only 6 months old. Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. Hope to hear from you soon!

Bruno’s Mom

Dear Bruno’s Mom,

The qualifications for an ESA dog (emotional support animal) are pretty basic, as opposed to a “service” or “assistance” dog. The “service” dog is trained to perform specific skills, such as a guide dog for the blind, or a dog trained to alert its owner to an impending seizure. Service dog training requires much more conditioning, and is intense and specific to the needs of the disability, as opposed to the requirements of the ESA dog. The emotional support dog is not trained to perform a specific task, but his presence is soothing, and therefore beneficial to the owner. Truthfully, the first thing that’s needed for an ESA dog is some luck: luck in that the dog you get to be an emotional support animal doesn’t have serious issues. If your prospective ESA dog is impossible to housebreak, or suffers from severe separation anxiety, or is aggressive with other dogs, anxiety may well outweigh the support you’re looking for. So the qualifications for an ESA dog are a cuddly personality and basic manners. He needs to be confident, friendly, and well-mannered. No crotch sniffing or jumping on friends and neighbors, no excessive barking or darting after squirrels, or taking the lollipop out of your granddaughter’s mouth. Service dogs are regulated by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) for public access, including public transportation and some rail travel.

Service dog owners are generally allowed to rent in most “no pets” housing under the Fair Housing Act. The ADA, however, does not recognize emotional support animals, which are therefore not allowed in public places such as restaurants, stores, etc., which are not already pet-friendly. However, ESAs are allowed to fly in the cabin alongside the owner with written documentation from a physician supporting the owner’s need for the emotional support. Also, according to the FHA (Fair Housing Act), most ESA dogs are allowed in most no-pets housing, with written documentation. Other than a doctor’s documentation, I’m not aware of an ESA certificate per se. Can I train your dog to be an ESA? To quote someone I would have never have voted for, “You betcha!”

Best of luck,

The Dogcharmer