Contrary to popular belief, there is not an officially recognized certification or training for emotional support animals or psychiatric service dogs. So how can you go about getting a service animal?
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Only dogs are legally considered service animals. Other domestic animals are covered only as emotional support animals or therapy animals.
Qualifying for a service dog is simple. However, getting one is not. To qualify for a service animal, all you need to do is get written documentation from your healthcare provider that you have and are being treated for an emotional or psychiatric disorder or disability and require the support or assistance of an animal to help alleviate your health issue. Service dogs can be obtained through professional organizations or the handler can train the dog themselves, which can be very difficult. Getting and/or training a service animal can take years.
Think about what your specific needs are. Is this animal going to assist you in tasks you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do? Are they primarily going to provide companionship, non-judgmental positive regard, and affection? There tends to be some confusion about the differences among working animals, so knowing the facts can help you make a decision that is best for you.
A psychiatric service dog (PSD) is a specific type of service animal trained to assist those with psychiatric or mental disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder. For example, a dog may assist someone with PTSD in doing room searches or turning on lights, or help someone in a dissociative episode from wandering into danger. The work a dog has been trained to do must specifically relate to one’s disability. Only PSDs are covered under ADA for entry into public places that do not allow pets. Having a vest or harness is common, but not legally required, particularly if it interferes with the dog’s ability to complete tasks. Providing companionship, calming anxiety, comforting or providing a sense of safety merely by its presence are not all legally considered "tasks" and the dog would not qualify as a PSD. If it sounds like you need an animal that helps you with these activities, you might consider getting an emotional support animal.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is any domestic animal whose presence mitigates the emotional or psychological symptoms associated with a handler’s condition or disorder. They do not need to be trained to perform a specific task and generally require little training, so long as they are well-behaved by pet standards. ESAs are covered under the Fair Housing Act. This allows people with an ESA to have their pet in their home even if there is a "no pet" policy. The law also prohibits the charging of additional security deposits and pet fees for ESAs. ESAs are also permitted to travel in the cabin of airplanes with their handlers free of charge. Most airlines have a pre-approval process that will include documentation from the individual's healthcare provider.
Therapy animals are used in animal-assisted therapy or for therapeutic visitation. Perhaps a handler brings a dog to a nursing home to visit bed-bound people. Or a horse may be used in equestrian therapy. Therapy animals provide affection and comfort to people, but they are different than PSDs or ESAs.
Before getting a working animal, it is important to seriously consider the responsibilities that come with taking care of a service animal. Not everyone with a disability makes a good candidate for a service dog or other animal. Service animals are a big commitment and you should consider if you are able to care for its physical, mental, and monetary needs before getting one.
For more information and to learn more about your specific rights check out these resources from the ADA: