Should You Get an Emotional Support Dog? | All Points North

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Should You Get an Emotional Support Dog?

Written by Lauren Doucher

He was a battle-scarred combat veteran who fought in Afghanistan and was now fighting an invisible battle with his own mind. He didn’t like to talk much about either of these but would timidly share he struggled with PTSD and had sustained a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). He was used to figuring things out for himself and wanted to rescue and train his own service dog.

The service dog candidate was a large German Shepherd adopted from a house where he received little to no training. The dog was friendly and eager to learn, but in reality, he was dealing with just as many mental health challenges as his owner. My job as a dog trainer was to do something – anything – to get that German Shepherd to calm down and be more obedient. The owner was committed, and the dog responded well to training, but the reality is that the dog would never fully become a service dog for many reasons. The dog enjoyed having a job and following commands, but his natural anxiety and restlessness would always get in its way. It was almost like he wanted to listen to his owner, but his brain would not stop spinning.

Still, the two of them made a good pair, and the dog’s owner put in hours and hours of work following my recommendations. Months later, the owner showed up at my dog training studio wearing his full military attire and a big smile, saying how well his dog behaved during a Veterans Day event they attended together that day.

Although I may have hung up my dog trainer leash years ago, I still often think about the soldier and his dog. This was one of many cases I dealt with in my “past life” as a professional dog trainer. All too often, people would walk through my doors with a dog they had chosen to be their service dog and inquire about training. And I had to tell them they should have come to me well before bringing their new dog home.

Here’s the deal – there is no doubt that dogs can genuinely help humans struggling with various physical and mental disabilities. But if you have anxiety, PTSD, or another debilitating mental health issue and are considering getting a dog to act as your service dog or emotional support animal, it is strongly recommended that you do a lot of research and seek the help of a professional even before heading to the dog shelter, breeder or pet store. In this post, I decided to share some of my experiences and insights that can benefit someone considering getting a dog for assistance. We will first dive into the differences between a service dog, an emotional support dog, and a therapy dog and discuss whether these types of dogs could benefit your situation – and mistakes to avoid along the way.

What are the differences between a service dog, a therapy dog, and an emotional support dog?

The first important aspect to remember is that the terms service dog, emotional support dog, and therapy dog are not interchangeable and refer to very different canine jobs.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are specially trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities. These disabilities can be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. The primary purpose of a service dog is to mitigate the handler’s disability by performing specific tasks that the individual cannot perform independently. Service dogs undergo rigorous and specialized training, often from a young age. The training process can take months to years, depending on the tasks they must perform and the complexity of the handler’s disability. Common types of service dogs include:

  • Guide Dogs: Assist visually impaired individuals by navigating around obstacles and ensuring safe travel
  • Hearing Dogs: Alert deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals to important sounds such as doorbells, alarms, or a crying baby
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs: Help individuals with physical disabilities by retrieving objects, opening doors, or providing balance support
  • Medical Alert Dogs: Detect changes in their handler’s condition, such as blood sugar levels for diabetics or impending seizures for those with epilepsy. They can alert their handler or a family member and retrieve medication.
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs: Assist individuals with psychiatric disorders by interrupting self-harm behaviors, providing grounding during anxiety attacks, or reminding them to take medication.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are granted significant legal protections. They can accompany their handlers in nearly all public places, including restaurants, stores, and public transportation.

Business owners and employees are generally only permitted to ask two questions to determine if a dog is a service animal:

  1. Is the dog required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

For example, a guide dog can help his visually impaired handler navigate her daily environment safely. The dog assists the handler in crossing streets, avoiding obstacles, and finding specific locations, such as the handler’s favorite coffee shop or the entrance to her office building. A psychiatric service dog can help his owner with PTSD navigate public spaces and physically block people from approaching its handler from behind. The dog can also assist the owner during panic attacks.

Emotional Support Dogs

In contrast, emotional support dogs (ESDs) provide comfort and support to individuals with emotional or mental health conditions. ESDs are not service dogs and are not trained to perform specific tasks related to a disability. Instead, their mere presence is said to offer therapeutic benefits that alleviate symptoms of conditions like anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Most ESDs do not undergo any type of specialized training to perform tasks. Unfortunately, many ESDs lack basic obedience training and do not behave appropriately in public settings where only service dogs are allowed.

Legal protections for ESDs are more limited than those for service dogs. Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), individuals with emotional support animals can live with their pets in housing units that otherwise have no-pet policies. Additionally, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) previously allowed ESDs to accompany their handlers in the cabin of an airplane, but recent updates now treat ESDs as pets rather than service animals. Unlike service dogs, ESDs do not have the right to enter most public places that do not allow pets, and businesses can refuse to allow an ESD and its handler to enter or remain on their premises without suffering any legal repercussions.

Therapy Dogs

Finally, therapy dogs are trained to provide affection, comfort, and support to other people in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas. They are often part of animal-assisted therapy programs and work with a handler to improve the well-being of individuals who benefit from interacting with a friendly, gentle dog.

The key difference between a service dog and a therapy dog is that a service dog performs tasks to benefit its handler, while a therapy dog performs tasks to benefit other people, such as patients in a children’s hospital or victims testifying in a courtroom.

Therapy dogs undergo training to ensure they are well-behaved and comfortable in different environments and situations. They must be social, friendly, and responsive to commands. While they do not perform specific tasks to assist those with disabilities, their role is to provide therapeutic interactions that can enhance the emotional and psychological health of those they visit.

Therapy dogs do not have the same legal protections as service dogs and emotional support dogs. They are only allowed in facilities where they have been invited as part of a therapy program. They do not have public access rights under the ADA or receive special accommodations under the FHA or ACAA.

How Do You Know if a Dog is Right for You?

Okay, so now that you know the difference between the three types of assistance dogs, you need to ask yourself what kind of dog you need. Do you have a specific disability that could be mitigated by a highly-trained service dog, or do you just feel better when your dog is around and would like to bring your pup with you everywhere? Or do you want to make others happy and train your pup as a therapy dog?

Step 1: Talk to Your Therapist

If you don’t have a dog at home yet, your first step should be to consult at least two professionals – your therapist or mental health provider and an experienced dog trainer or service dog organization. Speaking with your mental health provider is incredibly important so you can make an informed decision about whether your condition could be improved by a service dog or ESD, what type of tasks this dog would need to perform, and how you would feel about being responsible for another living thing and investing time and money to provide everything the dog will need to thrive, including extensive training and regular veterinary care.

Step 2: Talk to a Dog Trainer

Consulting with a canine specialist—such as a dog trainer—can help you get a clear picture of what it will take (and how much it will cost) to acquire a fully trained service dog or raise and train your dog. Another key aspect a professional can help you with is selecting the right canine for the job, which is the most important step.

All dogs can be perfect companions, bringing happiness to our lives just by being themselves, but being a service dog requires the right combination of skills, temperament, and years of professional training starting from the time they are puppies. A service dog’s job is demanding and requires certain personality and temperament traits. I compare a service dog’s job to that of a fighter pilot – only a select few of us can do it. In fact, the harsh reality is that the vast majority of dogs do not have what it takes to be a service dog, just like being a fighter pilot is not a job anyone can do.

Dogs also suffer from anxiety, OCD, and many other mental health issues, just like humans. A dog that struggles with mental health issues will oftentimes only aggravate your own mental health challenges and make it a vicious circle – an anxious dog feeds from his anxious owner’s energy and develops unwanted behaviors that only make the owner more anxious.

Other underlying issues, such as phobias or aggression, may also surface later—usually a few weeks after bringing your new dog home. In most cases, an aggressive dog is an extremely fearful one who has learned to use its teeth to make scary things go away. A service dog or ESD cannot be aggressive toward other dogs, animals, or humans under any circumstance.

So, think about it—when you walk into a shelter or pet store to pick a pup, hoping that this could be your service dog, you are just bringing home a mystery box. You don’t know if that dog is mentally equipped to do the job or how it will respond to training. Their background is unknown, their temperament and personality are unclear, and there is no way to know if that dog will turn out to be fearful or aggressive. You can do yourself a favor and talk to a canine professional long before you start looking for a dog. This will better equip you with professional advice and resources to make the right choice.

Get Mental Health Care from All Points North

Remember, a service dog cannot replace the care and treatment you need to receive from a qualified human professional. If you need help treating or managing a disabling mental health condition such as anxiety, OCD, or depression, reach out to All Points North. Our team of highly skilled mental health professionals can help you with a holistic plan that includes therapy and cutting-edge treatments to help you regain control of your life. Learn more about how our treatment plans can help you regain control of your life by calling 855.934.1178 or filling out our confidential contact form.