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Getting An Emotional Support Animal

July 22, 2020

To say we’re living in an unprecedented time would be an understatement. Considering the last pandemic was over 100 years ago, it’s safe to assume that all of us are experiencing this level of anxiety and uncertainty for the first time in our lives due to coronavirus (COVID-19). But while some people have turned to medication and/or therapy to try to deal with this historic chaos, others are turning to animals. Because, honestly, who doesn’t want an emotional support animal to bring that blood pressure down and ease their anxiety? “With Covid-19 putting pressure on everyone, it’s understandable that there’s been a big increase in people looking for an emotional support animal,” says Cindy Kelly, owner of Regis Regal German Shepherds who sells and trains service dogs for emotional support for veterans, as well as those who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, and other mental health issues. “At my business, I’ve personally seen a big increase in the number of people inquiring about our puppies as well as asking about our emotional support dogs, and about our service dog training service.”

But getting an emotional support animal (ESA) isn’t as easy as one may think. It does involve a bit of a process. Here’s everything you need to know before getting an animal friend of your own.

Although each type of animal helps their handler in their own way, there is a difference in how they do that.

“There is a lot of confusion around ESA, and the difference between them and service dogs,” says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer with Rover. “Emotional support animals provide comfort and calming to their handler, but do not perform a task, are not covered under the Americans with Disbilities Act (ADA), and are not allowed public access to restaurants and stores. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and takes a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”

Because you do have options in this regard, it’s important to talk to your mental health professional and decide which one is best for you, meaning exactly how much support you need.

“An example of an emotional support animal is a dog that forces someone living with depression to get out of bed and maintain a routine,” says Abby Volin, president of Open Doors, PLLC, which is where law experts that specialize in solving pet-related housing problems. “Or a cat that quells his person’s anxiety, allowing the individual to focus on work.”

If that isn’t enough and you need an animal that’s been specifically trained to sense an anxiety attack, as Ellis mentions above, then an ESA is not for you.

In order to qualify for an ESA, you need to receive an ESA letter from a psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist, or some other certified mental health professional. As Kelly explains, this letter “needs to be formal and appropriately formatted,” specifically for an ESA. You can’t just decide one day that you need an emotional support animal and go out and get one.

In this letter, your mental health professional should write that you’re their patient, their awareness of your disability, and how the animal is supposed to aid with the disability or mental illness. Here’s are two samples from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and Department of Housing.

Even if you live in a no-pet building, if you qualify for an ESA, then your building should accommodate.

“Individuals living with a disability are entitled to reasonable accommodations to policies and laws so that they can engage in mainstream life,” says Volin. “One such type of reasonable accommodation is an emotional support animal in housing that otherwise does not allow pets or imposes other pet restrictions such as breed, weight, and number.” That’s right; if you qualify for an ESA, then legally, building managers can’t deny you without engaging in an interactive dialogue, says Volin. There are laws to protect your right to have one.

“You can ask someone who has knowledge about your disability and the ways in which your emotional support animal helps you to write the verification letter,” says Volin. “The letter just has to be ‘reliable,’ which doesn’t mean it has to be from a healthcare provider.”

If your housing provider isn’t satisfied with the letter, though, they must inquire about getting more information, which might include providing your ESA letter from your mental health professional. And if they deny your request, you can file a housing discrimination complaint through the Department of Housing.

With your letter in hand and permission from your building manager, it’s time to find your ESA. According to the Department of Housing, an ESA can be any animal that’s traditionally kept in the home for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes.

However, due to lockdown restrictions in certain states and the increased need for emotional support animals right now, there may be a delay—as in, you’ll most likely be put on a waiting list.

When you finally do get your chance to meet your emotional support animal, you want to make sure it’s a match for you and what you need.

“Local dog breeders with good qualifications, or local dog charities may be able to help you by either supplying you with a suitable dog, or helping to assist with the training,” says Kelly. But, again, there’s a difference in an ESA and a service dog. Most of us aren’t qualified to train a service dog, but training an ESA dog, with help, can work based on the temperament and breed of the dog.

While your ESA might be in your life to help you with your mental health, you’re still the caretaker of this animal. Not even the smartest dog in the world can make themselves dinner or open the door to let themselves out to go to the bathroom—unless, of course, you have a doggy door for the latter. But if you think of it as a partnership, then you’re more likely to understand that you’re both responsible for different things in your relationship. And remember to be kind to yourself. This new relationship with your ESA will take some getting used to, but once you and your animal familiarize yourselves with one another, then everything should be smooth sailing.

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