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How to Qualify Your ESA as a Psychiatric Service Dog

How to Qualify Your ESA as a Psychiatric Service Dog - ServiceDogCertifications

An emotional support animal (ESA) can help manage your emotional or mental health condition. They provide comfort and affection when you need it the most. But an ESA can’t come with you into “no pets allowed” areas — except where you live — and airlines no longer allow emotional support animals to fly as pets. A psychiatric service dog (PSD), however, can do all the above and more. If you’re looking at your emotional support animal and wondering if it is possible to make it a psychiatric service dog, here’s what you need to know.

Emotional Support Animal versus Psychiatric Service Animal

An emotional support animal is an important part of dealing with a person’s emotional or mental health condition. An ESA owner possesses supporting documentation — an ESA letter — from a licensed mental health professional indicating the individual’s needs an ESA for their mental health. An ESA does not require any formal training; it just needs to offer comfort to its owner in times of need. 

An ESA is protected under federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) law, allowing ESAs to reside with their handler, even in housing with a no-pets policy. However, an ESA can’t accompany their handler outside the home into places that don’t allow pets.

On the other hand, a psychiatric service dog receives extensive training to perform specific tasks for its handler. Unlike an ESA, a PSD may accompany its owner wherever the public is allowed. These areas include movie theaters, parks, and shopping malls. Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act enable a PSD to reside and travel with their handler, even in instances where pets aren’t typically allowed. 

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Can an Emotional Support Animal become a Psychiatric Service Dog?

It depends. First, only a canine qualifies as a psychiatric service dog. As cute, cuddly, and warm as a hamster, cat, or rabbit is as an ESA, they cannot qualify as a PSD. If your dog is an ESA, it may be possible to qualify for a PSD but it requires significant effort.

Qualifying Your ESA Dog to Become a PSD

First, evaluate your situation. Are there any essential tasks you need a service dog to perform for you? How could your condition or quality of life improve if this task were done for you? Is this task something your emotional support dog could be trained to do? Is the task needed to assist with your mental health disability?

Then, evaluate your dog. Your dog might be excellent at giving affection and playing catch, but is your emotional support dog eager to learn and easy to train? Can it readily follow commands, be friendly with strangers, and be tolerant of other animals? All service dogs must be on their best behavior, especially in public areas, and not every dog has the capacity to maintain the required composure or perform complicated service dog jobs. Make an honest assessment of your needs and your emotional support dog and decide if it’s up for the task of becoming a psychiatric service dog. 

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Train Your Dog 

The primary factor that sets a psychiatric service dog apart from an emotional support animal is the service dog training regarding your emotional or mental health disability. Most service dogs go through months — sometimes years — of daily training to become safe and effective service dogs. For your ESA to qualify as a psychiatric service animal, it must undergo the same training and perform its assigned service dog job. 

In addition to training your dog to perform its tasks, a service dog must also have public access training. Public access training ensures that your dog will exhibit the behavior it needs to be a service dog. Because service dogs are welcome to follow their handlers into public areas, they must maintain safe and controlled behavior. Despite performing its service tasks well, if the dog exhibits aggressive or disruptive behavior, a service dog may be asked to leave the area. A service dog can’t do its job if it’s not safe in public. Public access training teaches dogs to exhibit calm behavior, even when faced with crowds, other dogs, noises, or busy streets. 

Psychiatric service dog walking outdoors in a public area with its handler
For an emotional support animal to qualify as a psychiatric service dog it must undergo strict task-based and public access training.

Obtain a Psychiatric Service Dog Letter

A psychiatric service dog letter is authored and endorsed by a licensed healthcare professional and addresses whether a person has a qualifying disability for the purposes of a owning a psychiatric service dog. A PSD letter gives owners peace of mind and documentation regarding their mental health disability. Other optional steps for fully qualified PSD owners include obtaining ID cards, registrations, certificates and other service dog accessories.

Having a Psychiatric Service Dog

Once your ESA fully finishes training to become a psychiatric service dog, your new psychiatric service dog can accompany you anywhere the public can go, including areas where pets aren’t allowed.

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