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The Difference between a Psychiatric Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal

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Dogs have historically performed all manner of tasks to assist humans in a variety of situations. For centuries farmers have used the intelligent and energetic nature of Border Collies to help them round up their livestock. Dogs are also incredibly useful in the treatment and therapy of various disabilities, both physical and mental. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the use of a specially trained dog to lead and assist its blind owner. However, dogs can be prescribed and recommended to patients to help treat their psychological disorders. There is often much confusion between the categories they fall under – Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals. What are they exactly, and what are their differences?

If both categories are specifically aimed at alleviating the symptoms associated with various psychological disorders, how can they be differentiated? This question has led to many heated debates and confusion as to the rights of their owners and where the can and cannot bring their animals.

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They both help to improve the mental health of their owners

As both Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals are both provided to individuals to assist them in some way with psychological issues, it is easy to understand why some people may not understand the differences between them.

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Dogs are commonly used to assist physically disabled people with everyday tasks, making their lives much easier than if they didn’t have them to help. These dogs are specifically trained to perform their designated tasks and behave considerably much better than typical pet dogs. All Service Dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), allowing them to be exempt from most pet-related restrictions such as housing providers with a ‘no pet’ policy. This doesn’t apply only to physical disabilities, but to psychiatric disabilities as well. Psychiatric Service Dogs are therefore used by individuals whose mental impairment is so severe that it affects their ability to perform everyday tasks.

An example of this would be a mentally disabled person with a tendency to wander off in any direction when disoriented – a Psychiatric Service Dog would be trained and assigned to the individual to prevent them from walking onto busy roads.

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What is an Emotional Support Animal?

While serving a similar service, Emotional Support Animals assist their owners as a part of their treatment plan. They do not assist individuals with everyday tasks, but rather they provide emotional comfort and help to improve the symptoms of certain psychological disorders.

The only physical aspect an Emotional Support Animal might provide, in contrast to a Service Animal, is that they may provide physical affection on command, or respond to playful activities. Emotional support animals do not have the same level of access as service dogs and are only allowed in planes for travel and in homes that normally do not allow pets

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Federal Law sees both categories very differently

In the eyes of the law, it is only Service Dogs that are exempt from public restrictions for animals. For example, in usual circumstances, people are not allowed to bring their pets on board when flying on commercial airlines – they must transport them separately. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates that disabled individuals may travel with their certified Service Animals.

As Emotional Service Animals are merely assigned to people undergoing a therapeutic treatment plan or to provide emotional stability, and are not specially trained or certified, the ADA does not recognize them as a physical necessity. Therefore, Emotional Support Animals and their owners do not have the same overall rights as Psychiatric Service Dogs, although there are some exemptions.

While Psychiatric Service Animals may accompany their owners in public accommodation such as hotels, Emotional Support Animals may not. However, there are certain exceptions regarding private accommodation.

Many landlords and housing providers may often have a ‘no pets’ policy within their accommodation, but these policies can often be bypassed when it comes to Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals due to their prescribed therapeutic assistance to their owners.

Psychiatric Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals serve similar purposes, but have very different rights

While both Psychiatric Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals are prescribed to their owners to assist them with mental impairments, it is apparent that they are designated to serve different purposes. Individuals who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder that is severe enough to impair their daily functioning will typically be assigned a Psychiatric Service Animal to assist them in their day to day activities, and are recognized by the ADA. By contrast, Emotional Support Animals do provide their owners psychological stability and therapy, but are not recognized by the ADA and therefore do not have as many rights under Federal Law. 

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About the Author: The writing team at Service Dog Certifications is made up of folks who really know their stuff when it comes to disability laws and assistance animals. Many of our writers and editors have service dogs themselves and share insights from their own experiences. All of us have a passion for disability rights and animals.


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