Psychiatric Service Dog vs Emotional Support Animal: What’s the Difference?

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By: CertaPet Staff Updated: June 15, 2020

psychiatric service dog owner with service animalFor people with mental illnesses or psychiatric disabilities, animals can be a wonderful source of comfort and relief. But did you know that they can also be trained to perform specific tasks to help mitigate the illness or condition of their owners? Prepare to be wowed by the talented psychiatric service dog!

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

A psychiatric service dog is a type of service dog, not emotional support animal, similar to a guide dog. These dogs receive specialized training in order to assist their handler with a specific mental illness or psychiatric disability, for example, schizophrenia, autism, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These dogs help with specific tasks to mitigate their handler’s disabilities.

Service Dogs vs Psychiatric Service Dogs

Under US law, psychiatric service dogs are classed as service dogs and are protected in the same way that all other service dogs are (see below for more on the specific laws).

However, some psychiatric service dog handlers have faced issues due to a lack of education among members of the public. While guide dogs for blind people and helper dogs for people with mobility impairments are widely recognized, service dogs for people with a mental disability are not, and are often wrongly challenged or barred entry, despite their special training.

The reasons for this may include a lack of awareness of psychiatric service animals, the fact that psychiatric conditions are not always as visible as physical disabilities, and the fact that psychiatric service dogs can be any dog breed, depending on the tasks they were trained for. Not all service dogs are German Shepherds or Golden Retrievers, as some people think!

A Service Dog for Anxiety Attacks: How are Psychiatric Service Dogs Different from an Emotional Support Animal?

Both emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric support dogs provide support to people with mental or emotional disabilities. However, there are important differences between the two, and how they are recognized by law.

A psychiatric service dog receives individual training to perform tasks that are specific to their handler’s disability. An emotional support animal, meanwhile, can be any animal (most commonly a cat or a dog) that offers comfort to its handler, without specific training and only covered by two laws (FHA and ACAA). They are both, however, assistance animals!

How to Get an ESA and a PSD The Legal Way

While a psychiatric service dog requires years of training, any pet can be an emotional support animal. All it needs is to be well behaved and able to offer comfort and support. If you’ve decided that an emotional support animal is the right choice for you, CertaPet has streamlined the process of getting one into 3 easy steps.

  1. Read up on what emotional support animals are, what they do, and what legal support they have. We have a complete guide to emotional support animals that’s a great place to start.
  2. Take the free 5-minute CertaPet screening process, which can help you to determine if you’d be eligible for an emotional support animal
  3. If you qualify for an ESA, CertaPet will connect you with a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) in your state. After a quick consultation, you could get your ESA letter sent to you in as little as 48 hours.

Emotional Support Animal Owners: It’s All About the ESA Letter!

An ESA letter is a document that proves a patient’s need for an emotional support animal. To be valid, it must be less than a year old and written on letterhead paper or a prescription pad from a licensed medical doctor or mental health professional. The ESA letter must state the following:

  • That you have a diagnosed mental health condition or mental health-related disability.
  • Your emotional support animal is necessary for your mental health or treatment.
  • The type of animal.
  • That the issuer of the letter is a licensed medical doctor or mental health professional, and that you are under their treatment or care for a mental health disability.
  • The issuer’s license number, type of license, the license issue date, and the state or jurisdiction where it was licensed.

anxious man with psychiatric service dog for anxiety

Psychiatric Service Dog Training is a lot of Work!

A psychiatric service dog can be trained to perform all sorts of valuable tasks to assist people with disabilities in their day-to-day life.

However, this sort of training requires significant work! Many people work with a specialist non-profit organization to get a psychiatric service animal that is right for them.

For a list of these organizations, see below. That being said, there is no requirement for people with disabilities to use a professional dog trainer or program, and they may train the dog themselves too. The training is intense though and can take years of daily and consistent training.

How to Qualify for a PSD Such as PTSD Service Dog

The main criteria for a service dog is that it is able to carry out specific tasks relating to the handler’s disability. There is no legal requirement for service animals to be certified or registered just like emotional support animals, and a service offering to do so is likely a scam!

Similarly, there is no requirement for service animals to wear vests or collars identifying them as working animals, though many people choose to use them on their service animals to avoid having them distracted in public. These dogs have a job to do, and it’s best if strangers know not to approach and distract the dog!

Some service dogs have equipment that makes it rather obvious of their status, but federal law does not require these dogs to wear vests according to the ADAA.

Service dogs are subject to local animal control or public health requirements: for example, they may need to be vaccinated against rabies or other diseases. Service dogs are also subject to local animal legislation and licensing requirements. They are not required to be added to any service animal registries, though some colleges or other entities may have voluntary registries.

Service dogs can be of any breed, even if a local municipality has a ban on certain breeds. They cannot be refused entry due to being a certain breed, as long as they do not pose a threat to anyone with their behavior.

The following non-profit organizations support people with mental disabilities in getting and training service dogs:

  • Canine Companions for Independence (CCI)
  • The Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC)
  • The Service Dogs for America/Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation Inc.
  • Paws with a Cause
  • Summit Assistance Dogs
  • 4 Paws for Ability
  • Canine Assistants
  • Service Dogs Inc.
  • The National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS).

a psychiatric anxiety service dog helping service dog owner


8 Conditions a Psychiatric Service Dog Can Help with!

  1. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  2. Bipolar Disorder
  3. Autism
  4. Depression
  5. Anxiety
  6. Schizophrenia
  7. Dissociative identity disorders
  8. Epilepsy or other seizure-related disorders

The 3 Laws Protecting Psychiatric Service Animals

There are three main Acts protecting service animals, which includes psychiatric service dogs: The Air Carrier’s Access Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Federal Housing Act.

An important point to remember before we go into more detail on these Acts is that while owners of emotional support dogs may be required to show an ESA letter to show their need for such an animal, it is illegal for service dog handlers to be asked for proof that their dog is a service animal.

If it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal, as may be the case with a psychiatric service dog, employees may ask only these two questions:

  1. Is the dog a trained service animal that is required due to a disability?
  2. What tasks is the dog trained to perform?

They cannot ask for the dog’s documentation, or ask about the nature of the disability.

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

The ACAA protects the rights of people with disabilities while traveling on commercial airlines. This includes bringing emotional support dogs and service dogs into the cabin free of charge, even if pets are not permitted.

Airlines have tightened their policy on allowing ESAs on their flights, so always check an airlines rules and regulations before booking a flight with your ESA!

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is a very important piece of legislation that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in public places. The Act allows people with service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs, to bring them into any place that is normally accessible to the public, whether or not animals are usually allowed.

The exceptions to this rule when if the dog is behaving badly or otherwise interfering with normal operations (for example, scaring small animals in a zoo). It is the responsibility of businesses to make reasonable accommodation for service animals and their handlers.

The ADA does not cover emotional support animals or therapy dogs. Remember, service dogs have received specific training and is therefore expected to know how to behave in public.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA)

Under the Fair Housing Act, tenants with both emotional support animals and service animals are permitted to bring their animals into rented accommodation, even where pets are not permitted. Again, this is subject to the good behavior of the animal in question.

a psychiatric service dog for depression helping cheer up depressed woman

So, What Laws Protect an Emotional Support Animal?

Some, but not all of the laws that cover service animals also apply to emotional support animals. ESAs are covered under the ACAA, so they can be brought into the cabins of commercial flights free of charge, even when pets are not permitted.

They are also covered by the Fair Housing Act, meaning that people with emotional support animals can live with them in rented accommodation, including college on-campus accommodation, even when pets are forbidden. In both these cases, you may have to show your valid ESA letter to prove your need for the ESA.

The ADA does not cover emotional support animals, so they cannot be brought into businesses or other public places where pets are not allowed.

Emotional Support Dog Training: All they Need to Know are the Basics!

Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals do not need specialist training. Rather, they just help their owners by being a calm and comforting presence.

That being said, it’s very important that all ESAs know how to behave properly in public. This means they must be completely house-trained, they must be calm around people and other dogs, and they must not be disruptive or aggressive.

An ESA that is not behaving properly can be asked to leave, even with a valid ESA letter. Basic obedience training is usually all it takes!

Common Questions on Psychiatric Service Animals

Is a psychiatric service animal an assistance animal?

Are psychiatric service animals allowed in public places?

Does a psychiatric service dog vest required?

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