Once upon a time, I knew I wanted a dog to help ease my depression and anxiety – yet I also knew my apartment normally would not allow dogs in my unit.
So, what did I do? I did what any mentally ill person would do: I asked my therapist for advice. Fast forward a week later, and my boyfriend and I finally brought home my Emotional Support Animal (ESA), Chandler.
Chandler is a Border Collie and Golden Retriever Mix, and who brings so much joy to our lives every single day. But as an ESA, others don’t always view him with as much love and hope as we do.
My ESA saved my life, at one of the lowest depressive points I’ve ever had. Yet there’s a group of people out there trying to label ESAs as ‘fake service dogs.’
Well, my dog may not be as well-trained as a service dog – he’s part Border Collie, after all; listening isn’t in his blood – but he still provides me with a service. And that service is emotional support.
This post is both for those who don’t understand what an ESA is (and isn’t), and for those who want to learn more to help educate others. Together, we can stick up for ESAs and discredit the critics who don’t believe in what they stand for.
What’s a Service Dog?
Before I talk about what an ESA is, I want to acknowledge what an ESA isn’t. The critics are right about one thing: ESAs are not service dogs, and here’s why.
Service dogs receive special training that allows them to perform tasks, big and small, for their owner who has a disability. These dogs can warn when seizures are about to happen, turn light switches on and off and even help their blind owner cross the street.
However, volunteers must put in countless hours of training to make this possible. While it’s important for all dogs to be trained at basic commands, an ESA does not need any special skills to qualify. Providing emotional support that alleviates some symptoms of a mental illness or other disability is enough.
What’s an ESA?
So, what is an ESA if not a service dog? An ESA’s title says exactly what it can do for you: an ESA provides emotional support to its owner.
In order to prove yourself worthy of an ESA, one must document two things. First, the owner must qualify as having a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Second, the ESA must alleviate some problem posed by the owner’s disability.
Once you have a valid ESA letter or paperwork signed by a licensed mental healthcare provider, your ESA is protected under federal law. The only way you can be charged for your ESA is if your animal causes damage to the property – and the only way you can be evicted from your abode for having an ESA is if the animal places an undue burden on the facility. (For example, your landlord may not be legally obligated to let you keep a miniature horse on the premises – ESA letter or no.)
The Truth About ESAs
Admittedly, no: an ESA is not a service animal. But it is also far from being “fake.”
Unfortunately, we all know people who abuse the privileges given to people with disabilities. There will always be a college student who pretends to have a psychiatric illness so their dog can live with them on-campus, or the odd person who puts their dog in a fake vest so they can bring their animal to places they normally wouldn’t be allowed to go.
What makes the ADA laws easy to exploit is their language: the law states that a person cannot challenge the legitimacy of a service dog, nor can they question the person’s disability status under law. And of course, ‘fake service dogs’ do exist – and they harm those people with disabilities who need service dogs to function, and even to survive.
But ESAs are not so-called ‘fake service dogs,’ nor are they ‘real service dogs.’ ESAs comprise an entirely different species – so to speak.
An ESA may not have special training, but they still provide a much-needed service to their disabled owners. An ESA owner may not appear to be disabled, but may have an invisible psychiatric or physical disability that challenges them daily. And, finally, the ADA laws provide clear loopholes for those looking to abuse them, but the laws are also necessary to protect those of us who use them in good faith, looking for others to accommodate our sincere need for a companion animal.
As an ESA owner, I feel that describing ESAs as ‘fake service dog’ demeans and invalidates people with invisible disabilities. My IBS and mental illness regularly incapacitate me – and without Chandler, I may not have the will to live some days, let alone get myself out of bed, get my shoes on and walk out the door to work.
Protect Yourself – and Your ESA
If you’re an ESA owner like me, the prospect of someone deeming your ESA a ‘fake service animal’ may haunt you. Personally, I am terrified of anyone threatening to take Chandler away from me or forcing me to move out because of my dog. Because of the special bond ESAs share with their owners, losing an ESA can be especially traumatic – and that’s why it’s essential to clarify the difference between ‘fake service dogs’ and ESAs.
So, how can you protect yourself (and your ESA) from scrutiny in a world where ‘fake service dogs’ still exist? As long as people are taking advantage of ESA laws, you will need to be aware of how you can stick up for your right to own your ESA.
Tagging your pet as an ESA, while not required by law, helps answer any questions your neighbors or acquaintances may have about your pet. I purchased a $10 ESA tag for Chandler on Amazon. Since then, all of our neighbors now know that Chandler is an ESA dog, and that they cannot challenge his right to live with me due to our federal protections under the ADA.
Ensuring you have proper documentation fosters trust between you and a landord (or airline, or anyone else who may need to approve your ESA). The only valid way to receive an ESA is via a letter of prescription from a licensed mental health professional – or a form provided by your landlord that is then signed by your mental healthcare provider.
Finally, do NOT pay for an online service or registry, since these certificates are fake – and therefore not recognized by most, if not all, landlords. Ensure you are receiving your documentation from a licensed mental healthcare professional who knows you and your medical history well, and is prepared to stand up for you and your right to an ESA if needed.
Most importantly, be prepared to answer any questions someone may have about your ESA or your right to own one. There will always be skeptics who either don’t believe in your right to an ESA or don’t understand how it works. Preparing an articulate response to ‘haters’ (for lack of a better word) in advance will help alleviate anxiety about finding the ‘right thing to say’ in your moment of truth.