I have a friend who suffers from anxiety and depression. One of the things that helps him deal with things is his dog. With a cross-country move coming up, his therapist, knowing the important role the dog plays in my friend's life, designated him an emotional support animal (ESA). This way, with script in hand, he was able to have his dog fly in the cabin with him. But what's the difference between an ESA and a service dog?
Most people think of Seeing Eye dogs when they hear service animal. In the Central NY area, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has a large number of puppy raisers to help socialize the pups before they go for their service training. A service animal does not have to be a dog, but they do have to perform a service or services for the owner. This ADA FAQ explains the ins and outs of service animals. Of particular interest, there is no official certification organization and a service animal can be trained by anyone, so caveat emptor if you or a loved one is in need of a service animal. A good place to start is with a group like Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, where you can ask questions of people who are experienced with owning a service animal. Things can also get muddy as state regulations vary, so be sure to research your state regulations to see what is and is not allowed.
So back to my friend's dog. Why is it an ESA rather than a service animal? Your pet can be designated a psychiatric service animal if, according to the ADA, it is trained to, say, sense an anxiety attack and do something to lessen or prevent it. An ESA helps a person function better, but does not have specialized training to perform a service. Both of these types of animals are, for the most part, exempt from "no pets" policies, with service animals getting pretty much automatic exemptions while ESAs will need permission in certain situations. To make things murkier, we have companion or therapy animals. In terms of pet policies, these animals are legally given little slack. As the name implies, they provide companionship, which in some cases is all the person needs. Organizations like PAWS of CNY go out into the community to help with life's stresses, for example airports during peak travel times or colleges during final exams. The animals offer a calming presence by just being there to be stroked and maybe talked to. Clear Path for Veterans offers a training course for any Veteran who owns or wants to own a canine companion, while other organizations offer no-cost pets or have some financial assistance for veterinary bills.
Whatever your need, there is an animal out there to help you. As Indian author Ruchi Prabhu says: “Pets understand humans better than humans do,”
and we all need a little understanding sometimes.