Moosh - ESA dog on beach

With the summer fast approaching, and temperatures soaring, many people are looking to get out of the city and cool off by the coast – whether to swim, fish, or simply sunbathe. But as you head to the beach this year, you might see a sign or two saying “No Pets” or “No Dogs” and be forced to ask yourself: “Can I take my Emotional Support Animal on a ‘no dog’ beach?”

Emotional support animals are often a crucial part of the support network that helps sufferers of a verifiable psychological disability – such as anxiety disorders, major depressive disorders, or panic attacks. An ESA is a companion animal that a medical professional has deemed helpful to that sufferer, and it can be anything from a pot-bellied pig to a miniature horse. The most common emotional support animal, however, is a dog. But this is also often the most explicitly banned animal when it comes to public beaches.

Moosh - beach
Are emotional support animals allowed in public areas such as beaches?

Emotional Support Animals And The Law

You’ve probably seen those “No Dogs Except Service Animals” stickers in restaurants and bars, right? They might have you assuming that an ESA would almost certainly be a service animal too – like a guide dog helps the blind, an ESA can help those suffering from emotional disorders or mental health conditions. Well, it’s not quite that simple. There is actually a distinct legal difference between service animals and emotional support animals. The divide is centered around the fact that service animals require specialized training, whereas ESAs require none – they just need an ESA letter from a health professional stating that the presence of the animal will improve their owner’s symptoms or condition. This distinction is seen most clearly in three very relevant U.S. laws.

First, the Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability,” going on to clarify that “the task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” The first clear difference here is that a service animal can only be a dog under this definition, whereas an ESA can be any animal so long as it is recognized by a medical professional. Second, the dog must have received the specialized training as mentioned before. This training grants service animals special dispensation to enter public premises where pets cannot. Emotional support animals, which lack this “individual training,” are granted no such liberties.

That said, the ADA does note that some “state or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places,” so it is worth checking your local legislation, or the legislation of the state you plan on vacationing in.

Service animals are also protected under the Fair Housing Act, which stops homeowners discriminating against tenants or potential buyers based on their belonging to a protected class. It essentially means a landlord can’t stop somebody renting or buying a house just because they have a service animal. However, unlike the ADA, this legislation does cover emotional support animals in exactly the same way. That said, this legislation is unlikely to cover you in your vacation accommodation, whether a short-term rental or a hotel, so it is still absolutely necessary to check hotel or host policies before booking your beach trip.

If you have to fly to get to your beach-based summer resort, it’s also worth taking note of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Much like the FHA, this legislation covers ESAs in the same way as service animals, allowing them to travel on flights with their owners. However, the law does state that an animal must be trained and that airlines may exclude animals that are too large, pose a threat to health and safety, cause disruption, or are banned from entering a foreign country. Furthermore, airlines never have to accept “snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders,” according to the US Department of Transportation. The DOT also states that “airlines can request specific documentation and/or 48 hours’ advanced notice for service animals that are emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals,” so make sure to plan well ahead of your beach trip.

Moosh - dog at national park
ESAs are welcome at many national parks, a great alternative to the beach.

How Do These Laws Apply To “No Dog” Beaches?

The only one of these laws that applies to public beaches is the ADA, which, unfortunately, doesn’t cover emotional support animals. This means that while service animals are able to go to any beach, regardless of “no pet” rules, emotional support animals cannot.

So, what can you do instead?

First, why not find a dog-friendly beach? There is bound to be one that accommodates you and your ESA! Furthermore, you can use this as an opportunity to explore other vacation destinations. Often times, green hills, forests, and mountains offer the same break from the heat with the added benefit of improving mental and emotional health in their own way. While not every natural reserve can accommodate emotional support animals, many National Parks welcome dogs, such as Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon, to name but a few. If you are set on a beach trip, weigh up whether you would be able to leave your ESA in someone else’s care while you go, whether that be a friend, family member, or professional service.

It’s really important for ESA owners to make themselves aware of which laws protect them, and which ones don’t. Know the limitations of those laws and start researching the alternatives that exist. Who knows – maybe you’ll discover that the beach is nothing compared to the mountains!