Over 40% of U.S. families have at least one dog, for a total population of 80 million dogs. We know that people benefit from their association with animals. Over 70% of people surveyed feel that their mental health improved as a result of a companion animal. But is there a way to help the animal as well, such as by adopting the animal from an animal shelter? This article looks at how certified emotional support animals (or ESAs) differ from other pets and how to adopt a shelter dog ESA.
What Are the Differences Among Pets, Service Animals, ESAs and Therapy Animals?
A pet is any kind of domesticated animal kept as a companion. This would tend to exclude working animals and farm animals which, although they may be loved like a pet, would be kept primarily for their working or farming contributions rather than companionship. Service animals are similar to working or farming animals because their role is primarily to provide a service, such as leading a person with a visual impairment, and any companionship is secondary. Service animals require extensive training and because they are necessary to quality of life for the person with a disability, they are afforded the greatest legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. ESAs and therapy dogs provide a service by their mere presence, with ESAs providing comfort and emotional support to their owner and therapy dogs providing comfort and emotional support to other people, such as hospital patients and assisted living residents.
With these definitions in mind, any dog can serve as an emotional support dog. No special training is required for an ESA and the ESA does not need to have any particular qualifications or behaviors. However, just because any dog can be an ESA does not mean that every dog should be an ESA.
What Are the Laws Surrounding ESA Ownership?
ESAs are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, under the Fair Housing Act, landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations for owners of ESAs even if the lease has a strict policy banning pets. Similarly, the Air Carrier Access Act provides protections for owners of ESAs, although recent publicity surrounding cases in which airlines felt the law was being abused may result in future limitations.
Aside from these specific protections against housing discrimination and discrimination on airplanes, ESAs have no other specific protections under federal law. Although state law may provide some additional protections, federal law does not require public accommodation of ESAs in, for example, restaurants, hotels, shops, and public or private transportation. Thus, public accommodation of ESAs is left entirely up to the business owner.
What Qualities Should an ESA Have?
There are no required qualities for an ESA. However, since there are no laws mandating public accommodation of ESAs, businesses are allowed to determine whether to allow ESAs and which ESAs to allow. Therefore, the ESA should be reasonably well behaved and avoid any annoying, unsanitary, or dangerous behaviors like excessive barking, having potty accidents, or biting. Since there is no specific ESA training, general obedience and behavioral training is usually sufficient. After all, you and your ESA are asking businesses to accommodate you and your ESA.
What About a Shelter Dog ESA?
Of course, the first quality a shelter dog ESA should have is that he or she should provide you with emotional support, companionship, and comfort. The difficulty with a shelter dog ESA is that you may not have enough time with the dog to assess his or her behavior and temperament. There are many resources online for cues to watch for in shelter dogs that may indicate aggression or other antisocial behaviors.
Like any ESA, a shelter dog ESA does not need to be qualified. Rather, you, the owner, must qualify for the ESA. Typically, a diagnosis from a mental health professional is required to receive an ESA dog letter but once obtained, it can be used for up to one year to exercise all the rights of ESA owners with respect to housing and flights.