Psychiatry / therapy

Therapy Pet-Friendly Guide

I learned about the concept of service dogs early on since my dear aunt has a guide dog (which I featured in one of my blog posts here).  In my practice, I am often asked about the process of making a beloved pet an emotional support animal (ESA) or a psychiatric service animal (PSA), so I thought it might be helpful to share info for those who are interested.  And as a side note, it wasn’t until I wrote this post that I realized the differences in nomenclature, for “therapy dog” (a dog trained to provide comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions where their services are needed) certification has its own set of guidelines that you can refer to here.  Therefore, for the sake of this post, I will limit my discussion to PSA and ESA.

Psychiatric Service Animal (PSA):

  •  The 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations define “service animals” as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
    • a dog trained to perform tasks that benefit a person with psychiatric disabilities = a “psychiatric service animal”
      • examples: calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack, reminding individuals to take medications
    • Miniature horses may also be included under this definition, however, there are four assessment factors that facilities may use to determine whether or not miniature horses are permitted
  • How do you get your dog to qualify as a service animal?
    • In my research, I was surprised to find that registration for a service dog is not required, nor are special vests, tags, or harnesses required to be worn (though many utilize these as a way of identifying them).
    • Almost anyone can train a service animal.  In order to be protected under federal and state law (I know this to be true in California, but please check with your respective states), the only requirement is that the dog must be individually trained to benefit the person with the disability (Bronk v. Ineichen).  Otherwise, if the owner fails to demonstrate their dog’s ability to perform the trained task, it is considered a crime of misrepresentation.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA):

  • An ESA is any type of animal (not just limited to dogs) that can provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disability.  Training to perform a specific task is not required [1].
  • ESAs are not protected the same way that service animals are protected when it comes to access to public places (restaurants, buildings, etc).
  • Will your ESA be allowed to stay in your home even if your housing complex has a “No Pets” policy?
    • The answer is generally yes, however, the details are a bit more complex so I suggest checking out the answer to this question here starting on page 5.
  • What is required for your pet to qualify as an ESA?
    • As mentioned above, the animal must provide comfort as therapeutic benefit for a verifiable disability.
    • For situations pertaining to housing or travel, a note from a physician, therapist, or other qualified medical professional should indicate the animal’s provided benefit for the person’s disability.

Helpful Resources:

I like to print out information for my patients, so I bookmarked the following link from Disability Rights California (still quite useful even if you live in a different state) as it provides simplified, yet comprehensive information on the topic:  Psychiatric Service and Emotional Support Animals.

For physicians, mental health clinicians, and other qualified medical professionals, the link above also includes useful sample letters to use as a guide when writing notes for your patients.



  1. See Majors v. Housing Authority of the County of Dekalb (5th Cir. 1981); Housing Authority of the City of New London v. Tarrant, (Conn. Super. Ct. Jan. 14, 1997); Whittier Terrace v. Hampshire (Mass. App. Ct. 1989); Durkee v. Staszak (N.Y.App.Div. 1996); Crossroads Apartments v. LeBoo (City Court of Rochester, N.Y. 1991)



9 thoughts on “Therapy Pet-Friendly Guide

  1. Very informative post, I did not know most of the smaller details behind service/support animals. Love the picture by the way!

  2. Enjoyable post, and thanks for the links for some lunch time reading. No, seriously. I thought the cases were interesting. And for a bonus, I’ll be sharing the website with a couple friends who keep up with animal law. I agree with you that the legal aspects can be confusing–which seems like a plus to me. Otherwise, how would lawyers make a living? 🙂

    • so glad u found it interesting! i was worried the details might be boring, but i actually found it fascinating since i don’t believe too many people have taken the time to research specific details regarding these regulations. your legal expertise is definitely much appreciated 🙂 thx for sharing and passing along the info.

  3. I’m a huge dog lover and advocate for therapy dogs! The extraordinary impact of the companionship an animal provides often surpasses the effects of medication…definitely not something that can be bottled up in pill form. Thank you for this informative and cute read!

  4. Pingback: People whisperers- how animals help us heal | watercress words

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