The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows individuals with disabilities the right to train a Service Animal themselves. Service Dog owners do not have to use a particular training program or professional trainer, which can translate to a savings of $25,000, so this is huge for the Service Animal Community! Having the ability to train your Service Animal requires a lot of time and effort. And it removes the cost barrier of Service Animal ownership and makes it a more accessible treatment option for specific physical, emotional, and mental healthcare needs.
We recognize that an Assistance Animal can be a lifeline for those with both physical disabilities and mental disabilities that interfere with their ability to participate fully in everyday activities. Before moving on, it’s essential to understand the role of these assistive animals.
Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are more than just comfort animals. They are not service animals, but do provide therapeutic services and comfort to people with disabilities. As their title implies, these animals support someone’s emotional well-being. An ESA helps to manage mental health symptoms by providing comfort to its owner just by being present. Emotional Support Animals offer attention, affection, and companionship, which may alleviate common symptoms of mental health struggles (such as anxiety and depression). ESAs are not required to carry out any specific tasks. They are an excellent, non-medication way to combat challenging mental health conditions. An ESA can be any domesticated animal (cats, rabbits, birds, etc.); however, dogs are the most popular option for their trainability. For the purpose of discussing training, we will consider the ESA we reference within this article a dog.
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
A Psychiatric Service Animal (PSA) is a dog specifically trained to perform work for an individual with a disability. They are trained to help their owners with a task related to their disability. Their service helps the handler regain the freedom to participate more fully in daily life.
The ADA limits the definition of service animals to dogs. Like an ESA, a Psychiatric Service Dog assists their owner with mental health disorders. Under federal law, Psychiatric Service Animals offer help beyond companionship. A PSA must be able to perform two tasks related to their handler’s disability. These tasks must help to alleviate the impact of one or more mental health symptoms for their handler.
noticing the signs of anxiety attacks
comforting owners with their weight and warmth (known as deep pressure therapy)
offering medication reminders
assisting by turning on lights for reassurance or checking rooms for safety
preventing self-harm through distraction or by seeking help
This is not a complete list; there are endless tasks that a PSA can be trained to perform.
Both ESAs and PSAs are granted housing accommodations under the FHA. Landlords cannot deny your animal regardless of a “no-pet” policy. They also cannot charge pet fees and deposits or discriminate based on the animal’s species, breed, or size.
One key difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Psychiatric Service Animal comes down to public access rights. A Psychiatric Service Animal has federally protected public access rights granted by the ADA. A PSA can go anywhere you go (with very few exceptions); however, an ESA cannot.
When it comes to an Emotional Support Animal, you want your animal to check all the boxes for the ultimate comforting companion: cute, cuddly, loyal, and devoted. One essential characteristic of an ESA is the connection between the dog and its owner. If you are reading this and you already have a dog that is very in tune with you, that’s your Emotional Support Dog! Read this to review the best breeds for an emotional support animal.
Most dogs innately offer unconditional love, but different breeds of dogs have particular skills and temperaments that can be more suitable for the needs of someone who has a mental illness. The “Fab Four,” four specific breeds known to be most compatible as PSAs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles, and Collies. Read here to find out which breeds are better suited for specific disorders to meet your mental health needs.
Training takes time, and practice makes paw-fect. Mastering any new skill requires time, repetition, and persistence. Thirty minutes a day is an excellent starting point. You will experience the most success in training if your training is split into two or three 10 to 15-minute sessions each day. Most service dog trainers suggest a minimum of 30 hours of training in a public setting to have enough exposure to different environments and prepare your dog to behave appropriately in public.
Self-training a Service Dog may take up to a year to complete. Set yourself and your pup up for success by reading our blog on “What to Expect from a Service Dog in Training.” Approach training with plenty of patience and treats! The first stages of training for both an ESA and a PSA will be similar; however, a PSA will move on to more advanced task training later in the process.
Training any Assistance Animal starts with these foundational skills.
House training – aka “potty training.”
Basic obedience training –your dog will need to learn foundational behavioral commands such as Sit, Stay, Come, Down and Heel. And will also need to come to you when called.
Anxiety Reduction Techniques
ESAs do not undergo the same training as Service Animals, but they can be taught vital tasks that can help you reduce stress and anxiety.
Recognizing Signs of Anxiety – As a starting point, you will need to teach your dog to identify anxiety symptoms and when to apply this behavior. You can train your dog to recognize your stress signals by mimicking the behavior you display in times of anxiety using a command and reward system.
Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) – one of the most common and effective stress reduction techniques taught to ESAs is Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT). DPT is proven to relieve emotional and mental distress by applying pressure or tactile stimulation to specific areas of your body (such as your chest).
Per the ADA guidelines, a Service Animal must be under the control of its handler and tethered (as long as being tethered does not impede its ability to help with the handler’s specific disability).
• Socialization & Public Access Skills – As a critical part of training, PSAs are trained in socialization and public access skills. PSA Public Access skills include sitting still for long periods, remaining on task, ignoring distractions (including other animals), eliminating on command, and good leash behavior.
You will want to plan on spending a few months teaching your dog basic public access skills before moving on to master assistance tasks.
• The Public Access Test – There is no official testing standard for Service Dogs. However, a PSA should be able to pass a Public Access Test before officially working as a Service Animal. The group Service Dog Standards offers a “public access test” to which owners can voluntarily comply. It tests a dog’s behavior in public spaces. It is a helpful starting point.
Service Dogs help disabled people perform a job or task they cannot easily do for themselves. They must be trained to perform two specific tasks to assist their owner with their disability. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability and will be individualized for each Service Dog team.
Guidance – provide help navigating to a safe space when experiencing emotional distress.
Balance Support – brace owner and provide stability if having trouble walking.
Safety Monitor – prevent a child with autism from bolting or wandering off.
Grounding – in a moment of panic or overwhelming feelings, a PSA can bring its owner’s focus back to his body or physical surroundings to calm them and bring them to balance.
Threat Assessment – a PSA will calmly search a place for any direct threats to put their handler at ease.
Barrier – animal acts as a buffer to provide their handler space, making them comfortable in crowded or claustrophobic situations.
Tactile or Warmth Simulation or Deep Pressure Therapy – A PSA can interact with its handler to calm and ground its owner through touch, pressure, warmth, or other means.
Interruption – PSA will interrupt harmful or damaging behaviors or episodes by alerting and providing tactile stimulation.
Provide Physical Assistance – perform assistance actions such as opening or closing a door, retrieving an item, waking the handler from a bad dream, turning on lights, etc.
Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals play a pivotal role in the lives of their owners. They not only provide tremendous therapeutic benefits but the tasks that these animals perform alleviate the symptoms of a wide range of emotional distress and mental illnesses. These Emotional and Mental Health challenges can include Anxiety Disorders, Depression, Panic Attacks, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, social phobias, and more. If you are having trouble determining if an ESA or PSA is best for you, we can help! We have experienced mental health professionals standing by to help you take the next step and start today!
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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