Dear Haters: My Dog Is Not A "Fake Service Dog"
Today, I stumbled upon a recent article calling out people with "fake" service animals, and immediately I took offense. Because according to these articles, I am one of those people. As I continued down the rabbit hole, and found even more articles like that, it became increasingly obvious that this was something that needed some clarifying for those people who don't understand (like basically EVERYTHING else that you can't understand unless you know what it's like).
Let me start this off the right way- by introducing you to a good friend of mine: my fur-baby, Teddy. She also frequently goes by bear, bug, bobo, boogeet, and about thirty other variations of her name (she knows them all- I'm not kidding). I've never met a dog who can charm every single person the way that she does. With her little sweet face and her even sweeter personality, she's not just adorable- she's my world and she's saved my life. I've been conquering chronic major depression for over ten years now- but I have yet to find anything as therapeutic as this dog. That's why I made Teddy an Emotional Support Animal (and Psychiatric Service Dog). And there's a few things I have to say to those who say she doesn't deserve that title or the rights she's granted because of it.
First of all, an ESA is not necessarily a service dog. The infographic below helps to give you a basic idea of the differences between the two. To be a technical ESA, your dog should be "certified" in the form of a letter. Though it's not with a government entity, they should obtain proof of legitimacy.
Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
An ESA is a form of support animal- but a service dog is trained to provide support for people with life interrupting disabilities- such as blindness, epilepsy, or PTSD (among others). It is not to be mistaken for a service dog. There is a distinguishable difference between the two. They are NOT the same thing. Here's the thing about a Psychiatric Service Dog vs. an Emotional Support Animal (ESA): A working that needs to be recognized (as for that link's services, I'll get to that below). A lot of people confuse what is called a "Psychiatric" Service Dog with an Emotional Support Animal.
All Psychiatric Service Dogs are Emotional Support Animals. Not all Emotional Support Animals are Psychiatric Service Dogs.
Comprende? Therefore, haters, she is granted, under California law (and many other states' laws), the same permissions granted to a service dog. However, Emotional Support Animals are not granted the same rights. The reason many people think they are- and are able to abuse the laws regarding an ESA- are because most establishments do not have the knowledge to distinguish between the two- and given that it is a very sensitive topic, most prefer not to ask questions (especially because it's illegal). Now, to be an ESA and a psychiatric service dog are not the same thing- a psychiatric service dog falls in between the two categories pictured above. My dog is both a service dog and an emotional support animal. And many others who think their dog is just an ESA might be mistaken. How do you know if your dog is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
My dog is literally a prescription.
I carry a literal prescription for my dog. Just like you'd carry a prescription for an anti-depressant. I get it. A lot of people love their dogs and want to take them everywhere (and hey, why not). But when those animals are not trained, they're not supposed to be granted the same permissions as those who are. Why? Because if your dog isn't serving a legitimate purpose, it would be nice for it to not distract those who are.
So. What do we do about this?
Educate business owners and citizens about the differences between Service Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals. It's that simple. Give them a damn pamphlet that helps them figure out how to decipher the legitimacy of the animal (for example, what questions can they ask to prove the animals legitimacy without encroaching on the privacy of its owner, and what type of certification they should ask for).
I agree there should be stricter standards to make service dogs and emotional support animals easily distinguishable. As with everything that has been taken advantage of, it will only be so long before the federal government decides to crack down on Emotional Support Animals; and I fully support that (to some extent).
I firmly believe that your Emotional Support Animal letter should have to be prescribed in person. There are a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists who are extorting the popularity of the issue and running online businesses that will issue these letters to absolutely anyone. The problem with this is that you wouldn't prescribe Prozac to someone without knowing their condition(s) and whether or not it would actually make a difference.
There's a dual purpose to this "in-person" thing also. There's two reasons I can think of for why anyone would be resistant to do this. 1. They're too busy. 2. They're afraid of what people might think. Both of those reasons suck. I'm sorry- if you're too busy for your mental health, then it's not that important of an issue in your life. If it was, you'd make time for it- because people like me don't have time not to. So you want to enjoy a privileged that people with a legitimate mental illnesses have- but you don't want the stigma? Funny, neither do we. So that prevents people from getting the help they need by owning up to your issues.
Furthermore, if you want to make it "stupid-proof", the DSM IV could classify which conditions might legitimately benefit from the use of an emotional support animal, just like you wouldn't prescribe a seizure medicine to someone for bipolar disorder, one size does not fit all.
Emotional Support Animals should be required to undergo certain training requirements before they are allowed to become ESAs. Something as simple as a driving test ensures that you're able to operate on the road. It's not that hard to put something in place that requires ESAs to be tested for obedience before they are given that title. Literally, let's do it at DMVs. I'd love to hang out with your dog- whether it passes or not- while I'm waiting for G1197 to pop up on that 90s television.
ESAs should not be permitted to wear vests. Sure, we want them to be distinguishable when they're on duty, but that's what their letter is for. Putting a service vest on your ESA confuses them for actual Service Animals- both to the public and to the government officials and business owners who are accommodating you. If you want ESAs to be easily distinguishable, provide those who pass their ESA certification with a little tag identifier for their collar (like the one pictured in the info graphic above).
ESAs need to be registered. For legitimacy purposes, and in a different category than service dogs.
ESAs could also be required to be either completely or partially hypo-allergenic. I'm not hell-bent on that one, but it's a solid idea.
I know it's a dense subject. Hence, why it's so hard to explain and few are willing to. But hopefully, I was able to shed some light on the issue. If you have any questions, you can always email me and I will do my best to respond. For those of you interested in getting your animal to become an Emotional Service Animal, you're going to have a lot of questions just like I did. There's a few things you need to know. So I've set out to answer your questions below. But first, you should do your due diligence and decide if your dog really needs to be an emotional support animal.
Does my Emotional Support Animal have to be a dog?
No. There's no breed restriction. Meaning your cat, ferret, bird, snake, turtle, miniature pig, etc. But I'm going to highly recommend sticking to something normal.
Does having my pet as an ESA have any privileges?
An ESA may fly in the cabin of a commercial or private airline with their disabled handler, and the handler does not have to pay a pet or other fee. A very specific prescription letter from a licensed mental health profession is ALWAYS required by airlines, as well as advance notice in most cases that the passenger will be flying with an ESA.
Landlords and property managers must make reasonable accommodations for tenants or prospective tenants with ESAs, even if the apartment, house, college dorm, or other residence does not allow pets. Reasonable fees may be asked of the client, similar to a pet fee. Besides requiring a letter of prescription. Property managers/landlords may require that the (prospective) tenant's mental health professional complete and sign a Third Party Verification form.
THAT IS IT. Businesses are not required to allow your dog to come inside.
Where do I get a letter?
Go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Don't go online. Those are scams and do nothing for your mental health. At least sit down with a professional.
What should my ESA letter say?
You are currently his/her patient
Are under his/her care for the treatment of mental disability found in the DSM IV or V (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 4 or 5).
Your disability substantially limits at least one major life activity
He/she prescribes for you an emotional support animal as a necessary treatment for your mental health.
In addition, the letter must be dated, written on his/her letterhead, include his/her license type, number, date of license, and state in which the license was issued.
Do I need to register my ESA anywhere?
NO. All of those "National ESA Registry" things are absolute scams. You don't need a vest, ID, leash, tag, ANYTHING. ALL YOU NEED IS YOUR LETTER.
I believe everyone should be able to live with an animal- they literally change your life. If that's your reasoning behind getting your dog certified, no lie, I support that. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to live a life with a companion by your side who will love you unconditionally, share in all of your joys, and comfort you in your pain.