How Emotional Service Animals Help In Unexpected Ways

by Jessica Pratas

Atticus was brought in to Fulton County Animal Services as a stray and I adopted her a month later on December 20, 2015. I didn’t visit the shelter that day with the intent of bringing home an Emotional Service Animal but that’s exactly what ended up happening. ESA

Both Atticus and I were in the midst of varying degrees of emotional and physical distress around the time I adopted her: she was suffering from the trauma brought on by being abused and abandoned. I was combating extreme anxiety and depression as a result of an abusive relationship. And I had no idea of how much help she’d provide me. One morning, I lay in bed staving off an anxiety attack..

Suddenly, I was forced to refocus when I felt Atticus jump on my bed. She curled up next to me and rested her head across my stomach, and before I knew it I was in control of my breath again. I took a picture of the scene after I had regained my composure. I told my therapist about the incident and we began to discuss the possibility of registering Atticus as an Emotional Service Animal.

Here are some facts about ESA if you are considering registering your pet. Of course, it goes without saying that you should speak to a therapist, counselor, doctor or psychiatrist about all of your options. An ESA is often just one piece of a complex equation for a person’s treatment.

What is an Emotional Service Animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.

What is the difference between an ESA and a service animal?

Service animals are typically dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

They’re the dogs you think of when you think of service animals: usually an adorable lab in a red vest assisting their owners with varying tasks. That can include pulling a wheelchair or guiding a person who is visually impaired.

An emotional support animal is any type of animal) that provides a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship. The ESA provides emotional support to individuals with psychiatric disabilities like depression, anxiety, dissociative episodes or PTSD.

The key difference is that ESA’s are not specifically trained to perform a particular task.  Their help usually just comes from their being in your life - or in Atticus’s case, her ability to sense when I am panicking and need support in order to refocus.

City Dwelling Tips 

I think I could benefit from an ESA but my apartment/house/condo/landlord doesn’t allow pets. What can I do?

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) does apply to almost all housing types including those for sale or rent. This includes apartments, condominiums, and single family homes. There are some major exceptions, such as buildings with four or fewer units where the landlord lives in one of the units. The law also excludes private owners who do not own more than three single family homes, do not use real estate agents or brokers, and do not engage in discriminatory advertising practices. For more on what the FHAct covers, click here.

The FHA would then cover homes in a planned community with a "no pets" restriction, owned or rented condominiums with a "no pets" covenant, and apartments with a "no pets" clause in the lease. As long as those housing units do not fall within listed exceptions, landlords or housing associations must comply with the FHA.

Here are a couple of criteria you and your pet should expect to meet while applying for their ESA status. First, you should expect to provide documentation (usually just a letter) from a doctor, therapist or psychiatrist that states they believe an ESA would be a valuable asset to your treatment.  

Second, if the ESA is a dog, it should be expected to do the following when on a leash:

  1. Walk beside you without straining against the leash

  2. Sit on command

  3. Come when called

  4. Lie down on command

  5. Show no aggression toward humans or other animals when unprovoked

Here are some easy to navigate websites that answer a wide variety of questions regarding ESA’s and how to register them:

ESA Registration of America
Animal Legal & Historical Center - Michigan University
United States Dog Registry
The ADA National Network: Training and Information About the American’s with Disabilities Act

I registered Atticus through the ESA Registration of American a few months ago.  Although I think it’s important you discuss your options with your doctor, I think it’s wonderful there is another option out there for people coping with mental illness. She has been such an important contribution to my healing and ongoing treatment.

It’s been a little over a year since I adopted my dog and I have gone the past six months without a panic attack. Atticus now has a spring in her step and a sparkle in her eye. She even survived her first New England winter, blizzards and all! But there are still times when loud noises scare her to the point of trembling and I’m always there to remind her she’s safe with me. Likewise, there are still times I feel like my anxiety will crush me and she’s always there to remind me I can push through - and I do, with her by my side.

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