Support vs. Service Animals

Support vs. Service Animals

Do you struggle to get through each day and wish you had someone to lean on when $h!t hits the fan? Well, you're not alone.

Perhaps help is available in four-legged form. We know… animal assisted therapy can seem overwhelming and confusing. Let’s face it, mental illness can be just as daunting. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of if you or someone you know suffers from mental illness. The time has come to start the conversation and work together to really understand the benefits of assistance animals and the value they bring to the world.

Any Mental Illness (AMI) vs. Serious Mental Illness (SMI)

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines mental illness in two broad categories: Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI). The NIMH states, “AMI encompasses all recognized mental illnesses whereas SMI is a smaller and more severe subset of AMI.” According to a SAMHSA 2018 National Survey, nearly 20% of all U.S. adults suffer from AMI while nearly 5% suffer from SMI. The sad reality is these numbers continue to rise.

Emotional Support vs. Psychiatric Service

Were you aware that Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) have been a significant form of treatment for people who suffer from mental illness? Both work to improve our mental health, but confusion often arises when trying to differentiate between these two types of assistance animals. Although the distinctions may seem subtle, they are prescribed for very different reasons and it’s important to understand how each animal works to improve their owner’s quality of life.

What is an emotional support animal?

ESAs refer to dogs or other pets that provide a therapeutic benefit of companionship to their owners on a daily basis. These guys are perfectly awesome just the way they are as your ‘ride or die’ BFF! Although no specialized training is required, it goes without saying that your furry friend must be well behaved.

Federal law protects ESAs under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Simply put, the FHA allows ESAs to live with their owners regardless of a ‘no pets’ policy. To qualify, the only requirement is a letter from your practicing mental health professional which prescribes the need for an ESA. Sorry friends, a letter purchased online is not sufficient documentation.

What is a psychiatric service animal?

Psychiatric Service Animals (PSAs) refer to dogs (or in rare cases miniature horses) who assist their handlers in alleviating their psychiatric disability symptoms in order to accomplish everyday activities. After going through various temperament tests, these animals receive extensive training in both obedience and performing specific tasks for their owners.

You may be wondering, what’s involved when training a psychiatric service dog? Much as every circumstance varies and each person is unique, the training process is no different. Training can be done by you, a professional dog trainer or through an organization that tailors to your specific needs. Tasks can include, but are certainly not limited to tactile stimulation, switching on and off lights, fetching meds and even dialing 911. The training process normally takes 1-2 years to complete. We believe that at a minimum, it’s important all service animals meet the public access test standards.

Unlike ESAs, PSAs are protected under the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA). Federal law recognizes service animals as a physical necessity and therefore may accompany their owners in all places open to the public. Please note, there is no formal registration process required. However, when entering any public establishment, an owner must be prepared to answer two questions: Is the dog required because of a disability, and what tasks has the dog been trained to perform? Additionally, each state has their own set of rules and regulations regarding training and defining what disabilities qualify for a service animal.

So, now what?

Let’s recap! First, we recommend you have an open and honest discussion with your treating mental health professional when determining which assistance animal is best for you. It’s important to really think about your needs and requirements. For instance, step into the shoes of someone who struggles with panic attacks. Do these panic attacks impair your ability to function day-to-day? In this scenario, a PSA is trained to recognize your triggers and respond with appropriate action. Whereas, an ESA is not trained to perform any one specific task and solely relies on their natural ability to calm you down.

Whether an Emotional Support Animal or a Psychiatric Service Dog is meant for you, it's safe to say both are superheroes in their own unique ways, with or without their capes.

Click here to learn more information on ESAs and Service Animals.

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