LIFESTYLE

Emotional Support Dog Laws: Protecting Your Rights

Emotional Support dog
John Walton
Written by John Walton

You may have read our other article, discussing the rights individuals with disabilities may have in regards to their service dogs. However, there are other people who are in need of dogs to provide emotional support that don’t fulfill the same functions.

These kinds of animals are protected much differently because of these differences. But that doesn’t mean that they can be refused outright by certain businesses or landlords. So what exactly are the emotional support dog laws that exist? Keep in mind that these will differ from state to state, as they are allowed to grant more rights than the federal law provides.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal is also known as an assistance animal, but that may not be sufficient for many people to understand exactly what they do. An emotional support dog is more than just a pet; he is a companion animal who provides therapeutic benefits to his owner/handler who is suffering from a mental or psychiatric disability. This includes conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and suicidal tendencies, just to name a few.

Emotional Support Animal with a boy

Defined in more detail under the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, an assistance animal or dog is one that provides emotional support in a way that alleviates one or more identified symptoms of a person’s disability. This is much more than just providing companionship to someone who is lonely.

Differences Between Service Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs

It’s very easy to confuse the two, as they seem to fulfill the same function: make the life of an individual with disabilities easier. However, there are many aspects that differ between these two kinds of animals.

First, a service dog has been individually trained in order to do certain work or perform specific tasks that will add persons with disabilities. Many of these tasks can include pulling a wheelchair, guiding a blind or visually impaired person, or provide assistance or warning to someone who is about to have a seizure. An emotional support dog is not trained to perform any of these tasks. Instead, the dog’s presence alone is what provides the therapeutic benefit to his owner or handler.

Service Dog helping

Secondly, service dogs are allowed to accompany their owner or handler into all public places, such as banks, post offices, and even restaurants. Modes of public transportation, government buildings and buildings of non-profit organizations must also grant admittance to service dogs. This right is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For emotional support dogs, however, they are not granted access to public places unless with permission. They can, however, be treated as the same as a service dog under the Fair Housing Act and be admitted, even under the «no pets» rule already in place.

Requirements of Landlords/Housing Providers

Many landlords and housing providers have a «no pets» policy in place on the properties that they’re providing. This is understandable, as pets can cause a lot of damage to property, both internal and external. This can result in a lot of out-of-pocket expenses for the landlord in order to have them prepared for the next person interested in renting.

However, when it comes to emotional support dogs, they might have to bend the rules a little. Under the  United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, landlords who receive requests from potential renters who employ assistance animals should consider two very important questions:

  1. does the person making the request suffer from a disability, whether it’s physical or some kind of mental impairment that limits one or more major daily activities? and
  2. does the person making the request have a disability-related need for the assistance animal they’re seeking to have with them? To put more simply, does the animal or dog provide emotional support in a way that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms of the person’s disability?

If the answer to either questions is a no, then they are not required to make an exception on that person’s behalf. However, if the answer to both is yes, then an exception to the «no pets» policy is required. It’s important to note that emotional support dogs are only allowed in public areas of the rental property or complex where other persons are allowed to go.

Emotinal support dog in the house

Does that mean that landlords must admit all renters who have emotional support dogs with them? The answer would be no. Remember that an emotional support dog is not the same as a service dog. There are some landlords who have bans on certain breeds or sizes of dogs because they’re seen as threats to the public. Some of these dogs are capable of being trained to be emotional support dogs, but that still doesn’t amount to automatic admittance.

If a housing provider or landlord determines that the emotional support dog poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, then he does not have to grant the dog admittance. This threat should be determined on an individualized basis, however, and not an outright ban on the breed or size of the dog.

He should observe the animal’s actual conduct in order to make this determination before arriving at a final decision. In states that have certain breed bans, emotional support dogs who fall into this spectrum must be granted admittance onto the rental property. However, these banned breeds are not allowed into public places like service dogs.

Another reason a landlord could be «let off the hook» for not admitting an emotional support dog is if he would suffer undue financial and administrative burdens as a result. This is very rare, but one good example of this is the insurance carrier. If they would cancel the policy, increase the costs, or change the terms due to the presence of the emotional support dog, then that would amount to an undue financial and administrative burden.

What about landlords who charge «pet fees» for the admittance of animals? In the case of emotional support animals, they are not allowed to do so. This is because they are not pets; they are fulfilling an important role in that person’s life. Doing so for these kinds of pets would be similar to charging an advanced damage deposit for someone with a wheelchair.

The landlord can recoup charges for damage done after the fact, but not beforehand. That means that a tenant is responsible for cleaning up after their emotional support dog, as well as being held responsible for any damage that is caused by them, as long as the same rules would apply to tenants who don’t have disabilities.

Required Documentation for Owners of Emotional Support Dogs

Landlords may ask for documentation as for the existence of a disability, but they are not allowed to ask for specific medical details concerning disabilities. So what kind of documentation is required to prove the existence of a disability?

Documentation for Owners of Emotional Support Dogs

The first step is making a request to the landlord in regards to their emotional support animal. It should be made in writing and it should explain how the accommodation of having your dog with you mitigates the symptoms of your disability, which you do not need to disclose the details of. Proof of the presence of a disability can be provided from a doctor or health professional, stating that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more symptoms or effects of your disability.

The Slippery Slope

Of course, there will always be exceptions to these rules, due to certain circumstances. Although a landlord cannot enforce fees or special rules on an individual with disabilities because of his emotional support dog, the tenant can be evicted for other reasons. For a tenant who becomes unable to properly care for his emotional support dog to the extent that the life of the animal is endangered, then it becomes a criminal matter.

Emotional support dogs are not exempt from the animal cruelty laws, and law enforcement or animal control can step in to take control of the situation and have both the tenant and the animal removed. The individual with a disability must also be able to take care of his residence in a sanitary manner. Failure to do so can also be a reason for eviction by the landlord.

Emotional Support dog

Is a tenant allowed to have more than one emotional support dog? There’s no solid basis for answering this question one way or the other. Instead, the burden is on the individual to provide the necessary documentation showing that they need support from more than one dog in order to go about their daily lives. Each support dog must alleviate some symptom of their disability.

What happens for guests who require emotional support animals? There’s no prescribed rule for this kind of situation, but the case law has set a precedent. Since the underlying purpose of the Fair Housing Act is to allow everyone to enjoy the property they are renting, this can be extended to guests and relatives who have emotional support animals.

If a guest were to be denied access to the property because of their support animal, then the tenant, by extension, would not be enjoying the full use of their property based on the presence of a disability. In this case, when inviting a guest over who requires the use of a support animal, documentation should be brought to show the landlord that the animal is required to alleviate the symptoms of a disability, under the same guidelines that a potential renter would be required to meet.

Emotional Support Animals and Secondary Education

There are many individuals who seek secondary education, and may require their support dogs to go with them. Whether it’s on-campus housing or taking them into classrooms, it can be a challenge to overcome.

Dog for emotianal support

In general, the majority of colleges have a «no pets» policy for their housing. However, because on-campus housing is considered to be a «dwelling» and fell under the Fair Housing Act. Therefore, they were required to make reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities and allow them to take their emotional support dogs with them.

The same rules for a landlord would apply her, such as having the student and the animal removed if the dog’s behavior is a risk to the health and safety of the other students in the dorm or in the classroom. This decision should be made on a case-by-case basis, however, after observing the actions of the animal.

It’s understandable that not all disabilities are physical. Whether these disabilities are mood disorders or the result of past traumas, those who suffer from them should not be left in the dark to fend for themselves.

Emotional support dogs provide them with not only comfort, but also give them the confidence to continue with their daily lives. These animals are important elements that help them overcome the difficulties they already face with their disabilities, and it’s only fair that they are afforded the opportunities to bring their emotional support dogs with them.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Victoria Chapman

    Have you heard the story about a woman who came to an exhibion, but with a turtle? The uniformed man stopped her with the words «You can’t take in an animal!» But she showed him some papers — the turtle was actually her emotional support animal, and he had to let her in! I must admit, I thought only dogs were E.S.A.

    • John Walton

      Emotional support animals come in various shapes and sizes, but dogs in general shine in this category because of their innate intuition and sensitivity that humans can benefit from. These factors, as well as a nice furry package makes them very likable and can easily capture our hearts.

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