Emotional Support Dogs: Fur is the Cure

Emotional Support Animals are growing in popularity
My dog, Pokey, when he was just a puppy.

My wife and I like to joke that if she could be pregnant with puppies, we’d have a whole litter by now. While not officially emotional support dogs, we do have two pups who I constantly use in that capacity. They are somehow able to help break me of my deepest depressions. Inevitably, after we’ve finished playing, and I’m panting even harder than they are, covered in white and brown fur, I’m at my most well.

a brief history of support animals

Service dogs have been used to support those with physical disabilities for a long time. Seeing eye dogs, as well as those for other medical conditions paved the way for the modern emotional service dogs.

Buddy the Seeing Eye Dog
Buddy the Seeing Eye Dog, courtesy of seeingeye.org

The first accredited school devoted to the training of service dogs was The Seeing Eye, founded in Nashville, Tennessee. in 1929. The founder himself was blind, and so dedicated most of the time and training at the school to applications for the blind community

By the 1960’s and 1970’s, the role of support animals had been expanded. Dogs for the deaf, paralyzed and medically ill (such as epilepsy) soon followed.

It wasn’t until 1990, as part of the Americans with Disabilities act, that service animals were officially recognized by the US government.

The ADA describes service animals as:

“A dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” (source).

Some examples they give for applicable services are: alert dogs for diabetes patients, or epileptics, dogs for patients with mobility issues, and patients with hearing loss.

Emotional Service Dogs

While the ADA has done some great things for service animals, one area it fails to address is emotional support animals.

An intrinsic part of the ADA’s definition of a service animal is their ability to complete one or two specific tasks (guiding the blind, protecting from seizures, etc). The ADA states that because emotional service animals “provide comfort just by being with a person”, they do not qualify for protection under the ADA. Though there are some who argue that the task of emotional support is one that qualifies, that argument has yet to gain traction.

There is, however growing interest in the use of animals for emotional support.

Emotional vs Psychiatric service animals

Emotional Service Animals (ESA) are any animals used for the comfort of someone who has substantial emotional support needs. The presence of this animal provides sufferers with relief from psychiatric issues and with companionship. This definition is somewhat vague and self-explanatory, which is why there is no official training for emotional service animals, and thus no protection under the ADA. Typically speaking, ESAs are suggested for anxiety and depression.

Psychiatric Service Animals (PSA), like other service animals under the ADA, are trained to perform specialized tasks to aid those with psychiatric disorders. When trained thoroughly, PSAs can begin to predict issues such as anxiety attacks, missed medications, and self-harm, and intervene when necessary. PSAs are eligible to register as service animals.

Do Emotional Support Dogs Work?

Between 2002 and 2012, the use of ESAs increased ten-fold, and the trends show no sign of slowing. With this sharp rise in popularity, studies into the efficacy of Emotional Support Animals have struggled to keep up, and as a result, the jury is still out.

Some studies suggest that there are substantial benefits to having emotional support animals. Others point out that the inherent risks of ESAs (The psychological overload of losing a pet, the ethical dilemma of prescribing an ESA) outweigh the benefits.

As always, I would suggest you do what feels right to you. If you feel that an animal makes things easier for you, as it does for me, I say call it a pet or an emotional support animal, just keep it in your life.

My Support System

I was laying in bed at 4pm, for the 5th hour in a row. I had. spent roughly 18-20 hours in bed that whole week. As my hand fell over the side of the bed, I felt a pressure on my hand. I looked down to find my dog, Pokey, holding my hand. He whined, feeling my depression, then looked me in the eyes as if to say: “Let’s get up and take a walk. It’ll all be okay.”

He was right.

Do you have an animal in your life that supports you in hard times?

Tell me what you think

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