I was wondering if any Doctors would recommend an MS patient to register their dog as an emotional support animal or therapy animal. Due to my anxiety and occasional pain, my dog always seems to calm me and sense if I'm uneasy at any time. If so, is there a website that is reputable so I may register my dog so I can take him with me whenever I go out in public.
We discourage people from registering their pet dogs as an emotional support animal. All of our pets provide emotional support! People can obtain a (fake) registration letter on the internet if they so choose. In any case, emotional support dogs are not allowed universal public access. Here’s the law:
Emotional Support Animals
Many individuals—both with and without disabilities—derive emotional support and comfort from dogs and other animals that are not specially trained to perform specific tasks directly related to a psychiatric disability.
The ADA considers such “emotional support animals” to be distinct from psychiatric service dogs, and treats them differently. The ADA does not grant emotional support dog owners the same right of access to public places that it gives to individuals who use psychiatric service dogs. That means that under the ADA, a movie theater, for example, must allow psychiatric service dogs to accompany their owners into the movie auditorium but can refuse to admit individuals with emotional support dogs.
The Difference Between a Psychiatric Service Dog and an Emotional Support Dog
It is not always clear—to staff at public places, and even to some people with disabilities—whether an animal accompanying an individual with a psychiatric disability or impairment is performing a psychiatric service or “merely” providing emotional support. Confusion may result in unlawful and discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities.
The key distinction to remember is that a psychiatric service animal is actually trained to perform certain tasks that are directly related to an individual’s psychiatric disability. The dog’s primary role is not to provide emotional support. It is to assist the owner with the accomplishment of vital tasks they otherwise would not be able to perform independently. In addition, a psychiatric service dog must not only respond to an owner’s need for help, the dog must also be trained to recognize the need for help in the first place. A dog must be able to respond and recognize to be a service dog.
By contrast, an emotional support dog is a pet that is not trained to perform specific acts directly related to an individual’s psychiatric disability. Instead, the pet's owner simply derives a sense of well-being, safety, or calm from the dog’s companionship and physical presence.
The animal companionship of an emotional support dog can have genuine therapeutic benefits for individuals with psychiatric disabilities and less severe mental impairments. But unless the dog is also trained to work—to independently recognize and respond to its owner’s psychiatric disability—the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog and does not receive the protections of the ADA.
For example, people with social phobia might only feel safe enough to leave their home for food or medication if their dog accompanies them. Such a dog would be considered an emotional support animal.
If, however, the same person is prone to dissociative episodes when they leave home, and their dog is trained to recognize and respond to the onset of such an episode by nudging, barking, or removing the individual to a safe location, then the dog would be considered a psychiatric service dog.
Ellen Lathi, MD
Dr. Lathi is the director of the MS Center at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center as well as a well-known speaker on treatment issues and wellness in multiple sclerosis. She also directs the MS Service Dog Program, sponsored by the NMSS, in which highly trained dogs are trained to assist patients with MS.