Louisiana Emotional Support Dog Laws

Did you know October 3 to October 9 is National Mental Illness Awareness Week? If you asked Tubbs here at the office, she would say she is well aware of it and wanted everyone to know that dogs can help with mental illnesses too. Some even have jobs with their humans.

Lots of animals throughout history have held jobs. Carrier pigeons told folks who won the Olympics & crossed enemy lines  as far back as 2,000 years ago. Spoiler alert: aside from a dog, a pigeon is my favorite animal. Don't come for me. I'm aware it's really weird, but you're also talking to the girl who dresses her dog up often.

So it comes as no surprise that there are many types of working dogs folks use for jobs. We have discussed service dogs extensively here before but today we want to turn the spotlight to Emotional Support Dogs ("Comfort Dogs").

Now, emotional support animals don't have to just be a dog. They could also be a bird, cat, hamster, etc.

Our friends over at the nonprofit Mississippi Therapy Animals have trained a lot of animals for working jobs. In fact their Animal Assisted Intervention, Animal Assisted Therapy, Animal Assisted Education, and Animal Assisted Activities team also includes alpacas, llamas, parrots, and more.

Mississippi Therapy Animals has an Animal Assisted Therapy alpaca. Photo credit to Mississippi Therapy Animals and used with permission.

But for the purpose of today's blog, we are talking about canines who are helping their humans as Emotional Support Dogs.

What is An Emotional Support Dog?

First and foremost they are NOT service dogs. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The ADA explicitly states that animals that simply provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals.

A better name would be "comfort animal". These pups provide comfort, also known as, you guessed it: emotional support to one handler.

However, in order to qualify as an emotional support dog the handler must have a mental illness. The animal also needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional or doctor to a person with this mental illness. The prescription must state that the person has an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and that the presence of the animal is necessary for the individual's mental health. The fact that your dog curls up with you when you're sad or anxious isn't enough-- if you don't have a documented need or illness, he/she won't qualify as a support dog.

Examples of mental illnesses that may benefit from an emotional support dog (this is not exhaustive):

The mere presence of Tubbs Sheppard-Stone alone doesn't make her an emotional support dog.

How Is This Different Than A Service Dog?

Service dogs can belong to a person with a psychiatric disability, even the same disabilities where a emotional support dog is used. The key difference is that a service dog is trained to perform specific tasks catered to that disability. An example of a difference would be if some has documented anxiety and their dog was trained to recognize the medical condition and alert them. This could mean the dog stops the person from self harming on their own, applies deep pressure on the person, reminds the human to take medication. If the dog is merely doing something it would naturally do anyway then it is not a specific task and it would likely be considered an emotional support dog.

An emotional support dog can't go everywhere with you like a service dog can. You must have permission from the owner of a business to have your dog with you. The only place you could have your dog would be your living space as noted below.

Are There Any Laws That Protect An Emotional Support Dog's Handler?

While an emotional support dog does not have as many protections as a service dog has, it does have some as it pertains to housing so long as the individual has a disability necessitating the dog’s affection. When it comes to housing then the person may request a reasonable accommodation.

The Fair Housing Act recognizes that an emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a "reasonable accommodation" for a person with a disability. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development who investigates housing discrimination claims and oversees the FHA has determined this classification is not a pet. There is a caveat: the person must provide documentation from their physician or counselor denoting the disability but only if it is not readily apparent. The housing association or landlord cannot ask for unlimited access to the individual’s medical records or medical history.

This applies even if the landlord or property management company has a "no pets" policy.

How Do You Get A Letter Or Documentation?

Just like training certifications, beware of online companies that note you can “buy” an ESA letter. The letter must come from your current treating physician.

Penalties If You Misrepresent Your Dog

If you misrepresent your animal as an emotional support dog on an application for housing that receives federal funds, and you get caught, then you are facing a federal felony charge at minimum. This also includes if you forge documentation. How would they know? Well if your animal harms someone else and a lawsuit happens and they request your and your dog's medical history, it's going to come out that you didn't have a disability or your doctor hadn't treated you.

Make sure you know your rights as an emotional support dog handler but don't try to take advantage of the laws just to get out of pet deposits.

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Need help navigating dog laws in Louisiana? Want a personal or business consultation with Amber & Tubbs? Is there a topic you want to hear more about or have us present at your business, school, or organization? Leave a comment on our Facebook page, call or text us at 985-265-7196, or shoot us an email at amber@ambersheppardlaw.com to start a conversation.

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