Dear Patti,

My dad is 76 and hasn’t been doing well ever since we lost my mom four years ago. He’s been depressed and isolating himself from friends and family. My sisters and I have been very worried and decided to get dad a dog. We found a wonderful rescue dog that my father named Champ. Ever since, little Champ has been the only thing that has lifted my father’s spirits. Unfortunately, Dad now gets anxious if he has to go anywhere without Champ.

Dad’s neighbor told him that he could a get a certificate online to make Champ a therapy dog, and then he would be able to take Champ everywhere. My older sister believes that the online certificate is a scam and that in order to be legitimate Champ would have to become a service dog. My father insists that’s not true.

I’m confused about what’s legal or not. Champ has been very good for my dad, and I don’t see anything wrong with taking him places if it helps dad feel better.

— Diana

Dear Diana,

Many studies have shown the positive effects of contact with animals, such as improved energy levels, alleviation of anxiety, and a generalized positive effect on a person’s emotional wellbeing. Both Florence Nightingale and Sigmund Freud wrote about the emotional benefits that they observed pets had on their patients.  Freud observed that the presence of his dog Jofi’ encouraged his patients struggling to open up emotionally. In my own practice, I often take my rescue dog Daisy with me and have clearly seen how her presence helps put patients at ease.

While you’ve seen the positive effects that Champ has on your father’s mental state, it’s important to understand the difference between service animals and emotional support animals.

A service dog is individually trained to perform tasks for someone with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. In order to qualify for a service animal, a person must be disabled in a way that substantially limits them in at least one major life function, such as caring for oneself, walking, seeing, or hearing. More minor impairments do not qualify. Service animals are trained to work with their handler’s disability and must know how to perform tasks on command. Common types of service animals include guide dogs for visual impairments, hearing or signal dogs for hearing impairments, and psychiatric service dogs that are trained to detect and alleviate psychiatric episodes. Providing companionship or protection are not considered appropriate service animal duties.

In your dad’s case, it doesn’t sound like he would meet the disability requirements for a service dog. Instead, it might be a good idea for him to get evaluated for an emotional support animal.

An emotional support animal (ESA) provides therapeutic benefits, such as comfort and emotional support, to a person suffering from a medically diagnosed mental, emotional, or other qualifying disability. Support animals provide companionship and relieve stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety, or phobias. However, they do not receive specialized training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. While service animals must be ready to perform specific tasks on cue, an ESA’s job is solely to provide emotional comfort.

To qualify for an ESA, a person must be diagnosed with a qualifying disability by a licensed mental health professional. There are 40 disabilities that can qualify, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and schizophrenia. The mental health professional must provide their patient with an ESA letter, stating that an ESA will directly benefit their patient in regard to one or more symptoms of his/her disability. The patient should carry the letter at all times when out in public with their ESA.

It is not possible to receive a valid ESA letter without speaking to a licensed mental health professional, preferably in person. There are many scam websites that will claim to evaluate a person’s need for an ESA online and provide an ESA letter or certification, but these are fraudulent. Any website that claims that to determine a person’s need for an ESA, without the person speaking to a licensed mental health professional, is unlawful.

Although no training is legally required for ESAs, it would be preferable for Champ to receive basic obedience and conditioning training. Champ would be expected to be under your father’s control at all times and perform his therapeutic duties in a non-disruptive manner. Unlike service animals, ESAs do not have public access rights to private businesses or restaurants. However, many businesses choose to allow ESAs, although they may ask to see an ESA letter as a condition of permitting entrance.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.