Guest Author - Monica J. Foster
There are assistance animals for people who are blind and assistance dogs for people with mobility impairments, as well as seizure dogs for people with epilepsy, but what exactly is a psychiatric service animal, or PSA? A PSA is a U.S. legal term for a pet which provides therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship and affection.
Psychiatric disabilities are complicated disabilities for those living with them. Many conditions such as those belonging to the schizophrenia family of diagnosis to the trauma-related diagnosis such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are being assisted not only by drugs, but by simply having an ever-present animal companion.
It is important to note that having a diagnosis of a mental illness, by itself, is not sufficient to qualify a person for a psychiatric support animal unless that illness is so severe it disables them. A doctor can make a medical determination of a person's disability and on that basis prescribe an an emotional support animal suitable to relieve the person's significant stress and anxiety. To qualify as having a disability under federal disability rights laws, a person must experience substantial limitations on one or more major life activities because of their mental illness.
A psychiatric support animal may be of any size and of any breed suited for public work. Many are trained by the person who will become the dog's handler, with or without the help of a professional trainer, but, increasingly, service dog training programs are recognizing the need for dogs to help individuals with psychiatric disabilities. Some handlers may choose to refer to their dogs as Alert or Medical Response Dogs, depending on what the dog does for them.
Some folks confuse other service animals with psychiatric service animals (PSAs). They think that "training" a dog to kiss on command or jump in their lap, or be hugged is a task qualifying the animal as a service animal. Real tasks for PSAs include providing counterbalance or steadiness for a handler who becomes dizzy on medication, waking the handler when a fire, smoke or burglar alert sounds, doing room searches or turning on lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into dangerous situations like oncoming traffic or leading a disoriented handler to a designated person or place of safety, and so on.
In the USA, handlers of psychiatric support animals are entitled to the same rights and protections afforded to handlers of other types of service dogs, such as guide dogs, hearing dogs, and mobility dogs, under federal laws. Like all other types of service animals, psychiatric support animals are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the person with a mental or psychiatric illness. Similar to service animals for people with physical or sensory disabilities, these animals have also been trained to act discretely in public places, such as laying quietly under the table in a restaurant, keeping tightly to the handler's side, not disrupting the shelves of grocery stores, and ignoring other people and animals.
In the U.S., two federal laws grant special rights to some owners of emotional support animals. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (42 USC 3601, et seq.) establishes a procedure for modifying "no pets" policies in most types of housing to permit residents to keep a pet for psychiatric support. An individual with a disability may either make a verbal request, or send a written request of reasonable accommodation to the landlord, in addition to a doctor's release and perscription to have the emotional support animal. If the landlord refuses the request for accommodation, a complaint can be filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
While most handlers will tell you that they receive some emotional support from their service animal, regardless of their disability, that support or companionship is a bonus and not a justification for the animal being a service animal. It's fine to teach your dog to kiss on command or to jump into your lap, but it is not fine to claim those tricks alone make him/her a service dog.
In housing that allow pets, but charges supplemental rent or deposits for them, these fees must be waived. The PSA's owner can be charged for actual damage done by the animal, however, but they may not require the applicant to pay a fee or a security deposit in order to keep the animal. For example, many apartments may ask a $300 deposit to be paid to keep a pet, but it is waived for a person with a psychiatric disability.
The Air Carrier Access Act establishes a procedure for modifying pet policies as well on aircraft. This way, a person with a disability can travel with a prescribed emotional support animal so long as they have appropriate documentation. Also, the animal must not pose a danger to others and may not interfere with others' space while traveling through any of the following: unwanted attention, barking, or relieving themselves inappropriately.
Documentation will be required if you plan to when traveling by air with a psychiatric support animal. The documentation will need to be verified by the gate agent. Documents from a qualified licensed health professional (psychiatrist, as one example) needs to state that the passenger has an emotional or mental disability and requires the help of the PSA. Proof of service animal status may be required such as an identification card for the animal, presence of harnesses or markings on harnesses, and tags. The letter will need to be on a licensed medical professional's letterhead and dated within one year of the date of travel, so be sure to get an updated letter from your physician if it has been a while between airline trips. The document must state that the passenger is their client under their professional care, the kind of license the professional holds, and the jurisdiction in which it was issued.
Incorrect documentation or not notifying the airline about the need for traveling with a PSA may result in being delay or disallowed from travelling until proper proof is provided and the flight rescheduled for later time.