First things first: What is an
Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional Support Animal (ESA) provides stability to individuals who experience psychological or emotional disabilities.
Emotional support animals provide comfort and support by providing affection and
companionship for individuals experiencing a variety of conditions. Research
has shown that ESAs can help alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress
disorder, anxiety disorder, and panic disorders by calming the handler.
is not a service animal (SA). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines
a SA as a dog that is “individually trained” to “do work or perform tasks for
the benefit of an individual with a disability.” A service dog has been
trained to perform a task directly related to their owner's disability (United
States Department of Justice, 2011). Conversely, ESAs have not been trained for a specific purpose.
An ESA is not a Psychiatric
Service Animal. A
psychiatric service animal (PSA) is a special type of SA dog that has been
trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities and detect
the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. These tasks might
include: reminding the companion to take medications, providing safety checks
or room searches, turning on lights for persons with anxiety disorders,
interrupting self-mutilation behaviors, anticipating epileptic seizures, and
preventing impaired individuals from endangering themselves.
How is an ESA distinct from a
does not require special training and does not receive certification for its role in providing emotional support. ESAs provide emotional stability,
companionship, and unconditional love. This helps alleviate symptoms
associated with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder/mood disorder, panic
attacks, fear/phobias, and other psychological and emotional conditions.
ESAs do not require specific training, they are not covered by Title II
(Nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in state and local government
services; 42 U.S.C.) or Title III (Nondiscrimination on the basis of disability
by public accommodations and in public commercial facilities; 42 U.S.C.) of the
ADA. However, ESAs are recognized and protected by the Fair Housing Amendments Act
in which a support animal is considered a reasonable accommodation.
Should ESAs be allowed at Church?
While many congregations desire to be as
accommodating as possible to people with disabilities, they fear that allowing
animals in the congregation will be disruptive in worship or make other
congregants nervous. Below are suggestions and resources to help your
congregation discern this area of accessibility.
- What stereotypes or biases might you or your congregation hold unconsciously toward people with mental illness?
People with “hidden
disabilities” may need to use an emotional support animal to cope with limitations that affect their daily lives. Some people struggle being out in public without their emotional support animal. While challenges and complications may arise from allowing support animals
inside the church building, some individuals with mental illness cope much better with their ESA at their side.
- Consider the Potential Issues
Thinking about potential issues will help in several
Think about the Big Picture
- Naming potential challenges facilitates discussion about how to overcome the challenges.
- Considering potential issues and finding solutions can reassure people who may be skeptical.
- If your congregation decides to allow ESAs,
the transition will be smoother.
individual or family asks to bring their ESA to church, take time to consider how this may affect the congregation in the long-term. Develop a policy to ensure that everyone receives fair treatment. Read these sample policies from other churches and institutions:
Determine Boundary Expectations
Many churches and institutions require that ESAs must be:
Plan your Communication
- House-broken--trained to go outside
- Trained to not bark or make other disruptive sounds indoors
- Gentle and not aggressive or fearful toward other people
- Restricted to certain areas within the worship space and other parts of the building
- An emotional support to the person and not just a pet
- When communicating boundary information to someone who has an ESA, take care to not require them to reveal more information about their disability than they feel comfortable revealing.
Communicate the benefits and boundary expectations for ESAs with everyone. When all people in the congregation know why there are ESAs present in the church and feel like they know what to expect, they will often feel more comfortable. This can be
accomplished in a variety of ways:
Connect with other churches
- Email, newsletter, or bulletin announcements to explain the decision-making process and outline the expectations.
- Post on the church website giving full details of the policy for and purpose of ESAs.
- Include a short line in the bulletin every week to welcome ESAs for people with disabilities and direct them to where more information can be found.
Consult a congregation that welcomes ESAs to learn more about what worked or didn't work as well for them in their process. Don't know of another ESA-friendly church? ADN staff would be happy to connect you to resources and churches to assist you with considering ESAs in the congregation.
Contact us if you have questions or would like
to share your church’s experience.
N., Boisvert, J. A., & Boness, C. L. (2016). Examining emotional support
animals and role conflicts in professional psychology. Professional
Psychology: Research And Practice, 47(4), 255-260.
Regulations.gov, Document Details, Comment Submitted By Erika Hagensen, The Arc
of the United States and United Cerebral Palsy,
mentDetail?R=09000064806cbd61 (last visited Sept. 3, 2009)
Department of Justice. (2011). ADA requirements: Service animals. Retrieved