Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)


Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

What are ESA's and should my church accommodate them?

a picture of a dog
​photo courtesy of pixaby.com

Congregations are increasingly being asked, "Can I bring my emotional support animal to church?" Let ADN help your congregation discern this issue.

First things first: What is an Emotional Support Animal?

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) provides stability to individuals who experience psychological or emotional disabilities1. Emotional support animals provide comfort and support by providing affection and companionship for individuals experiencing a variety of conditions2. Research has shown that ESAs can help alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and panic disorders by calming the handler3.

An ESA 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)4. 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.5

How is an ESA distinct from a Service Animal?

An ESA 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.6

Because 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.7 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Consider the Potential Issues​
    Thinking about potential issues will help in several ways.
    • 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. 
  3.  Think about the Big Picture
    If an 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:
  4. Determine Boundary Expectations
    Many churches and institutions require that ESAs must be:
    • 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.
  5. Plan your Communication
    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:
    • ​​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.​
  6. Connect with other churches
    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.

1 Younggren, J. N., Boisvert, J. A., & Boness, C. L. (2016). Examining emotional support animals and role conflicts in professional psychology. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice47(4), 255-260. doi:10.1037/pro0000083

2 United States Dog Registry. (2013). Information on emotional support dogs. Retrieved from http://usdogregistry.org/information/informationon-emotional-support-dogs/

3 " Regulations.gov, Document Details, Comment Submitted By Erika Hagensen, The Arc of the United States and United Cerebral Palsy, http://www.regulations.gov/search/Regs/home.htmWdocu mentDetail?R=09000064806cbd61 (last visited Sept. 3, 2009)

4 United States Department of Justice. (2011). ADA requirements: Service animals. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

5 Duffly, Z. (2015). Psychiatric service dogs & emotional support animals: Access to public places & other settings. Retrieved from http://www. nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/psychiatric-service-dogs-emotionalsupport-animals-access-public-places-other-settings.ht

6 United States Dog Registry. (2013). Information on emotional support dogs. Retrieved from http://usdogregistry.org/information/informationon-emotional-support-dogs/

7 Younggren, J. N., Boisvert, J. A., & Boness, C. L. (2016). Examining emotional support animals and role conflicts in professional psychology. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice47(4), 255-260. doi:10.1037/pro0000083​


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