Advancing a Dog From An Emotional Support Animal or ESA to a Psychiatric Service Animal or PSD

Written by: Loren Seldner



Time to read 9 min

In the realm of assistance animals, the lines between emotional support animals (ESA) and psychiatric service animals (PSA) can sometimes blur. Both ESAs and PSA (also called PSD, since they typically are dogs) play crucial roles in helping individuals with mental and emotional challenges, as well as learning disabilities. Yet, these two categories differ in various aspects, including their legal rights. To demystify the process of transforming your ESA into a PSA, it's important to understand their distinctions, the criteria for eligibility, and the training involved.

Understanding the basics

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Eligibility and Professional Guidance

The journey towards having a PSA begins with a clear understanding of your disability. To ensure eligibility, consult a licensed healthcare professional who can confirm whether you have a qualifying mental health disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Connecting with a therapist, either in-person or online, can help you acquire a PSD letter that validates your need for a service dog.

Training for Your PSA

Training your dog to fulfill tasks aligned with your mental health disability is a pivotal step. You can opt to train your dog independently or seek the guidance of a professional trainer. The training process involves teaching your dog to perform tasks such as reminding you to take medication, interrupting episodes including crying or dissociation, providing calming tactile stimulation, and more.

Ensuring Your PSA's Manners

A well-behaved service dog is essential for navigating various public settings, from airports to stores. Your PSD, or PSA, should exhibit calmness, alertness, and proper behavior, even amidst bustling environments. This ensures a smooth experience for both you and your service dog as you go about your daily activities.

Uniforms and Identification

For added clarity, consider outfitting your service dog with items like vests, tags, collars, and ID cards. These items can signal that your dog is an on-duty service dog, facilitating smoother interactions and reducing potential misunderstandings.

WHAT ARE THE Legal differences between ESAs and PSAs?

The legal rights for Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) differ significantly. Here are the exact differences in their legal rights:

  1. Public Access Rights

    Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), PSDs have broad public access rights. They can accompany their handlers in places where dogs are not typically allowed, including stores, restaurants, hotels, and public transportation. ESAs do not have the same level of public access rights as PSDs. They are only granted special accommodations in housing, but not in public spaces where dogs are not usually permitted.

  2. Housing Accommodations

    Both PSDs and ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This law allows individuals with disabilities to request reasonable accommodations in housing, even in housing that has a "no pets" policy. Landlords are required to make reasonable exceptions to their rules to accommodate the presence of a service or support animal.

  3. Air Travel Accommodations

    The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recognizes PSDs as service animals. They are permitted to fly in the cabin of an aircraft free of charge and are exempt from any airline pet fees. As of January 11th, 2021, airlines are no longer required to provide special accommodations for ESAs on flights. Some airlines may choose to allow ESAs on a case-by-case basis, but they are not legally obligated to do so. 

  4. Training Requirements

    PSDs must be trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate their owner's disability. This training is tailored to the individual's needs. ESAs do not require specialized training. They provide emotional comfort to their owners simply by being present.


Emotional support animals, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs or PSAs) can all be used by individuals with psychiatric disabilities. In the context of assistance animal laws, a "disability" refers to a "mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities." This encompasses conditions such as emotional or mental illnesses, as well as learning disabilities.

In essence, eligibility for a psychiatric service dog hinges on the owner having a mental illness or learning disability that significantly curtails their functioning in major life activities, such as work, sleep, or learning. The qualification standard for an emotional support animal (ESA) follows a similar trajectory. Both PSA and ESA owners rely on their assistance animals to assist them in coping with various conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, autism, learning disabilities, and phobias.

Should you suspect that you possess a qualifying condition, it's advisable to seek confirmation from a licensed healthcare professional with experience in ESA or PSD support. A certified therapist can evaluate whether the symptoms and challenges you're experiencing align with the criteria of a psychiatric disability that could be aided by an assistance animal. 

The therapist's assessment extends to gauging the severity of your mental or emotional illness and whether it hampers essential life activities. Additionally, a professional can offer recommendations to address your concerns, which might encompass the incorporation of an assistance animal. 

Seeking assistance from a professional if you're grappling with mental and emotional health issues.

  • Transitioning an Emotional Support Animal to a Psychiatric Service Dog. If you have an ESA that is a dog, there is a possibility to train it into a psychiatric service dog (PSD), provided certain prerequisites are met.

  • No Task Requirement for ESA. If your psychiatric disability doesn't necessitate your dog to execute specific tasks to provide the support you require, then it remains categorized as an emotional support animal (ESA), obviating the need for a transition to a PSA.

  • Task-Related Assistance. If your assistance dog needs to perform tasks that aid your disability, such as those previously discussed, your ESA could qualify as a PSA. It's important to note that a PSA must undergo comprehensive training to proficiently perform its designated tasks. It's crucial to differentiate that a service dog that's ‘in training’ doesn't hold the status of an official service dog, with all the all corresponding legal rights.

Psychiatric service dogs must also undergo training to exhibit appropriate behavior in public settings. Unlike emotional support animals, PSDs possess the privilege of accompanying their handlers to any location open to the public. A PSD is expected to fulfill its tasks irrespective of the surroundings, even in bustling and demanding environments teeming with distractions.

However, it's essential for a PSA to behave appropriately in public. If a PSA displays behavior like running around, barking, growling, acting aggressively, or leaping on others, establishments may request them to exit. As per the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) air travel regulations, a psychiatric service dog demonstrating these behaviors implies inadequate training and can be asked to leave an airport or plane. If your service animal can't remain composed and focused on its tasks in spaces shared with others, it may not be suitable for the role of a psychiatric service dog.


  1. Medication Reminder. Prompting their handler to take prescribed medication.
  2. Episode Interruption. Disrupting episodes such as crying, dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares.
  3. Harm Prevention. Preventing harmful actions like scratching, picking, and self-harm.
  4. Calming Pressure. Providing pressure and tactile stimulation to induce a sense of calm.
  5. Panic Attack Aid. Grounding and guiding the handler during panic attacks.
  6. Psychotic Episode Support. Lying on the handler during psychotic episodes to offer comfort and grounding.
  7. Disrupting Episodes. Gently applying pressure with teeth or nuzzling to interrupt psychiatric episodes.
  8. Behavior Interruption. Breaking the cycle of repetitive behaviors.
  9. Routine Maintenance. Assisting the handler in maintaining a stable daily routine.
  10. Sleep Regulation. Preventing the handler from oversleeping and aiding in sleep management.


If you're dealing with a psychiatric disability for which a trained dog can provide assistance through specific tasks, there's a possibility to train an existing emotional support animal (ESA) to transition into a psychiatric service dog (PSD). 

Importantly, a PSD doesn't necessarily require formal professional training or certification from an organization. While options like organizations and professional trainers exist to aid in training, both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) allow owners to undertake training themselves. Official certification procedures for completing training as a psychiatric service dog aren't established, but certain organizations promote unofficial guidelines and standards. 

Of course, tehcnically you can train your ESA to become a PSD, but it's recommended to work with a professional trainer who specializes in service dog training. Training a PSD requires specialized skills and knowledge to ensure the dog can perform tasks reliably and effectively. Professional trainers can tailor the training to your specific needs and disability.


Third-party verification of whether someone has a PSD or ESA depends on the context. In public spaces such as stores, if you have a PSD, staff members are permitted to ask two specific questions:

  • Is the psychiatric service dog needed due to a disability?
  • What task or work has the PSD been trained to perform?

However, staff members cannot demand written documentation, require the dog to demonstrate tasks, or inquire intrusively about the owner's disability.

Unlike other service dogs, psychiatric service dogs aren't mandated to wear vests, ID tags, or specific harnesses. Owners are not obligated to carry ID cards or certifications either. Although many PSD owners voluntarily use such items to navigate public interactions, particularly to handle inquiries related to their invisible disabilities. Notably, the DOT has indicated that airlines can consider factors like harnesses, vests, leashes, and tags to determine whether a dog is a PSD.


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To be eligible for a psychiatric service dog, you need to possess a valid psychiatric disability and train your dog to perform a task or service that aids with that specific disability. If you require additional documentation or are uncertain about the eligibility of your disability for a PSA, you have the option to request a psychiatric service dog letter or PSA letter from your doctor or therapist. Should your current healthcare provider be unable to fulfill your request, you can explore the option of obtaining a PSD letter online. Here's how to proceed:

  1. Assess Your Requirements for a PSA. Determine the specific tasks or services that would benefit your psychiatric disability.
  2. Consult Your Doctor or Therapist. Reach out to your doctor or therapist to discuss your intention to obtain a psychiatric service dog letter. They can evaluate your condition and provide guidance.
  3. Use a Reputable Online Telehealth Provider.  If you have challenges in obtaining the letter through your existing healthcare provider, you can explore online services, such as Felicitails that will connect you with licensed therapists who can assess your eligibility.

A PSA letter is an official document issued by a medical or mental health professional. It confirms your eligibility for an assistance animal and grants you specific rights in areas such as housing, air travel, and public spaces. This letter includes the contact details of the doctor or therapist and explicitly states whether your condition qualifies for a psychiatric service animal.


Can my ESA also become a psychiatric service dog? The answer is nuanced—while the possibility exists, not all ESA owners can transition their pets into PSDs, and not all ESAs are suitable for such a transformation. Several factors come into play, as both the owner and the potential PSD must meet specific legal criteria for this transition to occur. 

If you're contemplating the journey of converting your emotional support animal into a psychiatric service dog, there are essential considerations to keep in mind. While ESAs and PSDs often assist individuals with similar conditions, it's crucial to note that not all mental illnesses require the involvement of a task-trained service animal.

However, if you're an ESA owner grappling with a mental or emotional disability where a trained service dog could provide tangible assistance, your ESA can potentially be trained to become a PSD. It's possible that your ESA already performs certain tasks aiding in managing your mental illness or learning disability. 

Keep in mind, a full-fledged PSD must undergo comprehensive task training, and these tasks must directly address the owner's psychiatric disability. Furthermore, if the PSD is meant to accompany its owner into public spaces or on flights, it should be trained to navigate high-stress environments and interact calmly with people, children, and other animals. Notably, not all emotional support animals possess the required temperament or inherent personality traits for this level of engagement.

Training a dog to become a PSD isn't a simple feat, but it can be undertaken independently or with the guidance of an organization or a professional trainer. If you believe you might meet the criteria for a PSD but are uncertain, the most prudent step is to have a discussion about your needs with a licensed mental health professional. 

At Felicitails, our Licensed Therapists and ESA/PSA experts are ready and prepared to help you navigate through the certification process. Click HERE to learn more and discover new ways of enjoying life with your furry companion.