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Would a support dog be right for me?

Hello Sam, I am 11 years old and have been struggling with mental health issues. I have panic attacks and anxiety attacks and go into fight or flight mode a lot. I tend to worry about a wide variety of things, but school creates a lot of stress and anxiousness for me. At night, I feel isolated and cut off. I always feel frightened, and keep a nightlight on. Because of this, I get very little sleep and am often tired to the point that getting out of bed seems impossible.

I have been wondering if getting an ESA (Emotional Support Animal - preferably a dog) would help me. I love dogs and they make me feel calm and safe. I do not currently own a dog and would really like one anyway. I know that if the dog were to sleep in my room I would feel safer, and if it came to school with me I would have a distraction and the dog would calm me down.

The problem is, I don’t know if I would qualify for one and even if I did, would my school allow an ESA on its premises? Please bare in mind that an ESA is different to a psychriactric service dog. Please help me!

Ask Sam

Sam

Hi there,

Feeling anxious and having panic attacks can make everyday activities difficult. You might feel worried about sleeping, going shopping, catching the bus or going to school. An emotional support animal can help people feel less alone and more able to manage how they feel. However, emotional support animals are different to assistance dogs – and they aren’t always going to be allowed into the places where you want support. It’s important to understand the difference, and the limitations to having an emotional support animal, before making a decision.

Stroking, taking care of your pet or having them close by can help you to feel calmer and less anxious. You might want to take your pet with you to places where you’re worried that you might feel upset or panicked to help you manage, but many places don’t allow pets for health and safety reasons.

Assistance dogs are trained to help people with disabilities and certain medical conditions. Guide dog and assistance dog owners have important rights under the Equality Act 2010. A recognised assistance dog is allowed by law into all public places – including shops, restaurants and on public transport. However, shops, schools and health services don’t have to allow emotional support dogs, and you won’t have the same legal rights over where you take your support dog.

There is currently no way to get an emotional support dog the same legal status as an assistance or guide dog. There are some websites which allow you to pay to register your emotional support animal, but this doesn’t give it any more legal rights.

Your doctor or mental health worker might recommend that you have contact with animals to support your recovery. You can ask your health worker to write a letter asking your school to allow your emotional support animal to be with you as part of your on-going treatment or for your mental wellness, but that won’t always mean that your school or other premises will allow that to happen.

You might benefit from having a pet at home even if they can’t go to different places with you. Some shops and other centres might allow your support animal with you and some businesses register as being Emotional Support Animal Friendly or Dog Friendly so you can plan in advance where you’ll be able to go with your pet.

However, there are lots of things to think about if you’re thinking about getting any pet, including an emotional support dog. Think about how much room you have at home, how much time you have to care for your pet and how much a pet will cost to feed and look after. If you think that having a pet could help you manage the way you feel, you could talk to your parent or carer about whether they want a pet, and what type of pet would be a good fit for your family.

Childline has lots of advice on managing anxiety and coping with stress. If you want to talk more about how you are feeling and how to copy, remember you can always talk to a Childline counsellor about this or anything else that’s worrying you.

Thank you for your letter.

Take care,

Sam

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