The animal is not expected to complete any specialized task or provide any physical assistance outside of emotional support. A service animal is a dog trained to perform specialized life-tasks for the benefit of an individual with a registered disability. I am a firm believer in the emotional benefits that animal companionship provides, however, I am strongly opposed to the abuse of emotional support animal privileges (i.e. people trying to take them places they're not allowed) and an advocate for service dogs and their rights.
So obviously, the best doggo around is my pup, Cami—a six-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever that has been the center of my whole world since 8th grade. Cami had been my source of comfort, cuddle buddy, and best friend for years—until I had to leave her when I moved out of my mother's house and down to Orlando for college.
I went a long year and half without Cami, due to the fact that I was living in a dorm and trying to survive life on my own. During this hectic (and downright awful) first year, I dumped my high school boyfriend that I had moved down with after he became abusive, I started a new job a forty-five-minute commute from campus, and I failed two classes and lost my full-ride scholarship. Oh, and I was the victim of a severe car accident that totaled my paid-off car—hooray for life in Orlando!
It wasn't until last fall when I was making arrangements to move into off-campus housing that the possibility of Cami coming to live with me ever crossed my mind. The apartment complex that my roommates and I had chosen accepted pets! A novelty in the world of college housing! So I called the apartment's student-run office to get more information. The strange phone conversation went a little something like this:
Me: "Hi, I just signed my lease to move in next month, but I recently noticed that you guys accept pets. If I brought my dog, how would that work?"
Office girl: "Well, are you registering her as an emotional support animal?" with her impatient, snooty tone.
Me: "Well, um, no. Should I?"
Office girl: "Well if not it's a $350 pet deposit and then a $25 pet rent per month."
Excuse me, a $350 deposit?! Now the $25 pet rent I understand and was expecting. That's pretty standard for anywhere in Orlando, but a $350 deposit? That's more than Cami's vaccines, dog food, and nail trimmings for the entire year. I love my dog, but that's a lot of money. Especially for a struggling college student with no financial help outside of what she earns herself.
So of course, if there was an option for Cami to live rent-free, I had to look into it.
(Also, there's no freaking excuse for a pet deposit to be so expensive. What kind of actual damage is a dog going to do besides get hair everywhere? Hair vacuums up! We really need to talk about why there's no mandatory deposit for housing children under five. They're the destructive ones. Anyway, I digress.)
I don't agree with how normalized Snooty Girl on the phone made getting an emotional support animal sound. Because it's not. I learned that while emotional support animals are permitted to live in pet-free housing and are exempt from all residential pet fees, they are only granted to those with diagnosed mental or emotional disabilities where an animal can provide substantial relief and comfort.
And according to the official ESA website, a diagnosed mental or emotional disability is anything from stress, seasonal depression, PTSD, anxiety, insomnia ADHD, ADD, to multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, severe depression, and bipolar disorder.
Though at this point in my life, I was experiencing a lot of stress from school and some anxiety and major insomnia from my recent car accident, so I figured I had a good chance at qualifying for an emotional support animal. So I set up a time online for a appointment with a qualified mental health professional through an ESA registration website and awaited my diagnosis.
I met with a sweet mental health counselor lady from Massachusetts who spent almost an hour talking to me about my life and the crazy events from the past year over a semi-awkward Skype counseling session. I talked to her about my trouble sleeping and fear of driving since the head-on collision only months before, and the stressful issues I'd been having with school. She, of course, agreed that having my dog with me would help alleviate stress, calm my nighttime anxiety, and get me outside more often—which helps prevent depression.
The next month, Cami and I made the drive to our new home together in Orlando. She's now been living with me for over four months, and I couldn't be happier. She helps me get up in the morning with her sweet persistence to go outside and potty, and we make trips to the nearby dog park regularly. She gets me out of the house during the day and snuggles me to sleep at night. She's cuddled up next to me now as I write this. She's definitely changed my quality of life for the better.
If you, like me, struggle with any mental or emotional disability—even something as common as stress or anxiety—I highly recommend you look into the benefits of an emotional support animal. (And if you don't already have a pup in mind, then you should adopt!) Because puppy love is the best medicine there is.