Ever since I wrote the article How Do I Get a Prescription for a Service Dog, I’ve had quite a few people ask about how to get a doctor’s note. They have asked what doctors can write a note, how to ask their doctor about a service dog and what a doctor’s note should say.
Well, let’s get down to brass tacks and get specific!
Why You Need a Doctor’s Note for a Service Dog or ESA
Doctor’s notes are for a few things:
- Having an assistance dog in a rental.
- Help defend yourself in case you have to go to court
- If you press charges or report a business that decides to not follow the ADA
- When you take an emotional support dog on an airplane. When you need to support claims that you need a service dog, in case you are challenged at an airport.
- Possibly to get a service dog from a program and sometimes to train with a service dog trainer.
If a business ever asks you to show a doctor’s note for your service dog, you do not have to. You don’t need to carry your doctor’s note around with you ever. Or cards. Or even make your dog wear a vest (if you don’t want to). The article How Do I Get a Prescription for a Service Dog covers all of this.
An ESA can’t go into businesses unless the business is “pet friendly”.
Why Would You Need a Doctor’s Note for Airlines?
It’s because airlines follow the ACAA (air carrier access act) instead of the ADA.
If you like reading technical stuff, here’s the pdf that talks specifically about service dogs and emotional support animals.
The ACAA says, basically, that an airline can require documentation for emotional support animals and that it will make things easier to have documentation if you have an “invisible disability” and a service dog. They can ask for documentation for service dogs.
For people with service dogs, the airline is also supposed to accept ID cards, “other written documentation”, tags and proper answers to questions about what tasks the dog performs – but it’s still best to carry a doctor’s note in case they don’t believe you, because in that case they can require it.
The ACAA does not require that service dogs in training be allowed on airplanes. Service dogs in training rules are left up to the airlines to decide, so you need to research/call the airline if you have a dog in training.
Why Would You Need a Doctor’s Note for Housing?
Landlords to whom the FHAct, Section 504 and the ADA apply must follow the law on the HUD website.
The HUD law says that reasonable accommodation is required for anyone with an assistance animal, trained or untrained, even if the landlord does not allow pets.
An assistant animal, they say:
[…] is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. Assistance animals perform many disability-related functions, including but not limited to, guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds, providing protection or rescue assistance, pulling a wheelchair, fetching items, alerting persons to impending seizures, or providing emotional support to persons with disabilities who have a disability-related need for such support. For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, neither the FHAct nor Section 504 requires an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified.
And then “qualifying” landlords are told to ask these two questions:
(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?
If the answer to both questions is “yes”, then they will need to allow that person to have their assistance animal.
This is where the doctor’s note comes in—the landlord is allowed to ask for documentation to prove the dog is an assistance animal, which they will likely do unless the disability is very obvious and the dog is clearly providing for the disability, like a guide dog for someone who is blind.
Who Can Write a Doctor’s Note for a Service Dog or ESA?
If you’re ever planning to take your ESA on an airplane, your note needs to be written by a health professional to be able to be used.
The only quality the health professional has to have is a license.
A health professional can be your regular medical doctor, your psychiatrist, a psychologist, a licensed therapist, vocational case manager, licensed clinical social worker, etc. Anyone who is working with you on your mental or physical disability and has a license.
How To Ask Your Doctor for a Prescription for A Service Dog (or Emotional Support Animal)
This can be especially difficult if you have anxiety.
A lot of people have a hard time suggesting things to their doctor. I know I sometimes think that if my doctor thought I needed something, they would have already offered it. However, doctors don’t usually think about service dogs or emotional support animals, quite honestly.
It’s not that doctors don’t think that an animal might help. It’s usually because they have certain things they offer patients on a regular basis and a service animal isn’t at the top of the list.
So just because your doctor hasn’t said to you “Hey, what about a service dog?” doesn’t mean they’d be opposed to it. A good doctor will listen to you when you ask about something and tell you their professional opinion. If you have a doctor that doesn’t, you should switch doctors.
Here are some ways to ask:
“I have been talking to someone who also has [disability] and they say a service dog (or emotional support animal) helps them a lot. Do you think that a service dog might help me?”
“I read about how service dogs can help people with [disability] recently. Do you think a service dog would be a good choice to help me?”
“I think a service dog might help me with [disability] because [why your disability makes life hard and what a service dog can do to help with that]. I’d like to get a doctor’s note from you so that I can get/train one.”
If your doctor says yes, then you can say:
“Can you write me a note?”
“I will need a note to make sure that I can take the service dog certain places, could you write me one?”
If your doctor says no, ask them to explain why. If what they say doesn’t make sense, you may need to get a second opinion.
What Should My Doctor’s Note for my Service Dog Say?
Your doctor’s note should be very specific if you want it to be accepted.
It will need to be on your doctor’s “letterhead”. This means it needs to give your doctor’s information.
A letterhead should have:
- The doctor’s name with any “attachments” (for example, Dr. John Smith, M.D. or Sarah Smith, LCSW)
- Their address
- Their phone number
The actual letter should have:
- A date within the last year (Get a new one every year!)
- A statement that you have a physical or mental disability.
- That having the dog with you is necessary to your mental or physical health, or your treatment, or to assist you with your disability.
- That you are under the care of the person writing the note and that the person writing the note is a licensed medical professional. (This includes the doctor’s licensing information: the date it was issued, what state/jurisdiction it was given in and what license it is.)
When Will a Doctor’s Note Not Help?
If your dog is acting aggressive, noisy, uses the bathroom on the floor, or is being disruptive to others, a doctor’s note will do nothing for you.
Your dog must be extremely well-behaved in all situations if you want your doctor’s note to mean something.
What if an Airline/Landlord Denies Me Despite Having a Doctor’s Note for My Service Dog?
Before someone asks you to not get on the plane, they should help try to fix whatever is the issue. For example, asking you to muzzle a barking dog, giving you a decent amount of time to correct the issue, offering a different seat, etc.
If you disagree with someone’s reasons for not letting you on a plane, ask to speak with the airline’s complaint resolution official (CRO.) The CRO will decide who is correct, and then they have to write down why you were denied access (if they decide you can’t get on the plane) and give a copy of what they wrote to you.
File a complaint with HUD if you are denied housing unfairly.
Just remember, in the end you don’t have to have a doctor’s note for a service dog in most cases. It’s just a good idea to have one lying around to help make things easier for you.