Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent nearly 12 hours every single day learning the Emotional Support Animal business. During that time, I’ve educated myself on fair housing law, discriminatory landlord practices, clients who game the system, and the soup to nuts of everything in between.
With that in mind, I thought to share some insider intel, nuggets of information gleaned from all of my hard work.
So here goes.
Tip #1: Buyer beware.
My advice? The majority are up to no good — out to steal your money, offering meaningless certificates and (at best) questionable information.
How do I know this?
Simple. We’ve shopped these vendors, called their 800 numbers (if they even have one), talked to their salespeople. We’ve ordered their letters, bought their swag, and “registered” our animals (including an elephant).
In the end, it’s no wonder clients come to us “wondering if we’re legitimate.”
Pictured on the right are typical products offered for sale. My professional advice? Save your money and shop elsewhere.
Pro-tip: If you can’t talk to someone … then it’s best to choose another service.
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Let’s talk networks. Put your cell phone down, we’re not talking those kinds of networks. We’re talking about ESA licensed therapist networks. It's is a bit like that coverage map, only instead of better download speeds or less chance of dropped calls, coverage refers to which trusted therapists you can connect with to get the most out of your ESA letter.
Tip #2: Benefit versus need.
Recently, we took a call from a potential client who wanted her “six Chihuahuas” approved.
Come again, right?
Since we turned on the lights, we’ve fielded a lot of calls, so we’re used to folks who are “anxious” — not a day goes by when a caller isn’t crying, angry, yelling, or the such. Goes with the territory, and we’re okay with that.
Back to the lady and her fleet of Chihuahuas. There’s no doubt, in our first glance, that she was struggling. But six Chihuahuas worth of struggling?
Before you make your mind up on was she a “yes or no”, here’s the formula used by our therapists — a client must have a “disability and disability-related need for an assistance animal.”
From HUD’s perspective, that means Johnny Doe has symptoms related to his disability that is causing a significant impact on one or more major life activity. For example, Johnny might be suffering from PTSD, and because of that, he’s got sleeping issues and uses bourbon and Ambien to make it thru the night.
Our focus, from the ESA assessment, is to isolate one or more functional limitations. In Johnny’s case, that’s sleep. Other common limitations include an inability to socially interact, problems caring for oneself, sexual issues, focus, and others.
To the lady and her six dogs, each animal would have to help mitigate a symptom associated with a disability. To merely state, they all help with her sleep doesn’t work.
One has to differentiate between need and benefit.
We told her we couldn’t help.
Tip #3: Process matters.
These days, when it comes to ESA housing letters, HUD’s all about “the client’s relationship with the therapist.”
When you examine our process, you’ll see we’re all about multiple touchpoints, a push for “after-care,” and a continued conversation with the client throughout the year.
What does that mean exactly?
All too often in this business, you’re going to run into online vendors offering “instant certificates” and letters issued without a single conversation between the therapist and client. What I like to refer to as an “ESA letter mill.”
The client’s problem with this, you see, as they may not recognize at first, is when they run into a landlord who might deny them a reasonable accommodation due to the “unreliability” of their documentation.
- Your therapist is located across the country
- Your letter is a bad cut and paste job from a template found on the net
- Your therapist issued an ESA letter without ever speaking to the client
Here at ESADoggy, that’s not how we do things.
I own this company, and every day I remind everyone “we want to do things the right way.” Now, I recognize that might mean we lose market share, and the business that we do costs more, but what we do matters.
One of the first calls we took was from a wounded warrior suffering from traumatic brain injury and full-bore PTSD. That call shook me to my core, and I pledged then to help those most in need.
So, that means we’re not going to issuing instant, fraudulent, or worthless letters … sell certificates … register your dog … you see, all that is bunk, and we’re not having any part of it.
And neither should you.
Pro-tip: When speaking to an ESA service, ask them about their process. Ask them how many times you’ll speak to a therapist. Ask them if they offer after-care.
Just Three Simple Steps.
Once you complete our intake assessment, you'll speak with a licensed mental health professional from your local area/state, discussing your disability and disability-related need for an emotional support animal. If needed, follow-up sessions and optional aftercare may be suggested.
If your therapist determines you would benefit from an Emotional Support Animal, a letter of recommendation will be issued -- securely delivered and also sent US Mail. Your therapist will continue to maintain a relationship with you throughout the year to assess progress made in addressing the symptoms of your disability.
Tip #4: Protect your data.
Are you familiar with HIPAA? What about the handling of your protected health information?
Without going all-out-nerd, there are substantial Federal regulations regarding the handling of your medical information.
For example, imagine if I asked you the most intimate questions regarding your mental health. Now imagine if your answers got out into the wild.
Not good. Oh so freaking not good.
For us, your protected health information (PHI) is rigorously guarded with our fully HIPAA compliant data service. All electronic communications are covered under this umbrella.
The competition? Some seem to take it as seriously as we do, but that’s up for debate.
Here’s a quick acid test. Have you shared via email any PHI with your ESA vendor? If so, did you provide an electronic waiver allowing those types of communications?
Case in point, we bought ESA letters from two industry leaders. Didn’t speak to a therapist, didn’t sign off on any waivers, yet received our ESA letter via email.
That’s categorically in violation of HIPAA. And just plain lazy, dumb, and incompetent.
Pro-tip: Before you buy, ask to review their HIPPA Privacy Guidelines.
Tip #5: Location, location, location.
My final tip.
Location matters. In particular, the location of your therapist matters.
There are several prominent vendors, sole-source operators, who are doing business across the nation. At best, that’s optically bad. Most likely, it’s also ethically and legally wrong.
Suppose you live in Georgia, and your housing letter comes from a California-based therapist. Good luck explaining to your new landlord why your therapist is located 3,000 miles away.
It’s understandable. Our nationwide network of therapists, often with multiple professionals in each state, is a costly and time-consuming effort.
But, as I said, I want to do business the right way, and sometimes that takes lots of elbow grease.
Pro-tip: If your therapist isn’t located nearby, then go with plan B.
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You'll benefit from our expertise in the mental health field and fair housing law. Experience therapists who take the time and care to understand you and your mental disability.
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Without ever leaving the comfort of your home or office, you can qualify for an Emotional Support Animal. To qualify, you must complete the following steps.
- Shop ESA letter consultations.
- Complete an online HIPAA-compliant mental health exam.
- Consult with a licensed professional.
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