Emotional Support Training for Dogs

woman caressing emotional support dog

Emotional support dogs (ESDs) are an effective therapy for individuals with mental and emotional disabilities. Not only do they provide comfort and support, but they can also help during a crisis, such as an anxiety attack. While emotional support animals require much less training than a service animal, there are requirements your dog must meet to become an ESD.

If you’re thinking of adopting an ESD, it is essential to follow all requirements, rules, and regulations before adopting one of these special animals. Below we explore all things related to emotional training for dogs and how to become a responsible handler.

What is an Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional service animals (ESAs) are pets recommended by a licensed therapist or health professional to assist individuals with emotional or mental disabilities. Dogs trained as emotional support animals are thus meant to provide comfort, unconditional love, and emotional stability.

While ESDs have slightly more rights than ordinary pets, they are not protected under US laws (other than housing) or granted the same public access rights as a trained service dog (SA). The primary rights afforded to ESDs fall under the Fair Housing Act, which states that these animals are allowed to live with their handler—even in accommodation where pets are not allowed.

Benefits of an ESD

There are many benefits to having an emotional support dog. For example, if someone is depressed, an ESD can give them an empowered sense of responsibility when taking care of the animal.

Also, individuals with mood disorders tend to be reclusive. Having an ESD forces a person to get dressed, feed the dog, take it for a walk, and leave home more frequently. Therefore, owning an ESD breaks the negative routine and emotions attached to depression and anxiety.

Other benefits of having an ESD include:

  • Companionship
  • Comfort and calmness during anxiety and stress
  • Support for trauma and mental health
  • A sense of purpose
  • Social support
  • Adjunct therapy to other treatments like medication and counseling

Qualifying for an Emotional Support Dog

Certain emotional or mental health conditions qualify an individual for an ESD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM), as many as 25% of individuals in the US have disabilities that qualify for an ESD.

Mental health care providers must provide long-term guidance vis-à-vis taking care of both the ESD and mental health patient’s welfare.

Below are some of the conditions that qualify for an emotional support dog:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Autism
  • Mood Disorders (Bipolar and Depression)
  • Cognitive Disorders
  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Stress

These conditions qualify an individual to get an emotional support dog through an ESA letter online.

Qualities of an Emotional Support Dog

While nearly any type of dog can be an ESD, those that are too excited — or conversely, too shy — can prove more difficult to train for certain tasks. Depending on what duties you intend to have your ESD perform, personality and trainability should be considered.

Generally, emotional support dogs are:

  • Quick learners
  • Intelligent
  • Easy-going
  • Gentle
  • In good physical shape
  • Stable in terms of temperament

Dogs of all ages can also be trained to be EDS; however, younger dogs and puppies are ideal because they learn quicker and have more energy. Canines around a year-old that are laid-back yet responsive are ideal to train. To ensure the dog will be there when most needed, you must find that “instant connection” and “true bond.”

Choosing an Emotional Support Dog

Before you decide on your emotional support dog, you must be willing to do extensive research and canvassing (or visits) of potential candidates.

Any breed and any size dog can become an ESD, but bear in mind that some are more “teachable” and “people oriented” than others. It’s also up to you what breed you are most comfortable living with each day. If you’re unsure, below are some of the best breeds for ESDs:

  • Poodles
  • Poodle mixes (like Goldendoodles)
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Corgis
  • Yorkshire Terriers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
  • German Shepherds
  • Collies

Training Requirements for Emotional Support Dogs

There are only two requirements for emotional support dogs. While they don’t need as much training as service dogs, they need to comply with the following:

  • Your emotional support dog must be obedient.
  • Your emotional support dog must be well-behaved in all places, including your home and while inside an airplane cabin. This includes simple things like being housebroken.

Although not a requirement, your emotional support dog may also benefit from being neutered or spayed as this avoids mating-related aggression.

Once you pick the dog of your liking, you must teach it the basics — sit, stay, down, come, etc. These instructions will come in handy as you and your dog face outside environments such as airplane cabins and rented property.

The younger you start, the more likely your puppy will handle training well and avoid annoying and bad habits in public, such as barking, jumping, begging for food, and lunging. This kind of discipline also prevents something many people with ESDs try to avoid—anxiety and stress.

If you feel you are not up for the job of training your puppy to become an ESD, seek help from friends, family, or a professional trainer.

Training Your ESD for Emotional Support

ESDs can be trained in a number of tasks, but the best place to start is with basic obedience commands. During training, you’ll want to have a leash, plenty of treats, a clicker (optional), and a dog mat or bed. Below are the most important commands to start with:

Toilet Training

One of the first things you’ll want to teach your ESD is how to do their “business” outside. Depending on their age, you may be lucky to adopt a dog that’s already housetrained; just make sure you stick to a routine as they’ll be less likely to have an accident in the house.

As a general rule, puppies can usually hold their bladder for 1 hour for every month of age; this gives you a sense of when to take them outside. Whatever you do, consistency is key. Take your dog to the same spot outside at regular intervals.

If you’re training a puppy, you may even want to restrict its access to certain areas of the house to avoid accidents. Also, use treats and praise to reward it each time it does its business outside.

Sit

Another basic command is “sit”. This is one of the easiest commands to teach because sitting comes naturally to dogs.

Start with your dog standing and hold a treat in front of it at nose level. Slowly move the treat backwards and up as you gently prompt it to sit down. Along with the “sit” command, words like “good” and “yes” are great encouragement when it sits correctly.

Stay

Along with sitting, you’ll want to teach your dog how to stay in place; this command is often best taught once they’ve learned how to sit.

Start with your dog on a bed or a mat and show them the palm of your hand as a visual cue. Then back away slowly and state the word “stay”. Gradually increase the steps while the dog continues sitting; if it shows signs of getting up, use the verbal command again and reinforce the hand gesture. Repeat and reward with treats until it learns to stay put.

Come

The “come” command is a natural one after “stay”. Start a short distance away from the dog and then say the word “come” and pull on their leash. Reward it with a treat and repeat until it comes at the sound of your voice (and without the aid of a leash).

Down

One of the more challenging commands is “down” because it is a submissive posture. However, this command is important, especially in scenarios where your dog is accompanying you on an airline.

Start on a dog bed or mat and put a treat near your dog’s nose while lowering it to the floor. You may need to do this gradually so that each time your dog gets lower, you reward it with treats and praise. If necessary, gently prod your dog into a lying-down position and reward it again with treats. Once it’s learned to go down, bring in a hand signal, which is usually your palm lowered towards the floor.

Leave it

Teaching your dog to leave an object or not touch something is important in public scenarios. To teach this command, start with treats in your hand. Offer them to your dog and if it tries to eat them, close your fist. Once your dog backs off, open your hand again.

When it’s mastered waiting, try doing this exercise by leaving treats on the floor. As soon as it makes a move towards it, say “leave it” and cover it with your hand. Keep repeating the exercise until your dog has learned not to touch something until you say it’s ok.

DPT Training

Beyond basic obedience training, ESDs also need to know how to help during emotionally charged situations. One of the best techniques that ESDs can learn is Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) for anxiety. This technique consists of the dog placing pressure on a person’s chest or abdomen. DPT is a fantastic supplement to medications that people with mental health conditions are taking, and it has proven to be effective for stress, anxiety, mood disorders, autism, and self-harming behaviors.

Training for DPT is rather simple, much like the process of training a dog to “come,” except the dog is taught to climb into your lap or on your chest. The use of treats, a clicker, or other positive reinforcement is recommended.

Tips for Training Your ESD

To ensure optimal success, make sure you treat your dog as a working dog, not a child. Dogs behave best when they’re given a job and treated as active members of the pack. This requires obedience training and proper socializing so that they can support you no matter what the circumstances.

Once your dog is trained, it’s important to continue training, so the behavior is ingrained. For example, vary the routine by trying out basic commands when the dog is further away or in a busy environment. Remember, ESDs need to be trained to support their owners no matter what distractions are around them. Training regularly in hectic environments can thus be highly beneficial.

Also, when training your ESD, keep sessions brief so they don’t get tired or bored. Each dog is different, so you’ll need to read its energy and see how it’s managing.

FAQs

Should I Register My ESD?

There is no requirement to register an ESD under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, registering your ESA helps when dealing with landlords and other service providers.

Registering your ESA is easy. Simply follow this link to register your emotional support animal and pay the fee. Within a few weeks, you will receive your emotional support animal’s registration.

Your registration is valid in all 50 states, and your ESD will be included in the National Service Animal registry database. US Service Animals also offers an ESA letter for the landlord if you feel the registration ID card may not be sufficient.

In general, landlords and property owners cannot ask for documentation or proof of training. However, remember, if you have medical proof of your need for an emotional support companion, your landlord cannot refuse to let you keep the dog. Your ID card from US Service Animals will also include relevant legal information you can refer to should you run into an issue.

How Can I Get An ESA letter?

ESA letters are the most important document for proving to a landlord or property owner that you have an emotional support dog. Otherwise, landlords might not honor and respect your rights and privileges as a handler.

It’s important to remember that only a licensed mental health professional can provide an ESA letter that recommends the need for an emotional support animal.

The ESA Letter should:

  • Not be dated later than one year of submission
  • Be written on a therapist’s or psychiatrist’s official letterhead
  • Include the therapist’s license number
  • Show the date of recommendation
  • Verify that the handler is qualified for an ESD
  • Verify that the handler possesses a condition under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders (Version IV or V)
  • Recommend that the disability hinders the handler to perform major activities in life
  • State that an ESD is needed to support the individual

To obtain a legitimate ESA letter from a board-certified doctor or licensed mental health professional in your state, request a free consultation from our team. We charge $179 for a doctor’s letter (if you qualify) — which is slightly more than the discount competitors out there — but you can rest assured you are receiving a real legal document that will get your pet into your apartment.

Does An Emotional Support Dog Need a Vest?

There are no special vests for ESDs, but you could create one to identify it as a working dog. However, bear in mind that many service dogs wear vests, which means you’ll have to make sure your dog isn’t mistaken for a service dog. As mentioned above, ESDs aren’t granted public access, and you could be fined if you’re caught masquerading your animal as a service dog.

Where Is My ESD Allowed to Go?

ESDs are not allowed in public places unless they are given special permission. This includes shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, places of employment, etc. Health regulations are of the utmost importance when it comes to with ESDs; therefore, even if employees want to allow an ESD onto the premises, they can turn the animal away to avoid breaking health laws.

This is in contrast with service dogs, which are legally allowed in most public spaces, including places of employment. Remember that, in the eyes of the law, a service dog and an emotional support dog are not the same.

Are There Any Breed and Weight Restrictions?

Any size and breed can fit the criteria of an ESD — even Dobermans and Pit Bulls. If your therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist recommends more than one ESD, you are free to be a parent to two or more dogs. Of course, the type of ESD you get often falls to personal preference.

Summing Up

Emotional support dogs are highly beneficial when trained well. Not only are they supportive alternatives to other psychiatric treatments, but ESDs focus on presence, support, empathy, and touch to make a person feel better. These ingredients make ESDs unique as a therapeutic approach.

However, as a potential handler of an ESD, you must be aware of the government regulations that enable and hinder you from bringing your ESD to certain places. Also, it’s important to ensure your emotional support dog is well trained and able to handle any public situation.

If you’re struggling with a mental disability, speak with your doctor about whether an ESD is an option. These special animals are invaluable when it comes to supporting individuals with anxiety, stress, and depression. Whatever you decide, adding a dog to your family is a surefire way to change your life for the better.