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 service animals, 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.
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 accommodations where pets are not allowed.
Emotional Support Dogs Vs. Service Dogs
There is a difference between service dogs and emotional support animals, and while we’re focusing on ESDs, understanding what makes them different can help you with training. We’ll start with service dogs.
According to guidelines written in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are protected and able to enter public spaces, private residences, and public transportation.
Private spaces aren’t out of the question as well. Plus, laws outlined in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allow service dogs on airlines. That said, service dogs need specialized training to help their owner perform at least one task.
On the other hand, emotional support dogs don’t require any training. While they’re protected under the FHA they’re not protected under the ADA or ACAA. For these reasons, they have less protection than service dogs.
The biggest difference is that service dogs help someone with a disability accomplish a task or improve their quality of life. ESDs are limited to comforting someone with mental health disorders.
Emotional Support Dog Vs. Therapy Dogs
Emotional support dogs and therapy dogs perform similar roles but with different types of training. The most notable example is that therapy dogs need proper training, whereas ESDs don’t. Additionally, therapy dogs are trained to interact with a group of people to provide comfort, whereas emotional support dogs only help one specific person.
Therapy dogs are common in places like nursing homes, schools, hospitals, funeral homes, and other group care environments. When they’re on duty, therapy dogs are encouraged to roam around and interact with people, which separates them from ESDs.
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 can 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:
- 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 (NIMH), 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:
- Attention-deficit disorder (ADD)
- Mood disorders (bipolar and depression)
- Cognitive disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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 who 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
- In good physical shape
- Stable in terms of temperament
Dogs of all ages can also be trained to be ESDs; however, younger dogs and puppies are ideal because they learn quickly 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: What Breeds Are the Best?
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. Learn more about some of the top choices for emotional support dogs below.
Poodles have high levels of intelligence and a fluffy coat that doesn’t shed too much, which makes them perfect to keep around the house. As an emotional support dog, they’re smart enough to learn commands fast and soft enough to snuggle on your couch. Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting dandruff or too much hair on the furniture.
Poodles are also medium-sized (20 inches), which means you’ll have a decent level of success out in public if they’re leash-trained. That said, there are also mini poodles and toy poodles that are smaller (less than 15 to 10 inches). Depending on your needs, poodles give you the most options.
One of the best all-around breeds for just about any task, Labrador retrievers can help you with mental health conditions, provide support for young children, and much more. They’re also known for their mild temperament and high energy levels, which makes them one of the best dogs for playing with adults and kids. Plus, they’re easy to train and socialize.
Labradors are larger than some other breeds at around 55 inches, so it’s not always possible to take them in public. However, it’s easy to leash-train them if necessary.
Cavalier King Charles
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is one of the best options for treating depression. In fact, they’re known as “Comforter Spaniels” because of how well they provide comfort for people. This makes the Cavalier King Charles perfect for conditions like PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are also easy to care for because they’re only around 10-12 inches tall. They also live a long life and have a mild temperament. Overall, their small size makes them great at home and even if you venture into public.
Like their Labrador cousins, golden retrievers are full of energy, easy to train, and great for comforting people who have anxiety or depression. Their get-up-and-go attitude helps people get out of bed and can give them a sense of purpose they don’t usually have. Plus, golden retrievers are great for kids!
Keep in mind that you’ll be limited in public spaces because they’re taller than some other dogs at around 22 to 26 inches. They’re easy to recognize for their golden coats.
What Are Some Other Great Emotional Support Dog Breeds?
Plenty of other breeds can provide you with emotional support. Some of our other top breeds around found below due to their size and trainability:
- Yorkshire terrier
- German shepherd
Remember, any breed can be an ESD. Therefore, choose the breed that works best for you, even if it’s not on our list.
Training Requirements for Emotional Support Dogs
There are no federal laws that require emotional support dogs to be trained. 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 and housebroken in your home and other places they’re allowed to be (like common areas in your apartment building)
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 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 several 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:
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.
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 backward and up as you gently prompt it to sit down. Along with the “sit” command, words like “good” and “yes” are great encouragement when they sit correctly.
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.
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).
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 meeting other people.
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.
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 okay.
How to Train Your Dog for Deep Pressure Therapy
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.
Follow the steps below to train your dog for deep pressure therapy.
- Teach them to climb up onto furniture like chairs, sofas, or tables. Use one of the obedience commands you prefer like “Come” or “Up.”
- Slowly move their paws into the right position. This can be on your lap or just touching your body.
- Use a command like “Off” or “Down” when it’s time for them to get down.
- Pet them while they get comfortable in position.
- Start to incorporate your signs of anxiety into the training, so that your dog recognizes the signs.
When training your dog for DPT make sure you keep the commands to one or two words and try to avoid using the same command for two tasks because this may confuse your dog.
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. Follow some of our ESD training tips below for the best outcomes.
Socialize Your Emotional Support Dog
Socialization is key, especially if you want to benefit from provisions in the Fair Housing Act that allow you to stay in otherwise not pet-friendly housing. It’s important to socialize your dog because it prevents them from barking at strangers, which can disturb neighbors.
Aside from helping your ESD relax at home, a socialized dog is also easier to take in public. You’ll have a better chance at getting into local bars, breweries, and cafes with your dog if they’re socialized around other dogs and people.
Train Your Emotional Support Dog Young
Any dog can be an emotional support dog but having training from a young age helps a lot. While the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a myth, there is some truth to it.
It’s harder to train an older dog, especially for specialized tasks you would want an emotional support dog to perform.
For this reason, we recommend adopting a younger dog and training them at around three to six months of age.
Focus On Leash Training
Want an ESD to accompany you in public? Focus on leash training. Off-leash training is great for ESDs that stay in your home but most public spaces will require you to have your dog on a leash unless you’re somewhere like a dog park. Therefore, making sure your dog is well-behaved on a leash can make it easier to go out in public with an ESD.
These are only a few training tips and you can provide an ESD with all sorts of training to fit your needs.
Should I Register My ESD?
There is no requirement to register an ESD under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 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 registration.
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. An ESA letter will always be sufficient medical proof, so long as it’s legitimate.
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 from performing 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.
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 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.
Frequently Asked Questions About Training Emotional Support Dogs
Have questions about emotional support dogs? Find answers below.
Can You Get a Trained Emotional Support Dog?
No, typically you can’t get a pre-trained emotional support dog. Instead, you’re better off getting a well-trained dog from a reputable breeder or trainer. This is because there are no requirements for emotional support dog training and training varies greatly based on an individual’s need.
How Do I Qualify as an Emotional Support Dog Trainer?
There are no federal laws surrounding ESA training, so you don’t have to worry about getting certifications. That said, the best place to start is training your dog. Once you train an ESD you can then replicate it for others and begin building a client base that way.
Does an Emotional Support Dog Need Training to Be Legitimate?
No, an emotional support dog does not need to be trained to become a legitimate ESD. However, having the appropriate training can help you get around with your ESD. Therefore, it’s never a bad idea to give your ESD some training.
Can I Train My Dog to Be an Emotional Support Dog?
Yes, you can train your dog to be an emotional support animal and you don’t need any outside help. You can even teach them high-level techniques like deep pressure therapy as long as you know how to train your dog.
Summing Up Emotional Support Dog Training
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 sure-fire way to change your life for the better.