What is an Emotional Support Dog and Why Do They Need Training?
Many people find that their dogs provide comfort and support just by being themselves. A dog can provide essential mental health benefits and improve its owner’s quality of life. Dogs that help their owners cope with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are called emotional support animals (ESAs). Most landlords are required by law under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to let people keep emotional support animals, even if they don't allow pets. However, if your dog is poorly behaved and causes damage or frequent disruptions your landlord may have legal cause to ask for the removal of your dog, proper obedience training is extremely important.
Emotional support dogs don’t need to be trained to perform any specific tasks. However, your ESA dog does need to be safe and well-behaved, especially if you plan to take them out in public with you. Proper training can ensure your dog is ready to provide you with the comfort you need, at home or elsewhere. Obedience training helps keep you and your dog on the same page, sets reasonable expectations for behavior, and can prevent any housing problems that may cause housing insecurity (such as frequent barking).
How to Train an Emotional Support Dog
While there aren’t any specific skills that an emotional support dog needs to know, training them on some basics can be beneficial to both you and your ESA dog. General obedience training and house training can help prevent any behavioral issues both in and outside the home. The following is a list of the five most important tasks or commands you should teach to your ESA dog.
1. Potty Training
The first thing to focus on when training your ESA is potty training. This type of training is all about consistency. Make sure you take your dog outside at regular intervals, and take them to the same spot every time. Reward them generously when they successfully take care of business outside.
If you are training a puppy, make sure you take them outside often enough. Puppies can usually control their bladder for approximately 1 hour per month of age during the day and twice as long at night.
2. Sit and Down
Another basic command is “sit,” which is easy for most dogs to learn because it’s a natural position. To teach the sit command, start when your dog is standing and hold a treat near their nose. Slowly move the treat upward and toward them while saying “sit.” Reward them with a praise word (e.g., “good”) and a treat.
After your dog masters “sit,” you can work on “down.” As with “sit,” start with a treat by their nose and lower it downward while saying “down.” Reward a submissive head-drop, and keep working on it until they willingly lie down.
3. Stay and Come
After your dog can reliably sit, you can teach them to stay. Once they sit, step back slowly while holding your hand toward them palm-out and saying "stay." Gradually lengthen the space between you and your dog, and make sure to reward them with treats consistently when they stay in place.
“Come” is the natural follow-on to “stay.” Use the word “come” and put their leash on when they come to you. Reward them with a treat when they come and once their leash is on.
4. Leave It
This command is especially important for emotional support dogs who will be in public places where there are unfamiliar items. Hold some treats in your hand, but close your hand if your dog tries to take them. Once your dog has backed off, repeat the exercise until they aren’t trying to take the treats from you.
The next step is to place the treats on the ground and repeat the same cycle. You can also incorporate the command “leave it.” Reward your dog with different treats when they successfully leave the practice treat on the floor.
5. Deep Pressure Therapy
Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) is a therapeutic technique that can be very helpful for individuals with anxiety or stress. An ESA dog can be taught to give physical pressure when told to, like when the person is having an anxiety attack. Small dogs can use their whole body, and larger dogs can use their paws and heads.
Start by teaching your dog to calmly get on and off a sofa using “up” and “down” or “paws off.” Once they can do this, move them into the correct DPT position on your lap or body, encouraging them to be calm. Reward them with treats.
If you have an ESA dog that you have taught deep pressure therapy, they may qualify as a psychiatric service dog (PSD) and are allowed to accompany you into public places and on airlines.
What are Emotional Support Dogs Trained to Do?
Service dogs and psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) need special training. The ability to perform certain tasks (e.g., guide visually impaired owners, and respond to panic attacks) for their owners is what qualifies them as a psychiatric service dog or service animal. However, emotional support animals aren’t required to know any certain skills.
Most emotional support dogs are trained to make their owner feel better just by being around them. This can vary depending on the individual and the dog. Some ESA dogs, for example, simply provide a calming presence and welcome lots of pets and cuddles. Some emotional support dogs are trained to respond to specific signs of mental illness. When they detect anxiety, they may lick their owner's hand or provide Deep Pressure Therapy.
Emotional Support Dogs vs. Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs are similar to emotional support dogs in the sense that both provide comfort and support for their handler's mental health. However, the two differ both in the level of training required and the legal rights afforded to them.
Psychiatric service dogs, unlike ESAs, do require specific training to qualify as service dogs. The training requirements for a psychiatric service dog are the following:
- Trained to perform a task directly related to their handler's mental health disability
- Trained to behave obediently in any public place, such as shopping malls, stores, or airplanes.
There is no requirement to enroll your dog into a “registered” training program and many service dog owners opt to train their service dog themselves.
The other key difference is that service dogs are offered more legal protections, namely under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). These two regulations allow service dogs to enter public areas and aircraft where normal pets would typically not be allowed. On the other hand, ESAs are only permitted to stay in their owner's primary residence, even if that residence is a “no pet” community.
Can Any Dog Be an Emotional Support Animal?
Yes, any breed of dog can be an ESA, and emotional support dogs don’t need any specific training. However, it is important to choose the right dog for your unique needs. Choose a dog that makes you feel comfortable and that is a reasonable size for your lifestyle and residence.
Which Breeds Make the Best ESA?
There aren’t any breed restrictions on emotional support dogs, so any canine can be an ESA. However, some breeds are ideally suited to this type of support role.
- Color: Cream, golden, light golden, dark golden
- Lifespan: 10 to 12 years
- Temperament: Kind, intelligent, reliable
- Size: 21 to 24 inches, 55 to 65 pounds
Condition They’re Best For: Children with autism and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Goldens are friendly to a fault but are also gentle, especially with children. They are usually very sensitive to how people feel and make loyal friends in any situation. They’re excellent ESAs for children who struggle with social interactions and/or have a history of trauma.
- Color: While, black, gold, cream, chocolate, fawn
- Lifespan: 12 to 20 years
- Temperament: Outgoing, confident, feisty
- Size: 5 to 9 inches, 4 to 6 pounds
Condition They’re Best For: Anxiety. Chihuahuas don’t let their small size get in the way of their boldness. They are often very protective of their owners and wary of strangers, which can help people with anxiety, especially in social situations.
- Color: Sable, black, red, fawn, and tri-colored
- Lifespan: 12 to 15 years
- Temperament: Active, protective, playful
- Size: 10 to 12 inches, 25 to 30 pounds
Condition They’re Best For: Social anxiety, panic disorder, and depression. Corgis are extremely loyal, intelligent, and affectionate. They love to cuddle and play, making them ideal for owners who deal with depressive episodes from bipolar disorder. Corgis are also great ESAs and psychiatric service dogs for individuals with anxiety, and their boundless energy encourages regular exercise, which has lots of mental health benefits.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Color: Black and tan, tricolor, ruby, and Blenheim
- Lifespan: 9 to 15 years
- Temperament: Affectionate, patient, friendly
- Size: 12 to 14 inches, 10 to 18 pounds
Condition They’re Best For: Depression. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is known for being a loyal friend who can help and comfort people very well as an ESA or therapy dog. This dog is also known as a “comforter spaniel” because it loves cuddling and is a constant source of affection, which is perfect for owners dealing with depression or PTSD.
- Color: Yellow, chocolate, black
- Lifespan: 10 to 12 years
- Temperament: Energetic, loyal, loving
- Size: Approximately 25 inches tall, between 55 and 80 pounds
Condition They’re Best For: People of all ages with mental health issues. Labrador retrievers are extremely loyal, happy, and easy to train, making them great ESA candidates for individuals and families. They can provide gentle support for children with anxiety, depression, or ADHD, and they are just as supportive of adults with PTSD, depression, and other mental illnesses.
How to Make Your Dog an Emotional Support Dog?
Four basic requirements that must be met for your dog to become an emotional support dog:
- You must have a mental health condition.
- Having a dog present must help your mental health condition.
- A Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP) in your state needs to confirm your mental health status and your need for an ESA dog.
- The LMHP must write you an ESA Letter.
Documentation is the main requirement for an emotional support dog. To prove that your dog is an ESA, you need an official letter from a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) stating that they recommend an ESA for your mental health condition.
A legitimate ESA Letter is similar to a prescription. It must be written by a licensed professional who has evaluated your mental health and determined that your dog provides essential support for your well-being. This ESA Letter is the proof that makes your dog an ESA.
How to Get an ESA Letter
Pettable provides ESA letters to qualified patients through a simple 3-step process.
Complete Our Assessment
Start by completing our online pre-evaluation assessment, which is designed to get a basic overview of your situation. After completing the quiz, you can select which type of ESA letter you need: housing, travel, or both.
Consult with a Therapist
You’ll get some digital privacy and consent forms to fill out and sign so we can match you with a licensed mental health professional. Once you book a virtual consultation with your therapist, they will evaluate your mental health and determine whether you qualify for an emotional support animal.
Get an ESA Letter
If the licensed mental health professional determines that an ESA would benefit you, they will create an official ESA Letter. If you need your letter right away, you can get your document within 24 hours of your consultation (excluding California residents).
We offer a satisfaction guarantee. If your ESA letter doesn't work as intended, we will offer a full refund.
Online Emotional Support Dog Training
At Pettable we offer a few training solutions that may be right for your emotional support dog. Led by a professional dog trainer and delivered as online self-paced video lessons, our training programs will teach you everything you need to know about training your own emotional support dog, psychiatric service dog, or even just a well-behaved pet. Look into Pettable Academy or our specialized psychiatric service dog training program to start training your dog today!
Frequently Asked Questions About Training Emotional Support Dogs
Still not sure about training your dog to be an ESA? Check out these expert answers to common questions.
Where do I get an already-trained emotional support dog?
Since there aren’t any specific training requirements for an ESA dog, you don’t have to look for “certified” dogs or trainers. You can consider getting a well-behaved dog from a reputable breeder or a shelter.
How do I qualify as an emotional support dog trainer?
There aren’t any legal regulations on who can train an emotional support dog. You could begin by training your dog and then progress to working with other dogs.
Can I train my own dog to be an ESA?
Yes! Many ESA owners train their own dogs. As long as you are willing to put in the time and effort to teach your dog good manners, there’s no requirement to hire a professional trainer.
Does an emotional support dog have to be trained to be certified?
There isn’t any official certification process for an ESA. However, if you plan on taking your dog with you, especially in public places, it’s wise to make sure they are well-behaved and potty trained.
Can a puppy be trained to be an ESA?
Yes! It’s often easier to train puppies than older dogs, who may have already developed some bad habits.