woman walking a golden retriever

What Makes A Dog An Emotional Support Dog?

An emotional support dog is more than just a pet – it’s a companion that offers a therapeutic presence to its owner. You may already know that dogs can create an emotional bond with humans, but emotional support dogs play a specific role in the mental health of their owners. Unlike service dogs, which require intensive training to perform tasks, emotional support dogs do not need any formal training. Their primary function is to provide comfort and alleviate symptoms associated with emotional or psychological conditions.

If you’re considering an emotional support dog, know that any breed has the potential to serve in this crucial role. The most important factor is the individual dog’s temperament and its connection with you. Though dogs with gentle, laid-back personalities tend to excel as emotional support animals because they can be calming presences in various social settings and living situations. It’s the consistent, unconditional companionship they offer that can make significant improvements in your mental wellbeing.

Defining Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support dogs provide comfort and support to people coping with mental or emotional conditions, without needing specific task-training like service dogs.

Difference Between Emotional Support Dogs and Service Dogs

Emotional Support Dogs (ESDs):

  • Purpose: To offer comfort and emotional stability.
  • Training: No special training required.
  • Recognition: Not always recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Service Dogs:

  • Purpose: Perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities.
  • Training: Highly trained for specific tasks related to the owner’s disability.
  • Recognition: Fully recognized and protected under the ADA.

Unlike service dogs, ESDs do not have access to all public spaces. Service dogs are granted broader access rights due to their role in assisting their handlers with disabilities in performing essential tasks.

Legal Protections for Emotional Support Dogs

Fair Housing Act (FHA):

  • Covers: Housing accommodations.
  • Protects: Your right to live with your ESD despite no-pet policies.

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA):

  • Covers: Air travel accommodations.
  • Protection: Historically allowed ESDs to fly with their owners; recent changes may restrict this.

Department of Transportation (DOT):

  • Issue Guidelines: For the transportation of service animals and ESDs.
  • Power: Can influence airline policies regarding ESDs.

It’s essential to note that while the ADA doesn’t extend the same protections to ESDs as to service animals, the Fair Housing Act and the Department of Transportation offer some legal protections to ESDs in housing and air travel, respectively. However, rules and regulations can evolve, so staying informed about the current laws is key.

Criteria for Emotional Support Dogs

Though there are no restrictions on breeds or types of dogs that can be emotional support animals, not every dog is suited for this role. Specific criteria related to breed characteristics and temperament tend to point to the ideal dogs for the job.

Characteristics of Suitable Dog Breeds

Your emotional support dog can be of any breed, but certain breeds are particularly known for their natural ability to provide emotional support due to their gentle and friendly nature. Here’s a brief overview of the best breeds suited to be ESAs:

  • Golden Retriever: Highly sociable and affectionate, Golden Retrievers are known for their patience and are hence excellent emotional support animals.
  • Labrador Retriever: Similar to Goldens, Labs are friendly and sociable, making them natural companions for those needing emotional support.
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel: Their size and gentle demeanor make them ideal for a calming presence.
  • Poodle: Poodles are intelligent and have a laid-back personality, which is ideal for emotional stability.
  • Corgi: Although small in size, Corgis have a big heart and a sociable attitude that can be beneficial as ESAs.

When selecting a breed, you should also consider your living arrangements and personal preferences, including size and the dog’s care requirements.

Temperament and Personality Requirements

The temperament of your dog is crucial for it to effectively serve as an emotional support animal. Here are some temperament traits to look for:

  • Gentle: Your dog should be naturally gentle and patient, creating a calming environment for you.
  • Friendly: A friendly dog will often be well-received in various social situations, which is important given that ESAs can accompany you in public spaces.
  • Affectionate: Affection from a dog can provide substantial emotional support and help alleviate feelings of distress.
  • Sociable: A sociable dog can help you navigate social interactions more comfortably and be less isolating.

Your emotional support dog should not exhibit aggressive behavior as it contradicts the animal’s purpose of providing comfort and support. An ideal ESA dog should have a personality that is both non-aggressive and non-disruptive to ensure a beneficial and positive experience for the owner.

Training and Socialization

To ensure your dog can provide effective emotional support, you’ll need to focus on comprehensive training and socialization. This lays the foundation for a well-adjusted and reliable emotional support dog that can handle various environments and situations.

Basic Training Requirements

Though no training is officially required, the animal will be better suited for your needs with proper training. Your dog’s training should start with basic obedience commands. These fundamental skills are essential for any dog, but particularly for one in a therapeutic role:

  • Sit: Teach your dog to sit by holding a treat above their head and moving it back, prompting them to sit.
  • Stay: This command keeps your dog in one place and can be vital in managing their movements in different settings.
  • Down: Encourages your dog to lie down, which can be a starting point for calming behaviors.
  • Come: Ensures your dog will return to you when called, crucial for maintaining control and safety.
  • Heel: Keeps your dog walking close to you without pulling on the leash, important for navigating crowded areas.

An emotional support dog should also be trained in potty etiquette and maintain an active, attentive demeanor when interacting with you.

Advanced Training Considerations

Once foundational obedience is mastered, you can move on to more advanced skills that may pertain specifically to therapy and support:

  • Deep Pressure Therapy: Teach your dog to apply gentle pressure to soothe anxiety or distress.
  • Emotional Recognition: Some dogs can learn to pick up on emotional cues and respond appropriately, offering comfort during difficult times.
  • Socialization involves exposing your dog to various people, settings, and situations to build their confidence and adaptability. It helps prevent overreactions to new stimuli and ensures your dog remains calm and supportive in the company of strangers or in new environments.

While an emotional support dog doesn’t require the same level of training as a service dog, their social demeanor and command responsiveness are crucial to their role in providing comfort and support.

Selecting the Right Emotional Support Dog

Selecting the right emotional support dog involves considering breed characteristics and matching them with your specific needs related to disabilities.

Considering Dog Breeds, Their Attributes and Care Needs

When shopping for an emotional support dog, it’s important to consider how a breed’s attributes align with your lifestyle and emotional requirements. For example:

  • Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are known for their friendly and approachable nature, ideal for providing comfort.
  • Corgis offer a balance of alertness and affection, suitable for those needing a vigilant companion.
  • Poodles are intelligent and hypoallergenic, making them a great choice for those with allergies.
  • Yorkshire Terriers are compact and adaptable, perfect for apartment living.
BreedSizeTemperamentCare Needs
Labrador RetrieverMediumFriendly, OutgoingRegular exercise
Golden RetrieverMediumAffectionate, GentleGrooming & Exercise
CorgiSmallAlert, IntelligentModerate Exercise
Yorkshire TerrierSmallBold, IndependentRegular Grooming
PoodleVariousIntelligent, ActiveGrooming & Mental Stimulation

Mental and physical activity levels vary across breeds like the German Shepherd and Collies; balance their needs with your capacity to engage with them.

Understanding the Needs of Specific Disabilities

The right emotional support dog for you also depends on understanding how different dogs cater to specific disabilities:

  • For anxiety and depression, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels provide comfort with their gentle and empathetic demeanor.
  • An Irish Wolfhound might be suitable for those needing a calm presence due to their mellow nature.
  • For physical disabilities, larger breeds like Labradors or Golden Retrievers can offer stability and companionship.

Remember that unlike service dogs or psychiatric service dogs, which are trained for specific tasks, an emotional support dog’s primary role is companionship. Therefore, therapy dogs and working dogs may not necessarily make the best emotional support dogs if their training doesn’t align with your needs for emotional support.