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Home > Dogs > How to Train an Emotional Support Dog: Our Vet Explains

How to Train an Emotional Support Dog: Our Vet Explains

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Dr. Kim Podlecki

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Emotional support animals are quite popular nowadays. They are making headlines as people try to board their dogs, pigs, peacocks, and other animals on flights and try to get them into stores and restaurants, all while claiming the animal is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). While some of these news stories may just be people looking for attention, emotional support dogs, when properly trained, can be extremely helpful for some people.

In this article, we’ll discuss who may benefit from having an emotional support dog, what type(s) of dogs may be good in this role, and how to go about training a dog to become an emotional support dog.

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What is an Emotional Support Dog?

An Emotional Support Dog (ESD) is a dog that provides comfort and support to a person diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness. That person is often unable to function and/or complete tasks in a typical day-to-day setting, due to their underlying illness. The dog provides mental support to help the affected person with anxiety, fear, depression, phobias, etc.

To be considered a true ESD, the owner must have a diagnosed mental illness, for which the dog has been “prescribed” by the owner’s licensed mental health professional. This means that a licensed human therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist are the only professions that can prescribe or recommend these dogs for their patients.

A person cannot have self-described anxiety and demand that they bring their dog into the grocery store with them. The person needs to be diagnosed by a mental health professional, be under the care of a professional, and have a prescription for their dog to be considered their ESD.

dog and owner supporting their heads
Image Credit: Anagarcia, Shutterstock

What are the Differences Between an ESD and a Service Dog?

The biggest difference to keep in mind is that an ESD is a pet that provides comfort and/or support, and a service dog is highly trained to perform and complete certain tasks. While a service dog may be viewed as a pet by some, it’s considered a service dog because it is trained to provide a specific function vital to the handler’s livelihood.

The following is what defines a service animal, according to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act):

“Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

Service dogs must be allowed to be with their handler at all times. There are very few exceptions to this rule, due to the ADA. The animal, typically a dog, provides a service or does work for someone who is otherwise unable to perform that function without them.

On the other hand, an ESD is often unable to accompany their owners into stores, restaurants, and many businesses. It is up to each individual business whether they will allow the pet inside or not.

Keep in mind that an ESD is not the same thing as a psychiatric service dog (PSD). A psychiatric service dog requires extensive training to assist a person whose mental illness is causing a disability. PSDs are still considered a service dog, not a pet, and have been trained to perform and complete certain tasks.

girl hugging her pyschiatric service dog
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Who May Benefit from an ESD?

Any person who is under the care of a licensed mental health professional, suffering from depression, anxiety, certain phobias, PTSD, or other conditions may benefit from having an Emotional Support Dog. If that individual is unable to perform daily tasks, especially in public, due to anxiety, fear, and depression, an ESD may be beneficial. Many of these individuals feel more comfortable having their ESD with them and/or by their side. The act of petting, holding, or being with an animal can immediately help with stress and anxiety, allowing these individuals to complete otherwise anxiety-ridden tasks.

For those who suffer from PTSD and may have night terrors, night anxiety, or other related conditions, having a dog there with them can be greatly beneficial. There are many veteran and ESA dog matching programs across the country. These programs pair trained shelter dogs with veterans who greatly benefit from the pet’s emotional support.

What Type of Training is Needed?

In general, an ESD does not require any specialized training, unlike service dogs and psychiatric service dogs who undergo rigorous training. In general, if you want your emotional support dog to be able to provide the best care for you, basic training is highly recommended.

At minimum, basic commands and basic obedience training are recommended. Your dog should be able to sit, stay, lie down, and come to you on command. Your dog should also be well-behaved on a leash, not reactive to other people, loud noises, or animals. Having your dog under control as an ESA will also greatly help you. If you suffer from anxiety or phobias, having a reactive dog in public will likely not help those conditions. If you are taking your dog in public so that they can provide comfort to you, only to have them bark, lunge or react at outside triggers, this would probably worsen your anxiety.

Another recommendation is to have your dog trained well enough that it can receive a Canine Good Citizen Certificate (CGC). This is a list of 10 tasks that your dog can easily perform on command. The CGC is often required as a first step in getting a dog trained and certified as a therapy dog as well.

dog training outdoor
Image Credit: Paya Mona, Shutterstock

What About Just Printing a Certificate Off the Internet?

In short, NO, don’t do this. Many businesses and airlines have had to adapt extremely strict rules, even banning animals in some instances, due to fraudulent service and support animals. If you do not have a diagnosed psychological, mental, or physical condition that would benefit from a support animal, then don’t ruin it for those that do. There are many people who want to print off fake certificates, and make fake vests for their pets, just because they want to be able to take their pet in public with them. Unfortunately, when those pets are misbehaved, or the owners are, it forces businesses to enact restrictions. Then, people with legitimate services animals are unable to bring their dog with them.

Please do not ruin it for those who need their support animal to be able to function and perform day-to-day tasks without stress.

Because of all of the fraudulent service animals, and the grief that their owners gave to businesses, airlines are no longer required to accommodate these animals. Therefore, you may be unable to bring your service animal with you on a flight. If that airline allows you to, you will need to pay for them.

What Kind of Dog May Be a Good ESD?

In general, a dog with a calm, well-behaved temperament would make a good ESD. You want your dog to be calm in all types of environments, surroundings, and when faced with different animals and people. Your dog should be well-controlled on a leash and house-trained.

In contrast, a dog who also has anxiety or fear-based behavioral issues will likely not do well for an owner with similar concerns. If your dog is reactive to loud noises, bright lights, dogs, children, etc., then bringing them in public to help keep you calm will backfire. In addition, when you bring an untrained, reactive dog in public and try to convince people they are an ESA, it will, again, ruin it for others who have trained and well-behaved animals that help them.

Any breed or size of dog can be an emotional support animal, provided they have the proper temperament to be one.

Emotional support dog with an elderly woman
Image Credit: everymmnt, Shutterstock



An Emotional Service Animal (ESA) needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to an individual who is under their care. They should be well-behaved, have undergone basic training, and not be reactive in public situations.

Emotional Support Dogs are different than service dogs and do not have the same rights and access to public places. Faking your dog as an emotional support dog is a huge disservice to those who actually benefit from their comfort, and should be avoided out of respect for true ESAs and service animals.

Featured Image Credit: Seaq68, Pixabay

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