How To Train An Emotional Support Dog: The Basics

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Anyone who has a dog in their life will know the emotional stability that their presence can provide.

But while this is of general benefit to most dog owners, for some people with mental or emotional conditions, the companionship of a dog can be critical to their health and stability.

That is why therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have started to prescribe Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) as part of their practice.

While dogs are often chosen as ESAs because of their loyalty and trainability, cats, birds, and other animals are also often used as ESAs.

How to train an emotional support dog: the basics - Golden Retriever puppy in a down-stay wearing light blue training vest
Emotional Support Dog Training – How to train an ESA: The Basics

ESA dogs are different from Service Dogs, such as those used by the blind or hearing impaired.

In particular, Service Dogs are given special access to accompany their owner pretty much everywhere, including in restaurants and shopping centers, while ESA dogs do not have this same special access.

Moreover, Service Dogs receive special training according to the needs of their owner, such as guiding a blind person around an object or alerting a deaf person to the sound of an alarm.

While ESA dogs also require training, it is considerably less specialized.

Any dog with the right temperament can be trained to be an ESA dog, and in this article, we will go through:

  • The basics of why you might want an ESA
  • What dogs make good ESAs
  • How to train your dog as an ESA
  • How to register for an ESA

Basically, you will find everything you need to know to enable your pooch to fulfill this vital role for you or someone else in need of a little support.

What Kind Of Emotional Support Can A Dog Provide?

Dogs in general provide a positive emotional force in the lives of their families, but what are the additional benefits and justifications for having an ESA dog?

  • Having a dog can physically reduce stress as passing time with dogs releases endorphins and oxytocin, both of which reduce stress, and also contribute to reduced blood pressure and cortisol levels. Exercise has a similar effect on the body, and walking your dog regularly can further contribute to this benefit.
  • Many mental and emotional conditions leave people feeling isolated or anxious in social situations. The companionship and loyalty of a dog can reduce feelings of isolation, and the presence of this companion can help give their owner confidence and security during social interactions.
  • The sense of security and familiarity provided by a relationship with a dog can help reduce anxiety, especially when entering new or unpredictable situations.
  • Dogs can provide a distraction from negative thoughts, helping alleviate the pressure that overwhelmingly negative internal commentary can place on a person.
  • People suffering from certain conditions, such as depression, can suffer from lethargy and lack of motivation. Caring for a dog can provide a routine that gives the person’s life structure and encourages them towards activity.

ESA dogs can also be taught to perform specific tasks designed to reduce stress, such as Deep Pressure Therapy (more on this a little later!).

Emotional Support Dogs vs Psychiatric Service Dogs

While ESA dogs can be taught this and other specific techniques, they are different from Psychiatric Service Dogs, which require more specialized training and are generally assigned to individuals whose mental or emotional condition makes it difficult for them to perform day-to-day tasks. 

For example, a Psychiatric Service Animal might be assigned to someone whose mental disability gives them a tendency to get disoriented and wander off.

Their service dogs will have specific training to pull their owner’s attention back and stop them from entering dangerous situations, such as wandering onto a busy road.

Legally, ESA dogs do not require any specific training, but they do need to be well-behaved so that they do not cause a nuisance to neighbors or the public in general.

This is especially important if a person will be asking for special dispensation to take their ESA onto a flight or to live in a no-pet area.

Can My Dog Become An ESA Dog?

To officially be called an ESA dog, the presence of the dog must be prescribed by a doctor or mental health professional.

But any dog can be trained to fulfill this role or to provide this kind of emotional support to someone in an unofficial capacity.

While any breed of dog can be trained to be an ESA, they do need to have a fairly docile and friendly temperament, which means that some breeds are more well suited to the task than others.

For example, you probably want to steer clear of some breeds, but Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, and German Shepherds are all very well suited to the task.

But these are not hard and fast rules, and breed alone is not enough to decide whether your dog is suitable or not.

There are a number of characteristics that you should assess when deciding if your dog would make a good ESA:

  • Your dog should not be too overly-excitable or rambunctious as this can make them difficult to train, and this type of behavior can create further tension in times of high stress.
  • Your dog should also not be so timid that they are unable to engage with you when you are facing a dark moment.
  • Your dog should be social and know-how to behave not just around other people, but also other dogs.
  • They should already know how to respond to the basic commands: sit, stay, down, and heel.
  • Avoid selecting dogs that bark excessively or have the habit of jumping or lunging at people.

Of course, if you already have an emotional connection with a dog, this can count for a lot and may outweigh some of these other factors. It can be worth the extra effort needed to train them effectively.

If you are looking for a new dog, rather than a dog that you are already connected with, you should be looking for a young dog around one year old. At this stage, the dog is still highly trainable, but you can tell more about their personality than with a puppy. 

They should have a calm and laid-back nature, and you should feel a fairly immediate connection with the animal.

Why we connect with some animals and not others is often inexplicable, and sometimes you just need to go with your gut.

How To Train Your Dog As An ESA?

Just having a dog around can reduce stress – as long as they aren’t destroying the furniture and barking until three in the morning; this is why not just any dog will do.

But a well-behaved dog can help give their owner a focus and rhythm to their day that can otherwise be lacking, can provide companionship in times of loneliness, and can be a warm body to cuddle when you are feeling emotionally vulnerable.

This means that ESA dogs should be well-trained in general, therefore, making them less likely to engage in stress-causing behavior.

There are many different ways to train dogs, many of which are effective. The key is to choose a method and stick to it, and also stick to a regular training schedule.

There is no escaping the fact that training takes time, and you will probably have the most success if you give your dog two or three, 10-to-15 minute training sessions each day.

Training should always focus on positive reinforcement, which rewards good behavior, and should never resort to punishment.

Punishment can end up adding additional layers of negative behavior.

For example, if you punish your dog for urinating inside the home rather than learning where not to urinate, they may learn when not to urinate and will simply answer the call of nature when you are not there.

The same confusion does not exist with positive reinforcement, which clearly reinforces good behavior.

Once you have taught your pet a desired behavior, you can then embed the behavior further by using the three Ds: Duration, Distance, and Distraction. This involves: 

  1. Duration – Teaching your dog to hold or continue a behavior for extended periods of time until you give the command to desist. This can start with three seconds and build up to significantly longer periods of time.
  2. Distance – Teaching your dog to respond even when you are at a distance. This means giving your dog the command and then slowly moving away while requiring them to hold the command. You then return to the starting point to release them.
  3. Distraction – Teaching your dog to respond to your commands, even when they are surrounded by distractions. You can include other people talking or even other animals in the space during training sessions to act as distractions. This gives you the opportunity to teach your dog to focus on your commands.

Often when it comes to dog training, dog owners are advised to maintain their sense of calm and authority while instructing their dog, as dogs are better at picking up on body language than the spoken word, so your temperament at the moment can undermine your verbal command.

This can be problematic in the case of owners of ESA dogs, as it can be in times of anxiety that they need the greatest control of their dogs.

This is why it is incredibly important that ESA dogs are thoroughly trained, so that their reinforced behavior comes through, even in moments of intense emotional stress for their owner.

Specialized Anxiety Techniques

ESA dogs can also be taught various techniques that are specifically designed to reduce stress and anxiety in crisis moments. 

One of the most common techniques taught to ESA dogs is Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT).

This is the application of pressure on specific areas of your body, such as your chest, which is known to relieve emotional and mental distress.

Small ESA dogs are taught to sit on top of you in an appropriate location, while larger breeds will rest their head and paws on you.

They also need to be taught to remain calm and docile during this time, helping to pass this same feeling to you.

The last thing you want is them licking your face and barking for attention when you need a few moments to decompress.

There are a few training components required to teach your dog this technique.

Getting On The Sofa

Assuming that you will need to sit somewhere comfortable, like your sofa, while receiving DPT, you will need to teach your dog to join you on the sofa and also when it is time to get down.

You should select commands for these actions, such as “paws up” and “paws down”. 

Then, as with any behavior, it is a matter of teaching your dog what behavior is expected in the usual method, by giving the command and showing them the behavior, and then rewarding them when they respond correctly.

You will then want to continue to practice this behavior with them relying only on praise as a reward, relieving the need for treats for other types of reward.

Applying Pressure

Once your dog has learned to join you on the sofa, you will need to teach them to position themselves correctly on your body and apply pressure while remaining calm.

This will require the same process of showing them the desired position and associating it with a command word, and similarly having a word to terminate the engagement.

Once you have got them in the position, you will want to keep them there for a few minutes, maintaining them in a calm temperament.

If you have a small dog who will sit on top of you, then there should be no problem with them applying sufficient pressure.

Larger dogs that are resting only their head and paws on you may need to be shown to apply a bit more weight, but if they are feeling relaxed, they should naturally transfer their weight to you.

Signs Of Anxiety

Now that your dog knows what to do when you are feeling anxious, you will need to teach them to detect symptoms of anxiety and provide this type of stress relief.

This involves mimicking the type of behavior that you generally express in times of anxiety, and then using the command and reward system, followed by practice without reward, to get your dog to perform DPT in this situation.

In time, your dog should be able to identify anxiety symptoms as calls for this behavior, as well as your established commands.

Should I Get My Dog Certified As An ESA?

While your dog does not need a license to provide you with emotional support, there are many benefits to having an ESA license for your dog.

For example, you will be able to live with your dog even in places that have a no-pet policy; this includes taking them into hotels.

You will also be able to fly with your dog if you advise your airline of the situation a minimum of 48 hours in advance so that they can accommodate you properly.

The laws are constantly changing. Make sure you are up to date on the current laws for flying with your Emotional Support Animal and laws governing housing with your ESA.

Getting an ESA license for your dog is actually more about you than your pooch.

You will need to secure a proper diagnosis of the condition that calls for the use of an ESA from a licensed mental health professional, which will in turn enable them to give a prescription for an ESA.

They will then need to provide you with an ESA letter; this should be on their official letterhead and include their professional information, including license number, and it should not be more than one year old.

Conditions generally accepted to benefit from the presence of an ESA include:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Autism
  • Bipolar
  • Cognitive Disorder
  • Depression
  • General Anxiety Disorder
  • Learning Disorders
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Severe anxiety

There is no legal requirement for ESA dogs to wear any official identifiers, but if they will be with you regularly, it can be a good idea to invest in an identifying vest so that others understand that your dog is present in a specific capacity and limit questions about their presence.

The Verdict

Dogs have a significant power to reduce stress and anxiety in their owners, and as such, they make excellent Emotional Support Animals.

While just owning a dog can provide a person with the emotional support they need to get through tough situations, an ESA dog can provide an additional layer of support. 

ESA dogs should be particularly well-trained, so that they are easy to command in high-stress situations, making them a comfort rather than a further source of anxiety.

ESA dogs can also be trained to engage in specific behaviors, such as Deep Pressure Therapy, that can specifically reduce anxiety.

While anyone can train their dog to act as an Emotional Support Animal, if you qualify, it is a good idea to get yourself registered as needing an ESA.

This will allow you to live with your pet, even in no-pet properties, and take your pet on airplanes at no extra cost.

Knowing that you can take your dog with you at these important moments should itself help reduce anxiety.

One of our biggest pet peeves is people faking their Emotional Support Animals and Service Dogs. Please, if you are not in need of one of these specialized dogs do not bring your personal pet and claim it’s an ESA or Service Dog.

Training your dog in any capacity from basic to advanced can be difficult. If you need assistance please reach out to a certified professional dog trainer.

If you have an Emotional Support Animal tell us some of the methods you used to train your ESA in the comment section below.

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How to train an emotional support dog the basics - Golden Retriever puppy in down position on the floor wearing light blue vest.
Emotional Support Dog Training – Working with little Golden Retriever to become ESA

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