Everything You Need to Know About Having an Emotional Support Dog

by Amanda Flores

Emotional support animals can help you remain calm and help to relieve stress and anxiety through their comfort and companionship. 

All dogs provide affection and love for their pet parents, but when you’re in need of true emotional support, only certain pups will fit the bill. Here’s what you need to know when looking for an Emotional Support Dog and how to know if your pup is up to the task.

What Makes an Emotional Support Dog

An emotional support animal is exactly how it sounds—they provide mental and therapeutic support to their people. “These dogs aren’t trained to do this,” explains Amy Learn, VMD, DACVB, IAABC-CABC, Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. “It’s purely on a soothing, comforting level.”

If your therapist has diagnosed you with depression, anxiety, or other mental health illnesses, an Emotional Support Dog could be just what you need. They can help you remain calm and help to relieve stress and anxiety through their comfort and companionship. 

This is very different from an officially trained Service Dog, who may come from a line of pups that are born and raised for a very specific duty. They go through intensive socialization and are trained to be extremely resilient and tolerant of all of the chaos they could potentially come across when out in the world with their humans. 

In addition to being able to handle the environment so that they can accompany their person wherever they need to go, Service Dogs are also trained to help with a specific need. For example, helping to pull a wheelchair or watching their person for signs of a seizure.

“These are really lifesaving kinds of tasks that allow that human to have greater access to the world,” says Dr. Learn. 

The Qualities of an Emotional Support Dog

When looking for an Emotional Support Dog, socialization is very important. If you’re counting on your pup to accompany you all day—whether that be on a plane, on errands, or at work—  because you need the support, then they should remain calm and comfortable the entire time.

“They should be able to pay attention to you,” says Dr. Learn. “They shouldn’t be as easily distracted by other things in the world.”

While breed doesn’t necessarily come into play when choosing your Emotional Support Dog, not just any pup will do. “It doesn’t matter what breed they are,” says Dr. Learn. “You want to look at their personality, their temperament, and make sure that they’re comfortable being with you for the situations that you need them in.”

Your pup should be great around other people and dogs and should behave well when out in public, giving you their undivided attention. So while you want them to be friendly with strangers, having an overall calm and relaxed nature is the most important thing. This will help them to give you the support you need when you need it. 

How to Know a Pup Should Not Be an Emotional Support Dog

If your pup has their own anxiety, fear, or aggressive tendencies, then they are not an ideal candidate for serving as your Emotional Support Dog. They won’t be able to help you in the way you’re looking for if they’re dealing with their own emotional stress. And while that doesn’t mean they can’t be emotionally supportive, you have to also consider their welfare.

“It’s important to recognize that dogs are sentient beings, too,” says Dr. Learn. “We often talk about dogs as providing emotional support to humans, but we don’t talk about whether or not they're comfortable doing that.”

Training Tips for Emotional Support Dogs

There is no standard training for Emotional Support Dogs since their main task is to provide comfort, however the biggest thing is to make sure they are well socialized as a puppy. If you’re welcoming a puppy into your family, then be sure to properly socialize them and provide obedience training—whether you do it yourself or at puppy school.

“There is a critical period typically between three weeks and thirteen weeks of age that we want dogs to be experiencing fun things and having positive experiences with the world,” says Dr. Learn. “These dogs tend to be more resilient later on and aren't as anxious.”

In addition to proper socialization, be sure they have basic obedience training. A dog who you’re planning to bring with you out in the world should be attentive and walk well on a leash, 

Final Thoughts

Giving your pup the responsibility of being your Emotional Support Dog is no small ask. You want to make sure that they are truly up for the job. 

As an Emotional Support Dog, your pup will likely be accompanying you as you travel or are out and about in your day-to-day life. Make sure they are fit to be around the loud noises and chaos that are all part of the real world.

Determine if your pup is emotionally fit to be your Emotional Support Dog. If they are dealing with their own anxieties or stress, then they may not be the best candidate for providing the support you may need outside your home.

You and your pup will always have a strong emotional bond regardless of their title, however, whether or not you can bring your relationship on the road will depend on the pup. 

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