A Complete Guide to Emotional Support Dogs: Benefits, Breeds & More

Ziggy
June 23, 2022

Dogs are called "man's best friend" for good reason — for hundreds of years, they’ve been assisting humans in a variety of ways. From herding sheep and guarding properties to acting as loyal companions, dogs have always played an important role in the lives of humans.

Over recent decades, dogs have been trained to provide support to people with various kinds of disabilities. Guide dogs are now a common sight, often invaluable to those with visual impairments. These service dogs can perform a wide range of tasks for people with physical disabilities and are often specifically bred and trained to meet the needs of their human partners. More recently, dogs have also been used as emotional support animals. Not only do these special canines provide companionship, but they also provide emotional and psychological support to people who live with mental health conditions.

What is an Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional Support Dogs (ESDs) provide companionship and comfort to people who suffer from emotional or psychiatric disabilities. These dogs are not service animals as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but they provide many of the same benefits. People with emotional support animals often experience decreased anxiety, increased self-esteem, and a better quality of life.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about emotional support dogs. Some people believe that emotional support dogs require specific training, but this is not the case. Emotional support dogs are not required to have any special certification or paperwork, but their owners typically must provide a letter from a mental health professional stating that the dog provides emotional support.

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This means that if you have a dog already, you can apply for them to be approved by your health care provider as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). Emotional support dogs can be any size or breed, but they must be well-behaved and must not pose a threat to the safety of others. There are no additional costs associated with having an emotional support dog beyond the standard costs of a normal pet. You must be able to financially support the dog, including veterinarian bills, pet food, and pet insurance.

Service dogs, on the other hand, are highly trained to help people with disabilities. They are considered working animals according to the ADA ⁠— not pets. Service dogs provide assistance with specific tasks that the diabled person they’re assigned to cannot complete themselves. For instance, a diabetic can have a dog that’s trained to recognize unusually high or low blood sugar levels in their human companion. What’s more, service dogs don’t need any official registration according to the ADA and must be allowed on any business premises by law. 

How to Qualify for an Emotional Support Dog

People with a wide range of mental health conditions and disabilities can qualify for an emotional support dog. These conditions may include, but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Autism
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

If you think an emotional support dog could improve your quality of life, the first step is to speak with a mental health professional. This professional can assess your needs and determine whether an emotional support dog would be beneficial for you.

Upon the determination that an emotional support dog would be helpful, the next step is to find an appropriate dog. Not all dogs are suited to be emotional support animals, so it’s important to find a dog that has the right temperament to provide this type of assistance. Once you’ve found the right dog for your needs, you can use your letter from a mental health professional to prove that the dog is providing you with emotional support.

You’re allowed to have more than one emotional support dog if you so desire — there is no law restricting the number of ESDs your therapist can prescribe. However, with every dog comes additional responsibility, so you need to make sure you can provide the right level of care to each dog before taking on the extra commitment.

Benefits of Emotional Support Dogs

For many people with mental health conditions, owning an emotional support dog can be life changing. They can provide a wide range of benefits, which contribute to an overall improvement in quality of life. Read on for five great benefits to having an emotional support dog.

Less Anxiety

Some studies show that being in the presence of a dog can help to reduce anxiety levels. Interacting with a pet can increase serotonin and dopamine levels, which promote a sense of calm and relaxation. Many people also report feeling less anxious in social situations and having an overall improved mood when they have their dog with them.

Higher Self-Esteem

The unconditional love of a dog can be extremely beneficial for people who are struggling with low self-esteem. One study involving children with ADHD saw measurable benefits to their sense of self-esteem after receiving dog-assisted therapy. Dogs provide companionship and non-judgmental support, which can help people feel more accepted and valued. This can positively impact a person's self-esteem and confidence, leading to a more positive self-image.

Reduced Loneliness

Isolation and loneliness are commonly experienced by many people suffering from mental health disorders. Dogs are highly social creatures, and for some people, this type of companionship can help decrease feelings of loneliness. The frequent interaction with a dog can provide a sense of emotional connection that may be absent for people who do not get the opportunity to socialize very often.

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Greater Sense of Purpose

Many people find that owning a pet gives them a sense of purpose and well-being, which is particularly beneficial for those with mental health conditions. It can provide a much-needed emotional boost for those who have trouble engaging in other activities or feel down and unmotivated. Dogs are dependent on their human companions to provide a high level of care, and this responsibility can give some people the motivation to get up every day and fulfill their obligations to their dogs.

More Physical Activity

The benefits of exercise for people suffering from mental health conditions have been well-documented, and this includes successful brain functioning. But people suffering from anxiety and depression may lack the will to get up and exercise. Since dogs require frequent exercise, there is a greater need to get up and out, even when you don't feel like it. This increase in physical activity can lead to an overall improvement in mental health.

Top 10 Emotional Support Dog Breeds

Any dog or pet can be registered as an ESA, but that doesn't mean every dog would be a good choice for emotional support. Some dog breeds have a temperament that lends itself well to the job, while others may be too high-energy or prone to anxiety themselves to be as helpful.

The best dog breeds for emotional support are ones that are known to be loyal, patient, and low-key. They should also be good with strangers and other animals since they’ll likely accompany their human companions in public. Some of the best breeds for this type of work are listed below.

Labrador Retriever

The Labrador Retriever is often considered to be a great emotional support dog. Known for their happy, laid-back nature, they are one of the most popular pet breeds for a reason. They make excellent family dogs and can provide emotional support for children and adults alike.

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Labrador Retrievers love their food, which makes them relatively easy to train when there are snacks and treats involved. As big and energetic dogs, they do need some space and a companion that can take them out for frequent exercise. If you can meet their basic needs, you’ll be rewarded with unconditional love and affection. This makes them one of the top ESA picks.

Golden Retriever

The Golden Retriever is very similar to the Labrador Retriever in many ways. They are both big, friendly dogs that make great emotional support animals. They have a similar temperament, which makes them calm and patient around humans. They are also both food-motivated people-pleasers, which makes training relatively easy.

That said, Golden Retrievers do have a few key differences. One of them lies in the fact that they shed at a higher rate than Labradors. As such, you’ll want to consider your living environment carefully to determine whether you can handle the amount of cleaning required before taking home a Golden Retriever.

Poodle

Poodles come in three sizes — standard, miniature, and toy — which makes them a versatile breed. They are known for being intelligent and easily trainable, which is why they’re so often used as service dogs. They are also known for their hypoallergenic coat, which is useful for people with allergies.

poodle-on-top-of

Poodles are low-shedding dogs, but they do require regular grooming to keep their coat looking its best. They’re a people-oriented breed that loves companionship, making them an ideal emotional support dog.

Irish Wolfhound

The majestic Irish Wolfhound is one of the largest and oldest dog breeds. Its history as a companion dog dates back as far as 300 B.C. While they’re known for being gentle and loyal, Irish Wolfhounds aren’t as common as some of the other breeds on this list. Even so, they make excellent emotional support dogs thanks to their placid nature.

Irish Wolfhounds are calm and patient around people. Despite their large, often intimidating size, they’re not an aggressive breed, which makes them very good with children and a great choice for a multi-purpose ESA. They don’t respond well to kenneling or confinement, however, so this breed isn’t ideal for someone who spends a lot of time away from home and wants to keep their dog crate trained.

Pug

The Pug is a small, sturdy dog that was originally bred in Asia as a companion for the wealthy. They are now one of the most popular breeds in the world. They are known for their friendly, outgoing nature, in addition to their cute, wrinkled faces. It’s important to note that this breed needs frequent grooming and bathing, plus about an hour of exercise every day.

portrait-of-pug

When they’re not playing, pugs are happy to curl up on a couch with their human companions and provide emotional support. This breed is very good with children and other animals and is generally easy to train. Since they’re such social dogs, pugs don’t like being left alone for long periods. As such, they’re better suited for someone with time to spend with them.

Boston Terrier

The Boston Terrier is a small, muscular dog that was originally bred in the United States as a cross between an English Bulldog and an English Terrier. They’re known for their short, smooth coat, their friendly, outgoing nature, and their signature black and white markings.

Boston Terriers usually attach themselves to one person in the household and thrive on that companionship. While this breed is generally easy to train, they can be a little stubborn. As a result, Boston Terriers require firm consistency from their pet parent and about an hour of exercise per day — some of which should be in the form of a playful game to keep them mentally stimulated.

Shih Tzu

The Shih Tzu is a small, stocky dog that was originally bred in Tibet as a companion for royalty. They’re known for their long, silky coat, their playful and friendly personality, and their loyalty to their family. They make the perfect little lapdog and are ideal for people living in smaller spaces like apartments or condominiums.

The Shih Tzu’s beautiful coat requires regular grooming every two to three days or it may start to mat — a common term for when a pup’s fur gets tangled. And while they don’t need a lot of exercise, you must take them on a walk every day. This breed is very intelligent and highly independent, meaning they sometimes need a bit more work when it comes to training.

Corgi

The Corgi is a small dog that was originally bred in Wales as a herding dog. First introduced to the U.S. in 1933, they’ve continued to grow in popularity as pets. Their spirited and athletic disposition means they need a lot of exercise. They’re also great emotional support dogs for people seeking a pet that’ll keep them busy and mentally stimulated.

corgi-on-grass

Corgis are fiercely loyal and make excellent guard dogs thanks to their loud bark. They’re intelligent and easy to train, but can be a bit willful at times. If not given enough exercise, they may become destructive. They are best suited for someone with plenty of time and energy to devote.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a small, graceful dog that was originally bred in England as a companion for the nobility. They’re known for their beautiful coat, gentle nature, and love of being around people. As an adaptable breed, they’ll fit well with their pet parent’s lifestyle, whether they’re the active-outdoorsy type or a homebody.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are compact in size, so they can live quite comfortably in small apartments. Above all, they’re most known for their incredibly cuddly nature, which makes them a perfect companion for someone who would benefit from tactile therapy.

German Shepherd

German Shepherds are a highly trainable breed, originally bred in Germany as working dogs. They’re widely used by law enforcement and the military because of their intelligence, strength, and agility. Although they may have gained a reputation for aggression, this is highly dependent on their training.

german-shepherd-under-blanker

As a naturally protective canine, German Shepherds are excellent guard dogs. They need frequent exercise, both physically and mentally, to keep them happy and well-behaved. Those who are willing to put in the work will find a loyal furry companion that will motivate them to get outside and be active, while providing unconditional emotional support.

Where Are Emotional Support Dogs Allowed?

Some landlords don’t allow their tenants to live with dogs or other pets. This can be devastating for people who crave the companionship that comes with having a dog. The good news is, if you have a letter from your mental health care provider confirming your need for an emotional support animal, you’ll most likely be exempted from this restriction.

Under the Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landlords must make an exception to any "no pets" rule in the case of medically prescribed emotional support animals. This is great news for anyone in a rental situation that was afraid to bring an emotional support dog home.

However, since ESDs are not classed as service dogs, they won’t necessarily be allowed in the same places where service dogs are permitted. As such, you may not be able to take your ESD to a restaurant or other public venue. Always be sure to check in advance whether you can take your ESD with you on any planned visits.

Flying With Your Emotional Support Dog

Emotional support dogs previously fell under the same rules as service dogs, meaning they could conveniently fly with their pet parents throughout the U.S. But in 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced new rules stating that airlines were no longer obliged to allow emotional support animals to travel with their owners.

If you have a small dog — classified as under 20 pounds — that can fit inside a carrier, most airlines will still allow you to travel for a fee, if the dog remains inside the carrier. A few international airlines will accept emotional support animals of all sizes, but policies can change quickly, so you’ll need to check with the individual airline before making travel arrangements.

puppy-sticking-head-out-of-carrier

Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) on the other hand, are still permitted to travel on U.S. airlines since they are classed as service animals. If you suffer from a psychiatric disorder or learning disability and you own an ESD, you may want to consider whether your dog can be trained and classed as a psychiatric service dog. These types of dogs are trained to specifically help their human companions manage their illnesses. This could include some assistance taking medication, providing physical touch to ground them during an anxiety attack, or interrupting an undesirable behavior state.

Can Other Types of Animals Qualify to Provide Emotional Support?

While dogs are often the most popular emotional support animals, other types of animals can qualify as well.

A study conducted by the State University of New York at Buffalo found that pet ownership, in general, had a positive effect on participants' blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels. Cats are also popular as emotional support animals, although they are not as common as dogs.

The main criteria for an animal to be classed as an emotional support animal include the person having a close relationship with the animal and the animal providing some type of therapeutic benefit. This could be emotional support, a calming presence, or unconditional love.

If you feel like your pet provides you with some form of emotional support that helps you deal with a mental health condition, you can discuss your situation with your mental health care provider. They may be able to help you get an emotional support animal letter, which could allow you to live with your pet even if you’re renting accommodation that doesn’t allow it.

Have an emotional support dog that needs grooming? Schedule with the grooming experts at Barkbus today.

WRITTEN BY
Ziggy

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