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behavior and training

The fully accessible guide to training an emotional support dog

Everything you need to know about training, living, and traveling with an ESA.

Updated October 8, 2020

Created By

Lori Zaino,
Emotional support dog golden retriever

Dario Krejci

covered in this guide

  • The lowdown on emotional support dogs: what they are, how they differ from service dogs, who should get one, and how to certify them.
  • Breeds/types of dogs that make the best emotional support dogs.
  • Everything you need to know about training your emotional support dog. This includes obedience training, emotional training, and socialization.
  • Advice for flying/traveling with your emotional support dog.

What exactly is an ESA (emotional support animal)

An emotional support animal can be a dog, pig, monkey even a miniature horse that helps humans that are struggling emotionally. In order to be an ESA, a licensed therapist must deem it as such. These animals have specific rights that differ from both service dogs and regular pets:

  • They’re protected under the Fair Housing Act.
  • They’re allowed to fly with owners in an airplane cabin.  Currently, airlines will not allow snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, or spiders to fly. They will allow miniature horses onboard as ESAs. In 2020, the DOT proposed revising the species rule to only allow emotional support dogs to fly in the cabin and not all ESAs.
  • A special letter from your therapist denotes your ESA.

An emotional support dog is different from a service dog

This guide is focused specifically on emotional support dogs, not service dogs. But it is helpful to understand the difference between the two. According to the ADA, emotional support dogs are very different from service animals. 

  • In general,  emotional support dogs/animals help those with emotional/mental disabilities. Service dogs help people with any disability, performing physical tasks for their owners. 
  • Emotional support dogs don’t need qualifications (a pet that you already have can become your ESA). Service dogs go through special training processes and need to have specific qualifications.
  • Emotional support dogs have different rights when entering public places. Service dogs can enter almost anywhere, such as a restaurant, while emotional support dogs cannot.

Who should get an emotional support dog

Dogs provide routine and consistency. This means they can help tired or unmotivated owners suffering from mental trauma or other disorders to engage in activity. Emotional support dogs are apt for people suffering from the following mental health issues:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Autism
  • Bipolar/Manic disorders
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Stress

You must prove the ESA’s support is necessary for your daily functioning when attempting to get one certified.

How to get an ESA letter

If you have one of the above conditions or something similar, speak to a mental health professional. You can ask them for a letter to certify your pet as an emotional support dog. This letter must have the following:

  • Be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional
  • Written on official letterhead 
  • Include details like therapist’s contact info, signature, and license number

This letter can serve as proof of your emotional support dog’s presence in a few key situations: 

  • Flying. Airlines typically won’t let your pet travel in the cabin with you if they’re large unless you have this letter.
  • Renting a home.  Landlords and homeowners associations must allow ESAs to live with their owners, regardless of their rules on pets. If you run into an issue with this, you have the right to file a discrimination complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Avoiding fees.  The Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Act state that ESA owners can be exempt from certain fees charged for pets when renting a living space or flying. But, if pets do cause any damage, extra fees may incur.

It’s important to note that the ESA letter won’t help when entering establishments like hotels or restaurants. These businesses can deny entry to your pet regardless of ESA certification.

Keep an eye out for fake registrations or certifications. ESA letters must always come from a licensed therapist. Be especially careful when obtaining an ESA letter online, which is where a majority of fake letters or scams can occur. 

There are varying types of letters: for housing, for travel, or for both. Make sure to note if or how often they need to be renewed. Airlines also may ask for additional documentation, but more on that in the section about flying below.

What types of dogs make the best ESAs (and why)?

An emotional support dog should be calm, socially adapted (with both humans and other pups), and know basic commands. They shouldn’t be shy, overly excitable/wild, bark too much, or jump/bite people. 

Some dog breeds are more apt to be emotional support dogs or companion animals. Dogs with characteristics like being gentle, obedient, calm, and loving make excellent ESAs. Here are some of the best breeds suited to be ESAs:

  • Golden retrievers are loyal and lively, just make sure to give them enough exercise.
  • Labrador retrievers are gentle and obedient, making them easy to train.
  • German shepherds are friendly and intelligent.
  • Beagles are loving and calm, but also playful.
  • Poodles are smart, and thus train well.
  • Yorkshire terriers are small and affectionate lap dogs that don’t need much exercise.
  • Collies are sensitive and intuitive to their owners.
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniels are loyal and loving.
  • Pomeranians love to snuggle and make excellent lap dogs.
  • Pugs are small, but with big hearts.
  • Corgis are affectionate and friendly.

Emotional support dogs aren’t required to be trained by a specific set of guidelines like service dogs are. But, there are a few rules they should follow. The ADA requires ESAs to:

  • Be under the control of handlers (best done with a leash)
  • Be housebroken (don’t worry, we’ll get to training soon)
  • Have the proper vaccines as per state/local laws.

Step-by-step obedience training for your emotional support dog

Make sure to have plenty of treats, a leash, and your dog’s bed or mat on hand when emotional support dog training. You can teach your dog endless commands, but these are some of the most important.

1. Start with potty training 

  • Create a routine (feeding and bathroom). Puppies typically can control their bladders one hour for every month of age, so depending on their age, take them outside accordingly. Try to follow your puppy’s schedule by keeping track of when they actually go.
  • It’s all about consistency: take your pup to the same spot outside each time.
  • Restrict your dog to specific areas of the house to avoid accidents.
  • Reward your puppy with treats, love, and praise when they do their business outdoors. Likewise, don’t freak out if they go inside. Just clean things up, and keep taking them outside.
  • Take away their water dish a couple of hours before bedtime. Puppies can usually hold it twice as long at night, but taking away water will help too.

2. Sit

This is one of the most basic commands to train your dog. It’s also the easiest because it comes naturally to dogs. 

  • Start when your dog is standing, and hold a treat in front of them about nose level. 
  • Gradually move the treat backward and up so they sit, saying the word “sit.”
  • Make sure to use the same word, like “good” or “yes”  when they sit correctly. Reward them with a treat too.

3. Stay

Stay is best taught after your dog has mastered sit. You may want to start by training them on their bed or mat.

  • As your dog sits, open your palm towards them (this is their visual cue).
  • Step back slowly.
  • Gradually increase steps as your dog stays put.
  • Incorporate saying the word “stay.”
  • Offer treats when done correctly.

4. Come

  • Start by saying the word “come.” 
  • Pull on their leash.
  • Reward with a  treat when they come.

5. Down

Teaching your dog to lie down is more difficult because this is a submissive posture. But when training an emotional support dog that may have to accompany you on an airline, this posture is important.

  • Put a treat near your dog’s nose and lower it towards the floor.
  • Start with praise and reward once your dog drops their head in submission.
  • Each time, lower the treat down further until your dog is fully down.
  • Reward with praise and treats.
  • Once your dog has this down, you can bring in the hand signal, a flat palm that lowers towards the floor

6. Leave it

This is always a good command to teach your dog, but can be especially important in unfamiliar, hectic environments like airports.

  • Start with treats in your hand.
  • Offer them, but if your dog tries to steal them, close your fist with the treats inside.
  • Once your dog backs off, try again.
  • When your dog masters this, you can try doing this by leaving food on the floor (keep your hand nearby to cover it if needed). 
  • Once your dog masters this step, you can bring in the verbal command “leave it.”
  • Leave a distraction on the floor, tell your dog to leave it, and lure them away with treats in your hand. 
  • Using a leash can help with this final section of the training.

Emotional training for your emotional support dog

Emotional support dogs go beyond just needing to know “sit.” They should be able to help people struggling emotionally in intense situations. ESAs can learn specific techniques to help their owners relax. 

One of the most common is Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT). This is when an ESA will apply light pressure to specific areas of your body to reduce anxiety or stress. Smaller dogs will sit on you, whereas larger dogs will rest their paws/head on you. 

Here’s how to teach your dog to apply Deep Pressure Therapy

  • Start by teaching them to climb up and down on the sofa using a verbal command such as “up.” Lure them with a treat.
  • Calmly move them into the right position of applying paws or pressure on you.
  • Use a verbal command like “paws off” or “down” when they need to get down.
  • Encourage them to stay calm while doing this no jumping, barking, or licking.
  • Gradually reduce treats until the behavior becomes innate.

Make sure your dog is socialized and comfortable in all situations

According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, improper socialization can lead to behavior problems later in life. An emotional support dog should be well-adjusted, not fearful, and be a calming presence for their owners. The organization suggests that socialization should occur “before a puppy is fully vaccinated.” If you’re struggling to socialize a very fearful or older dog, consider involving a behaviorist.

Follow these tips for socialization

  • Training dogs when they’re still puppies is easiest for socialization (and obedience).
  • You can start socialization when puppies are as young as three weeks old.
  • Use positive reinforcement.
  • Introduce other stimuli, other people, and new places little by little.
  • Start grooming your pup while young.
  • Train your dog to accept and be comfortable with distractions, like new people, places, sights, sounds, and smells.

There are many things to consider when socializing your dog. Your puppy should get to know items from things like plastic bags to lawnmowers. They should meet different types of people such as children, elderly women, and bearded men. And hearing noises like fireworks or enduring moments like nail clipping will help your puppy to socialize right.

Tips for training your ESA

Above all, treat your dog like a dog, not a child. Cesar Millan, famous dog behaviorist explains that using body language and commands is key for socializing and training your pup. “This is the language that your dog speaks,” he explained.

Utilize the three D’s after you’ve finished socialization and basic obedience training:

  • Duration: Show your dog how to continue a behavior they’ve learned for a continued period of time. 
  • Distance: Teach your dog to respond to your commands when you’re not right next to them. Give your dog the command, and then slowly move away while requiring them to hold the command. You then return to the starting point to release them.
  • Distraction: Emotional support dogs need to help their owners in stressful moments. So, make sure your dog is trained to respond, even when surrounded by distractions. Training them in a busy, distracting environment can help. 
  • Keep sessions brief, no more than 15-minute sessions to avoid fatigue or boredom.

Flying with your emotional support dog

You’ll need to prepare both your pup and yourself in advance before flying.

Preparing yourself: paperwork, gear, and expectations

You should always check with your airline to understand regulations and rules that may affect both you and your pup during air travel. Some airlines require more documentation, like a vet letter or additional health forms. You’ll need to have those prepared before flying. 

If the airline requires your dog to be in a carrier or wear a muzzle, that’s something you’ll want to work on beforehand so your pup is used to it.  An emotional support vest or harness is not required for your dog when flying. But, wearing one may help employees and passengers understand your ESA is there for a reason.

Preparing your dog: training and behavior

You’ll want to make sure your emotional support dog is as prepared as you are when it’s time to fly. Getting your dog used to plane sounds is another way to prepare them. This can be helpful if you have a jumpy or more nervous dog. Your dog is supposed to be comforting you, not the other way around. Preparing them to stay calm in new and different situations will make the experience easier for everyone. Bringing their favorite toys or blankets can help too.

It goes without saying that you and your dog should both be respectful of other passengers while flying.  Airlines can revoke ESA travel privileges if your dog is aggressive, uncontrollable, or disruptive.

Be flexible when flying with your ESA. Be prepared for last-minute changes like moving seats. Some airlines won’t let emotional support dogs fly in exit rows. Finally,  make sure your dog goes potty before boarding!

How to hire a dog trainer for your emotional support dog

If you don’t want to or can’t train your emotional support dog, you can always hire someone. 

Emotional support dogs aren’t required by law to have specific training, unlike service dogs. But if you want your dog to best be able to help you, but are worried you can’t train them, you can find someone to do it for you.

The best way to go about it would be to see if the American Kennel Club (AKC) has a certified instructor or trainer in your area.

Puppy classes are also excellent ways to socialize your dog. A brief Google search can help you find different obedience classes, dog behaviorists, or trainers close to your home.

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