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Emotional support dog golden retriever

Dario Krejci

The essentials

  • ESAs and service animals are different — Any pet can be an emotional support animal. Service animals, especially service dogs, receive specialized training.
  • ESAs have some legal rights — ESAs are protected by some legal rights, so long as they have been certified by a licensed mental health professional.
  • Emotional support dog training is key — ESAs don’t need the specialized training, but learning basic commands will help them be well-behaved in public spaces.

What exactly is an ESA (emotional support animal)?

An emotional support animal is any type of animal that helps humans manage their emotional or mental health. These can be dogs, pigs, monkeys, and even miniature horses. And there’s no limit to how many ESAs a person can have.

In order to receive official ESA documentation, a mental health professional needs to evaluate that the animal provides therapeutic relief from conditions such as anxiety, depression, pos-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, agoraphobia (fear of being outside), aerophobia (fear of flying), and certain learning disorders.

These animals have legal rights that differ from both service dogs and regular pets. For example:

  • Special housing protections. Like service animals, emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act.
  • Travel accommodations. Some airlines allow ESAs to fly with handlers in the airplane cabin. However, if you are looking to fly with an ESA, it’s a good idea to check with the airline before booking. As of 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate ESAs. Service dogs, however, must be accommodated on commercial flights.
  • Special letters. In order to denote your animal as an ESA, you must have a special letter from your licensed mental health professional.

ESA vs. service dog

This guide is focused on emotional support animals – specifically emotional support dogs – not service animals. But it is helpful to understand the difference between the two. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), emotional support animals differ from service animals in the following ways:

  • In general, emotional support animals help those with emotional/mental disabilities. Service animals help people with any disability and may perform physical tasks for their owners.
  • Emotional support animals don’t require extensive training or qualifications; in fact, a pet you already have can become your ESA. Service animals go through special training processes and do need specific qualifications.
  • Emotional support animals have different rights when entering public places. The ADA provides protection for service animals in public places, including restaurants, bars, theaters, stores, and public transportation terminals. Those protections do not extend to ESAs.

Who should get an emotional support dog?

Dogs and other animals can help provide routine, consistency, comfort, and peace. They can  help those feeling isolated, tired, or unmotivated because of mental trauma or another disorder to become reengaged and active again.

You must be certified as emotionally disabled by a licensed psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist or other licensed mental health professional to legally qualify for an ESA. Additionally, you have to prove your dog (or other pet) is necessary for daily functioning in order to have it certified.

If you suffer from a mental disorder that is closely tied to flying, it may make more sense to get your animal certified as a psychiatric service animal (PSA). Due to recent changes in the Department of Transportation’s ruling on ESAs, airlines are no longer required to accommodate these animals. PSAs, on the other hand, are recognized by all airlines and must be allowed to fly with their owners.

When you might need an ESA letter and how to get one

An ESA letter can serve as proof of your emotional support dog’s certification and your need for them to be with you in a few key situations:

  • Renting a place to live. Landlords and homeowners associations must allow ESAs to live with their owners, regardless of their rules on pets. If you run into any 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 states that ESA owners can be exempt from certain fees charged for pets when renting a living space. However, if pets cause damage, extra fees may be incurred.

It’s important to note that the ESA letter won’t give your emotional support dog full public access rights. Businesses can deny entry to your pet regardless of ESA certification, and you may not be able to fly with your ESA. As mentioned earlier, airlines have recently changed their rules around flying with emotional support animals, so it’s best to check with the airline you intend to fly with to see if they permit ESAs.

If you need an ESA letter for housing or flying purposes, beware of scams. 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. An authentic ESA letter should be printed on the official letterhead of your licensed mental health professional and include their:

  • License type and number
  • State of licensure
  • Licensure date
  • Contact information

Dog breeds that make the best ESAs

If you do opt to get a dog as an emotional support animal, look for a breed that is generally calm, socialized (both with humans and other animals, especially other dogs), and knows – or can easily learn – basic commands.

Some dog breeds are naturally better suited for the important role of ESA. Here are some of the best breeds to choose from:

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

Make sure to have plenty of treats, a leash, your dog’s bed or mat, and a lot of patience when emotional support dog training. There’s no limit to what you can work on with your dog. These important commands will help your dog be a successful emotional support animal.

Institute potty training 

  • Puppies can typically control their bladders one hour for every month of age. Build a routine that grows with them and try to follow your puppy’s schedule.
  • Consistency is key, so try to take them to the same spot outside each time.
  • Restrict access to specific places in your home 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. Clean up and continue the routine.
  • Puppies can usually hold it twice as long at night, but taking away the water dish a couple of hours before bedtime helps, too.

Teach these common commands


  • This is one of the most basic commands for your dog to learn and, thankfully, it’s also one of the easiest.
  • Start when your dog is standing and hold a treat in front of them about nose level.
  • Gradually move the treat backward and up, saying the word “sit” until they sit.
  • Offer praise and reward with a treat when they sit correctly. Make sure to use the same praise word – like “good” or “yes” – each time.


  • Once your dog has mastered “sit,” add an open palm as a visual cue for them to stay.
  • Step back slowly, gradually increasing your distance as you say “stay.”
  • Offer treats and praise when done correctly.


  • Teaching your dog to come may work best with a long leash at the start.
  • Say the word “come” with a friendly, excited tone (a treat or toy can sweeten the deal).
  • If your dog doesn’t come after a few tries, gently pull on the leash to encourage them.
  • Reward with praise and a treat when they come to you.


  • This submissive posture is tricky to teach but important to learn.
  • Put a treat near your dog’s nose and lower it towards the floor.
  • Offer praise and reward once your dog drops their head in submission.
  • Lower the treat further until your dog has laid down completely.
  • Reward with praise and treats.
  • Once your dog has mastered this, add in the hand signal which is a flat palm that lowers towards the floor.

Leave it

  • This command can be especially useful in unfamiliar hectic situations.
  • Start with treats in your hand.
  • Offer them with an open hand. If your dog tries to steal them, close your fist again. Keep trying this until your dog no longer tries to steal the treats.
  • Now, try leaving a treat on the floor (but keep your hand nearby to cover it, if needed).
  • Tell your dog to “leave it” and lure them away with another treat.
  • A leash can be a helpful tool with this final step of the training.

Socialization training for your emotional support dog

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. 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.
  • Once your puppy’s vaccine series is almost complete, 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.

Emotional support training for your emotional support dog

Emotional support dog training should extend beyond the basic commands to include knowing how to help you in intense situations. There are specific techniques ESAs can learn to help their owners relax.

One technique is deep pressure therapy (DPT), or pressure therapy, which can be especially therapeutic for those who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders. During DPT, your emotional support dog will apply pressure to specific areas of your body to reduce anxiety or stress.

Smaller dogs may perform this technique by sitting on you while larger dogs may rest their paws or head on you to provide comfort and relief from symptoms. Whichever size ESA you have, training is generally the same.

  • Start by teaching them to climb up and down on the sofa by using a verbal command such as “up.”
  • Calmly move them into the right position of applying light pressure on you, either by sitting or resting their paws on you.
  • Use a verbal command like “paws off” or simply “off” when they need to get down. Note: it’s important to have one word for each command, so if your dog already knows “down,” you’ll want to use another word for this command.
  • Encourage them to stay calm while doing this by offering light petting.
  • Gradually reduce treats until the behavior becomes instinctual.

More tips for training your ESA

While there are many ways to go about training your emotional support dog, following the four D’s will help you be the most successful. The four D’s are distance, distraction, duration, and diversity (or difficulty).

  • Distance. Create space between you and your dog while giving them commands. The farther away you can get and still give a successful command, the better.
  • Distraction. Dog behaviorists also call distractions “competing motivators” because they pull your dog’s focus away from you. Aim to distraction-proof your training by adding distractions in purposefully and slowly as your dog learns new skills.
  • Duration. This can either mean how long or how fast your dog can do something. Responding quickly and maintaining attention are key markers of a well-trained dog.
  • Diversity. Sometimes called “difficulty,” diversity is the variety in your dog’s training. Changing up the training environment or adding commands inside of other commands (like “sit” in the middle of “come”) are good examples of diversity.

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. If you want your dog to be able to help you but are worried you can’t train them, hiring a professional trainer is a good idea.

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.

Frequently asked questions

Can my dog become an ESA dog?

Any dog can be certified as an emotional support animal, though some breeds (like the golden retriever) may be better suited for the job. You’ll want to make sure your dog is calm and well-socialized, not fearful or reactive.

How can I qualify for an emotional support dog?

You will need to have a diagnosed mental disability to legally qualify for an emotional support dog.

How can I avoid fake ESA letters?

The biggest red flag with ESA letters is being promised one without having to be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. This is a critical step in establishing validity. Also check to make sure the appropriate information – like the license number and type of your licensed mental health provider – is present on the ESA letter.

What’s the difference between emotional support dogs and psychiatric service dogs?

Emotional support dogs provide comfort and companionship, while psychiatric service dogs perform tasks that are directly related to their handler’s disability. Additionally, psychiatric service dogs have the same rights as service dogs (such as flying and access to public places).