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The fully accessible guide to training an emotional support dog

The essentials

  • Emotional support animals and service animals are different— Any pet can be an emotional support animal while service animals receive specialized training and are entitled to extra legal rights. 
  • ESA owners are entitled to housing rights — Certified ESAs must be allowed to live with their owners, even in rentals that don’t allow pets.
  • Emotional support dog training is key — ESAs don’t require the specialized training that service animals undergo, but learning basic commands and obedience will help them be well-behaved in public spaces.

An emotional support animal (ESA) 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.

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

Emotional support animals vs. service dogs vs. therapy dogs

Like service animals, emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act. Under this law, your landlord must make reasonable accommodations for your ESA to accompany you into housing, even if they typically don’t allow pets. However, a landlord may still prohibit or evict ESA owners under certain circumstances, such as property damage or noise violations. This is why basic obedience training is essential for your dog to be a working ESA.

While ESAs are usually only entitled to certain housing rights, service dogs also qualify for additional protections offered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under this law, trained and certified service dogs may be allowed in places ESAS cannot go—including airports, restaurants, bars, and theaters.

A third class of working animals, therapy dogs, differ from both ESAs and service dogs in that they don’t enjoy any additional legal rights. Certified and trained therapy dogs are deployed to facilities like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes to provide comfort, love, and joy to those most in need. Therapy dogs are typically only allowed in places where they’ve been officially invited.

A step-by-step guide to emotional support dog training

While ESAs don’t need specific training to be certified as service dogs do, it’s still a great idea to make sure they have basic obedience skills. That way, they stand less of a chance of being rejected by your landlord or other party on the grounds of misbehavior. 

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. Learning these important commands will help your dog be a successful emotional support animal. 

Institute potty training

If you’re training your puppy to become an ESA, you’ll want to start by housebreaking them. Consistency is key, so try to take them to the same spot outside each time and build a routine that grows with them.

Puppies can typically control their bladders for approximately one hour for every month of age. Once they’re older than six months, they can usually hold it twice as long at night, but taking away the water dish a couple of hours before bedtime helps, too.

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 up the mess and continue the routine. 

You may want to crate train your dog alongside potty training to help instill good habits and create a safe environment where your dog can stay when you’re not at home. Plus, crate training alleviates the risk of your dog accidentally causing property damage, which is one of the only legal grounds your landlord has for rejecting an ESA.   

Teach these common commands 

Basic obedience skills like “sit,” “come,” and “stay” aren’t just for impressing your friends. They can also come in handy in tough situations. Here are a few commands that you’ll want to teach your dog before applying for an ESA certification:

Obedience skill How to train
Sit -Hold a treat in front of your dog around their 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.
Stay -Once your dog has mastered “sit,” add an open palm as a visual cue for them to stay. -Ask them to sit and then step back slowly, gradually increasing your distance as you say “Stay.” -Offer treats and praise when done correctly.
Come -Start by attaching your dog to a long leash. -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.
Down -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 -Offer your dog treats 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 ESA 

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

Training dogs when they’re still puppies is easiest for both socialization and obedience. You can start socializing puppies as young as three weeks old. However, you’ll need to wait until they’ve received all of their vaccinations before letting them meet other dogs or taking them to the dog park.

Be sure to use positive reinforcement  , and introduce other stimuli, other people, and new places little by little. You should also start grooming your pup while they’re young to prevent them from developing anxiety, especially if you plan to take them for professional grooming at some point.

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

Emotional support training for your ESA 

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, DPT training is generally the same. Here are the basic steps:

  • 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 to focus on 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 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.

Look for CCPDT-certified trainers if you decide to hire a professional. Anyone can become a trainer, but folks with CCPDT certifications go through science-based programs and 300 hours of training.

Dr. Irish

Who should get an emotional support dog?

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

You must first be evaluated 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 to have them certified.

If you suffer from a mental disorder or fear 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 in 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals. PSAs, on the other hand, are recognized by all airlines as official service dogs and must be allowed to fly with their owners as per ADA regulations.

How to get an ESA letter

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, such as:

  • 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 or staying in places like hotels. However, if animals cause damage, extra fees may be incurred.

It’s important to note that an 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

👉 It’s important for your dog to always have an ID tag and collar no matter where they are. Getting a free FidoTabby alert collar gives your ESA extra protection by connecting them to a network of fellow pet parents who will help look for your pet if they ever get lost.  

Dog breeds that make the best ESAs

Any animal can be an ESA given the right environment. If you opt to get a dog as an emotional support animal, look for a breed that is generally calm, sociable (both with humans and other animals), and 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:

How to hire a dog trainer for your emotional support animal

If you don’t want to or can’t train your emotional support dog, you can always hire a professional dog trainer. Emotional support dogs aren’t required by law to have specific training, unlike service dogs who must undergo extensive training to become guide dogs or fulfill a similar role. 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.

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.

Special training for an emotional support animal isn’t required like it is for service dogs who perform a specific task. However, mastering basic obedience skills can secure their position in your home and make it difficult for your landlord to find a legal reason to evict them.

 ESAs are entitled to certain legal rights—namely the right to stay with you in your home—as long as you have a certified letter from a healthcare professional. While puppies and certain dog breeds may be easier to train, virtually any animal can become an ESA, including current pets.

Frequently asked questions

Can my dog become an ESA dog?

Any dog can be certified as an emotional support animal, though some breeds 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, as well as a letter from a licensed counselor or psychiatrist.

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 are companion animals that provide comfort to their handler by reducing the effects of their depression, anxiety, or other mental health condition.  Psychiatric service dogs perform tasks that are directly related to their handler’s disability. Dogs who know how to perform deep pressure therapy (DPT) may be considered ESAs or psychiatric service dogs in certain cases.  Additionally, psychiatric service dogs have the same rights as service dogs, such as flying and access to public places.

Is an ESA a therapy dog?

A therapy dog is a type of emotional support animal who accompanies their owners to volunteer in public places. Therapy dogs don’t legally have the same types of privileges as service dogs or ESAs. That being said, well-trained therapy animals are often allowed to do things that regular pets and ESAs are not, such as visiting nursing homes and schools.