Emotional support dog training: what to know and expect

Good behavior is a must, but advanced training is ideal for an ESA

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Pets are playing a larger, more recognized role in empowering people to manage conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD. As our understanding of the unique capabilities of emotional support animals (ESAs) deepens, their presence is becoming increasingly common in our homes, workplaces and even public spaces.

Though ESAs are not legally protected in public, support dogs may be allowed at a business’s discretion. Training your emotional support dog in manners and obedience doesn’t guarantee them acceptance in public spaces, but training can help.

Many people train their ESAs on their own, but professional trainers can be beneficial. A reputable program can offer tailored training plans, teach advanced techniques like deep pressure therapy (DPT), and offer support and guidance along the way.


Key insights

Your emotional support dog is expected to be well behaved and housebroken.

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There are no legal requirements for training an ESA, but professional trainers can offer tailored plans, advanced techniques and guidance.

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ESAs should be socialized from an early age so they can learn how to behave in public settings.

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What is an emotional support dog?

An emotional support dog (ESA) is a prescribed pet that provides comfort to its owner. They are not service dogs, so an ESA does not require any specialized training – their companionship is the treatment.

An ESA is assigned to one owner, unlike therapy dogs, which are trained to provide healing contact to all kinds of people in institutional settings like schools, courthouses and hospitals.

While an ESA can be any breed, dogs that are calm and gentle do well with emotional assistance work. An ESA must also be responsive and attentive to the emotional changes and needs of its owner.

» MORE: What is an emotional support animal?

What legal rights do ESA dogs have?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your emotional support pet cannot qualify as a service animal. However, some state and local governments have laws that allow people to take ESAs in public places, so it’s important to check local regulations.

Service dogs – like guide dogs, medical alert dogs or psychiatric service dogs – are allowed anywhere their handler goes, but ESAs are not federally protected in public spaces like restaurants or shopping malls.

There are federal protections for ESAs in housing and air travel. Per the 2020 Air Carrier Access Act, stricter rules now apply to ESAs. To prove your ESA is medically necessary, owners will need to provide the airline with documentation, including a letter from a licensed medical professional.

ESAs are also federally protected by the Fair Housing Act (FHA). With the proper medical documentation, landlords must allow your dog into apartments and homes with no-pets policies.

Do ESA dogs need special training?

ESAs are not legally required to have special training because providing comfort is their primary therapy. However, when in public spaces, an ESA is expected to be well behaved, potty trained and able to provide reliable emotional assistance.

If you plan to travel with your ESA, the dog will need training to become well socialized and comfortable in unfamiliar settings.

Certification through a reputable program can go a long way to show landlords and the public that your ESA is well behaved and able to provide support. This is not a legal requirement but can be considered a responsible part of ESA ownership.

» COMPARE: Best ESA letter websites

What makes a good emotional support dog?

Calm, gentle and tolerant dogs that remain calm in stressful situations are ideal ESA trainees. To provide the most thoughtful care, an emotional support dog should be able to stay in tune with their owner’s emotional states and mood changes.

An ESA should not react negatively to strangers or loud noises, and they will need to remain calm even when accidentally hurt or startled so they can be reliable companions in unpredictable situations.

How to train an ESA dog

Your ESA should be trained to have excellent manners, especially if they will be accompanying you in public places. A training program will begin with the basics like obedience and potty training, then expand into socialization and even deep pressure therapy (DPT) tactics.

The earlier you can start training your ESA, the better, as they will be more adaptable and faster to absorb information.

The earlier you start, the more able your puppy will be to handle training. Discipline teaches your ESA how to avoid bad public habits like barking, jumping or begging for food.

Basic training

Training for ESAs begins with house training and then expands into teaching your dog commands like “sit” and “stay.” They will also need to learn how to walk well on a leash without pulling or getting distracted.

If you choose to train your own ESA, you’ll need to stay consistent and avoid negative reinforcement. Positive techniques like treats, praise and toys work best.

Socialization training

Early, consistent socialization is vital to an ESA’s adaptability in public spaces. From a young age, a dog will need to be exposed to different environments, people and animals to broaden its experiences and ensure it can remain calm in future scenarios. A well-socialized ESA is more likely to be accepted in public places like cafes, breweries and local bars.

Deep pressure therapy

Deep pressure therapy (DPT) is a tactic taught to ESAs in which they provide their owners with calming pressure during moments of stress or pain. Training involves using treats to encourage your pet to climb and lay on you, gradually getting them used to this action until they can do it on command.

Other advanced techniques that ESAs can learn to assist their owners include interruption behaviors to stop harmful actions and crisis responses such as fetching medication or seeking help during severe emotional episodes.

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    FAQ

    Can any dog become an emotional support dog?

    Yes, an ESA can be any breed of dog.

    Are there any breeds best suited to be emotional support dogs?

    While any breed of dog can be deemed an emotional support, there are some breeds that naturally lend themselves to this kind of work with humans. Some of the best options for ESAs and service dogs as well include Labrador retrievers, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, poodles and golden retrievers.

    What’s the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog?

    The difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog is the types of work they perform. An ESA is a pet that provides comfort and reassurance, while a service dog is rigorously trained to perform a specific, life-saving task for its owner.

    Bottom line

    Emotional support dogs offer comfort and reassurance to many people who are managing emotional or mental health challenges.

    Unlike service dogs, ESAs do not require specialized training to perform specific tasks. However, an ESA is still expected to be well behaved, house-trained and able to remain calm in public, especially while traveling and in housing situations.

    While ESAs are not federally protected in public spaces like service dogs, they do have legal rights in housing scenarios and some air travel with proper documentation.

    Training your ESA through a reputable program, though not mandatory, can help show your dog’s ability and experience in providing reliable support.


    Article sources

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:

    1. U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    2. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “Laws and Ethics Related to Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    3. Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    4. Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, “Service Animal or Emotional Support Animal: What's the Difference? | ADA National Network.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    5. Disability Law Colorado, “Resource Guide: Requirements for Service & Assistance Animals.” Accessed Apr 14, 2024.
    6. U.S. Department of Transportation, “79742 - Federal Register/Vol. 85, No. 238/Thursday, December 10, 2020/Rules and Regulations.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    7. PsychDog, “Emotional Support Dog Training Guide.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    8. Service Dog Training School, “The Ultimate Guide to Emotional Support Dog Training.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    9. U.S. Service Animals, “Emotional Support Training for Dogs | How To Train An ESA.” Accessed April 15, 2024.
    10. Oasis Veterinary Hospital, “Becoming a Service Dog: Training and Temperament Are Key Factors | Veterinarian in Martinez, CA.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    11. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Assistance Animals.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
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