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How to Train an Emotional Support Dog: 8 Things to Teach Your ESA!

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Dog Training By Kelsey Leicht 20 min read April 26, 2022

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emotional support dogs

Anxiety and depression can wreak havoc on your life, but our best fur friends can often help. 

Dogs are amazing companions, but they can also offer comfort, making them the most popular type of emotional support animal – a title often shortened to ESA.

Canine ESAs have grown in popularity in recent years, with some people opting to purchase fully-trained dogs while others choose to train their own. Today, we’re going to focus on those owners interested in training their own ESA!

We’ll break down the basics of training an ESA, explain how a canine emotional support animal may be able to help you, and share some general information about these helpful hounds below. 

ESA Training: Key Takeaways

  • Emotional support animals (ESAs) can help their humans feel better. Among other things, ESAs can help calm anxiety, provide structure, and soothe emotional upset.
  • It’ll take some effort, but you can train an ESA yourself. ESA training isn’t as intensive or difficult as service dog training, so many owners are capable of doing so on their own
  • Training an ESA involves teaching your dog to perform tasks that’ll help address your emotional struggles. You’ll essentially do so in the same way you’d teach your dog to perform run-of-the-mill tasks — by using positive reinforcement.
  • Registering an emotional support animal isn’t necessary – a prescription from a licensed mental health counselor will do – but there are several organization that can help you register your dog as an ESA online with minimal hassle.
  • Because your emotional needs are unique, your dog’s training regimen will require some customization. We’ll share the basic approach below, but you’ll need to be willing to tailor your approach to achieve your desired goals.

What Is an ESA? How Does an ESA Differ From a Pet Dog?

emotional support animal training for dogs

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a critter that provides companionship and comfort to a human in need. Any number of species can play the role of an ESA, including dogs, pigs, and miniature horses. Ferrets, rabbits, and even snakes are also kept as ESAs. 

While every doggo brings a smile to her person’s face, canine ESAs differ from everyday pet dogs because they’re tasked with aiding a person’s emotional well-being

This role gives them rights that differ a bit from those of companion animals, such as protection under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) for reasonable accommodations. These reasonable accommodations can include waiving a no-pet policy or pet deposit at a residence. 

Canine ESAs are also permitted to fly in the cabin of some airlines free of charge (although this is increasingly less common – always research the airline to check their guidelines). 

However, you can’t just call your dog an ESA and waltz on board a plane or demand special accommodations from your landlord. For your dog to be deemed an ESA, you’ll need to obtain a letter from a licensed therapist, who recommends that you obtain one – much like a typical medication prescription.

Do You Need to Register an ESA?

There are no legal requirements to list your emotional support animal with any government agency — you only need to obtain a prescription from a mental health professional recommending that you enlist the help of one.

However, there are a few benefits to registering your emotional support dog with a legitimate, bona fide organization (like CertaPet), who’s dedicated to providing these services.

For example, most such organizations will help pair you with a licensed therapist who’ll assess your situation and provide the letter recommending you obtain an ESA. This means you won’t have to hunt down a therapist or psychologist on your own.

Many such services will also provide you with documentation and guidance that’ll help with things like travel and housing.

ESA Training: 8 Basic & Advanced Skills to Teach Your Emotional Support Dog 

ESA training for dogs

Everyone’s needs in an ESA may differ, so it’s important to jot down what you require of yours to have a blueprint for training.

We’ll share the basics of training your ESA canine a few key skills and basic commands, but don’t shy away from applying these concepts to other tasks you may need your ESA to complete.

Keep in mind that none of this is mandatory – any dog can be an ESA without any kind of training whatsoever. If a dog is deemed beneficial for your emotional and mental health, it’s an ESA , regardless of its training, temperament, or demeanor.

But we do think these basic training skills are a smart idea for any owner who is looking to call their pup an emotional service animal.

1. House Training

As previously mentioned, a proper ESA needs to master house training so she can accompany you without accidents. This isn’t always a quick process, sometimes taking several months, particularly if you’re working with a puppy. Thankfully, standard housetraining methods work well with most doggos, with puppy pad training and crate training being two of the easiest options.

The secret to potty training your dog quickly is locking in a schedule with consistent AM and PM potty breaks as well as bathroom breaks after every meal.

If your ESA is already housebroken, you might want to teach her to alert you if she needs a potty break. Bell training your dog is a great way to do this.

2. Basic Obedience 

emotional support animal training for dogs

Your ESA should have basic obedience down pat. This includes things like sitting and staying at the very least. Knowing these primary commands makes traveling with your ESA far easier. 

To teach your dog to sit: 

  • Hold a treat at your dog’s nose level while she’s standing.
  • While saying “sit,” move the treat back and up over her back, so she naturally tilts her head up and eventually sits.
  • Once she sits, issue praise such as “good girl” and give her the treat.
  • Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Some people like to gently push on a dog’s backend to signal the “sit” action, though this can distract some pups and throw them off the command. This isn’t always the case but is something to be mindful of if your canine seems to struggle.

To teach your ESA to stay:

  • Have your ESA sit.
  • Open your palm toward your dog to give her a visual cue.
  • Step away slowly, putting space between you while giving a verbal command (such as saying the word “stay”).
  • Eventually, call her over with a “come” command while closing your hand, and reward her with treats if she stays. 
  • If she moves, start over, returning her to the “sit” position.
  • Repeat as necessary until she gets the gist.

Be sure to practice having your dog stay in place for increasingly lengthy periods of time. This way, she’ll be ready to chill out and wait for you when need be.

3. Recall Lessons

Having top-notch recall, or teaching your dog to come when called, is important for any dog, but more so for an ESA canine.

As with housetraining, recall takes time to master, but essentially, you’re going to reward your dog with treats or affection every time she comes when called. Over time, she’ll associate her recall cue with positive things, and generally start to think that being by your side is the best place in the world.

4. Loose Leash Walking

ESA training for dogs

Your ESA needs to walk comfortably on a leash, meaning no pulling, chewing, or other shenanigans. You can accomplish this through loose leash walking training, aiming for your ESA canine to either walk in the “heel” position or walk ahead with slack in the lead. The position of your ESA is entirely up to you, though you may benefit from your dog’s presence at your side. 

Start loose leash training in a low-stress environment such as a quiet neighborhood street, a park, or even your backyard. And be sure to use lots of high-value treats like hot dog bits or liverwurst. There are several methods to achieve the walking style you’d prefer, so be sure to pick the approach that’ll work best for you and your dog. 

While maintaining a position at your side is beneficial to you, it isn’t the most exciting position for your ESA canine – there’s all kinds of neat things to sniff! So, always allow her a break to sniff around and do her business, if needed. Walking games can also be great stressbusters for both you and your canine ESA.

5. Shadow Me

Most people with ESAs benefit from having their pup at their side, so you’ll want to work on forming a “shadow-like” bond and emotional connection, in which your dog follows you everywhere.

To acquire this close of a bond, teach your dog to enjoy being with you by offering praise and treats, as this associates your company with something positive. Essentially, you want to teach her that the very best place in the world to hang out is right by your side!

Go through your everyday routine with your ESA by your side, rewarding throughout. This can include everything from watching television to walking around the house to exercising. 

6. Simple Routines 

If you’re planning on bringing your ESA along everywhere she’s allowed to go, you want to expose your dog to your everyday activities and routine, so she acclimates to the sights, sounds, and smells. 

Help your canine ESA adjust by bringing her along to:

  • Ride in the car
  • Ride on public transport
  • Travel to the mailbox
  • Work in the office

Again, follow the posted rules for ESAs. Provide your dog’s ESA title honestly when asked by officials, but feel free to attach a “working” or “do not disturb” vest, lead, or harness on your dog to let others know not to approach you or her for attention.

7. Deep Pressure Therapy 

emotional support animal training for dogs

ESA dogs are often taught to perform deep pressure therapy or DPT. This form of therapy applies gentle pressure to a specific point on your body, thereby relieving emotions or stress. Usually, the point of contact is your chest, but this can vary from person to person. 

A smaller breed doggo might sit on that particular body point during DPT, while a big dog will lay her paw or head on you. A critical aspect is that the dog remains calm during DPT, ultimately guiding you toward relaxation. This is one of the reasons why excitable dogs aren’t the best option for ESA work.

To train your ESA canine to practice Deep Pressure Therapy:

  • Sit on a surface (bed or couch) and instruct your ESA to hop up beside you. Use a simple command like “up.” When she does jump up beside you, offer praise or a treat. Once she’s mastered joining you on the furniture, teach her a command for hopping down, like “down” or “off.” Again, praise her when she obeys. Repeat as needed. 
  • Begin pressure commands. Gently guide your ESA to apply light pressure to your chest or another designated area. While showing your ESA, use a cue word to signal the behavior, such as “touch.” 
  • Hang tight. Once your ESA is in position, have her remain in place by offering gentle scritches or pets. This usually isn’t an issue with smaller dogs, though large dogs may need more coaxing before eventually leaning into you.
  • Repeat. As with other commands, you should repeat this process several times. Over time, you will offer fewer treats and eventually none.

Some people prefer simple touch therapy without extended pressure. Feel free to modify training to your needs. Train your ESA according to your specific needs, as what works for you may differ, and that’s OK.

8. Teaching Your Dog to Recognize When You’re in Need of Support

To apply a soothing therapy like DPT effectively, your ESA must learn to recognize when you’re anxious or in need of help, so you’ll need to put your acting skills to work and show her.

Mimic the types of behaviors you usually exhibit when distressed or suffering an anxiety attack, which you’d like her to apply DPT to. This may include pacing, crying, or any of the other symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other types of distress. 

During the lesson, issue the DPT command, and reward your ESA for reacting. Then repeat, but without a reward.

This is an ongoing process that will take time, but your dog will learn to associate your behavioral cue with DPT in time. 

Don’t Forget about Regular Bonding Time!

A key aspect of ESA training is building a strong bond between you and your canine. A great way to achieve this is through training games, as they combine learning and fun, allowing you to work on core skills such as name recognition and obedience without using everyday training tactics that can feel dull and repetitive.

Training Your Emotional Support Dog: Positive Vibes Only

Sticking to positive reinforcement training methods is essential in guiding your canine into the best ESA possible. You want your canine ESA to look at you with loyalty and love – not fear. 

The best way to do this is to reward your pooch for a job well done and consider her happiness too. And instead of punishing her for exhibiting a negative behavior, you’ll want to teach her an alternative behavior you’d rather she do instead.

Just remember that sometimes, your doggo will need a break, so mix up your day with an enriching sniff walk or pull out the high-value rewards during everyday hangouts.

Training your ESA isn’t fast, easy, or necessarily always fun, but make the best of it with your four-footer. Keep things upbeat and stick to short, varied training sessions to prevent you and your dog from getting bored. 

If you ever struggle with any aspect, you can contact a dog trainer to help. 

Is an ESA the Same Thing As a Service Dog?

 emotional support animal training

No, ESAs are not the same thing as service dogs; the two differ significantly

Under The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an emotional support dog provides comfort to people with emotional and mental challenges, whereas a service dog has received special training to learn how to execute specific tasks in the support of those with a physical, emotional, or mental disability. 

Service dogs must undergo rigorous training and testing, as they often perform complex tasks for their handlers. Some, for example, may guide a blind person, while others alert their owners to life-threatening situations, such as seizures or low blood sugar. 

Due to the critical nature of their work, service dogs are permitted in most – if not all – places their handler goes. Emotional support dogs, on the other hand, are not offered this same level of freedom.  

None of this should be interpreted as us minimizing the value of ESAs.. It’s just important to know that service animals and emotional support dogs differ in the eyes of the law and the former enjoy greater legal rights than the latter.

Don’t Be That Guy or Gal

Never try to pass off an ESA as a service dog. Doing so not only erodes public support for ESAs, but it may also cause you to suffer fines or jail time in some jurisdictions.

What Kinds of Things Can ESAs Do? 

Trigger Warning: The owner in this video is suffering from a panic attack.

Canine ESAs aid their handlers in many ways. Since everyone’s needs differ, your ESA canine may perform tasks that another person’s ESA might not. The beauty here is that you can (and should) train your dog to meet your specific needs.

Canine ESAs can be used to:

  • Reduce stress. An ESA often serves as a calming force, combatting stress and upset.
  • Prevent loneliness. The constant company of an ESA can help you feel less isolated. 
  • Reduce anxiety. The presence of your ESA can be reassuring for owners with an anxiety disorder, especially in situations that make you feel uneasy, such as venturing into busy public spaces or traveling.
  • Provide routine. Having an ESA by your side that needs feeding, exercise, and potty breaks brings structure. This prevents disarray and keeps you on a set schedule.
  • Reduce or curb self-harm. ESAs can promote the release of feel-good endorphins in the brain, helping your spirits remain higher. They can also distract you from negative thoughts and ease some of the symptoms triggered by some mental illnesses.
  • Offer deep pressure therapy. You can train your ESA canine to apply soothing pressure to a set point on your body, aiding in calming you down in times of stress. In fact, if you can teach your dog a skill like this, she may qualify as a service dog for anxiety, which allows the dog access to more areas, such as restaurants and private businesses.

Your ESA’s presence alone is often enough to benefit you as a handler, though, over time, your ESA may learn behavioral cues from you and react accordingly with touch comfort or other calming methods. 

Who Should Get an Emotional Support Dog?

training for emotional support dogs

Canine ESAs can help people suffering from a number of emotional and mental and emotional health conditions, including:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Cognitive Disorders
  • Autism
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Panic Disorders
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Phobias

But this list is not exhaustive, and ESAs are proving helpful in new situations all the time. So, if you’re curious about ESAs and suffer from a mental illness, speak with your healthcare provider and see if one may benefit you.

What Characteristics Should an ESA Have?

training for emotional support animals

Many dogs make excellent ESAs, but those best-suited for the role have a specific set of traits, including:

  • People-oriented: ESAs work with people, so naturally, the best ones like to be around humans. A potential ESA shouldn’t be independent, aloof, or distant.
  • Eager to please: Your ESA should be quick to react to cues and happy to work. There’s no room for stubborn streaks here.
  • Affectionate: Since you’re relying on your floof for comfort, ideally, you want an ESA who doesn’t mind close contact for hugs and pets. Natural-born lovebugs thrive in emotional support work.
  • Friendly: Your ESA should be friendly with people and other animals if you plan on taking her on the go. This is also important if you plan on relocating with your dog in the future, as a landlord or community can refuse to rent to someone if the ESA is deemed a safety threat under FHA rules.
  • Well-behaved: A good ESA has mastered basic obedience, including leash manners and sit/stay/down commands. This requirement goes hand-in-hand with an eagerness to please, as the last thing you want from an ESA is more stress.
  • Intelligence: ESAs often need to pick up behavior cues to offer you comfort as needed, which necessitates a minimum level of intelligence. It also helps to have a smart doggo who can learn commands and patterns quickly. 
  • Calm: Your ESA shouldn’t be overly excitable. She should be level-headed and enthused when appropriate but never over-the-top and out-of-control.
  • Confidence: Skittish dogs need not apply for ESA positions. Your ESA will likely accompany you during travel, so she should be well-adjusted enough to handle new experiences.
  • Housetrained: Because you won’t want to spend your time cleaning up accidents, you want to ensure your ESA has basic housetraining down to prevent accidents.
  • Portable. This isn’t a concern for everyone, but if you need a dog who can thrive in the city, you may want to go with a relatively small pooch, who’ll present fewer challenges on public transport and crowded establishments.
  • Vaccinated. Since your ESA will accompany you to various places, she should be vaccinated according to state law, which usually includes, at the bare minimum, an up-to-date rabies booster. With the potential for travel, your vet may also recommend additional vaccinations.

This is a general outline, of course, and you may require additional features in an ESA, such as being a low maintenance dog breed, the ability to tolerate cold weather, and more. 

What Kinds of Dogs Make the Best ESAs?

best emotional support dog breeds

Any breed or combination of breeds can make for a great emotional support animal for an owner with an emotional or mental illness. However, some excel in the role more than others and make better dogs for people with severe anxiety or other mental or emotional challenges. 

That isn’t to say that your favorite breed can’t thrive as an ESA or that every member of a given breed will make a great ESA, just that some breeds stand out as superstars in the position. 

The best breeds for emotional support animal work are:

  • Standard poodle: This sweet-natured pup is affectionate, intelligent, and loyal, making her an excellent candidate for ESA work.
  • Labrador retriever: Labs are all-around Renaissance doggos when it comes to working, and with their sweet nature and eagerness to please, they can be exceptional ESAs.
  • Golden retriever: The golden’s happy-go-lucky nature and emotional sensitivity align well with the ESA role.
  • Great Pyrenees: These mega-sized floofs are sweet as can be, sensitive, and loyal – all must-have traits in a good ESA.
  • Pomeranian: Pint-sized and peppy, the Pom is devoted and affectionate, making her a top-notch choice for an ESA lapdog. 
  • Bichon Frise: The Bichon is playful and loving with intelligence and clownish nature that pair well with emotional support work.

So-called “Velcro” breeds also thrive in ESA work, including German shepherds, Rottweilers, papillons, and pugs. If you specifically suffer from anxiety, be sure to see our list of the best dogs for anxiety.

Consider Your Canine Skill Set When Picking a Pooch

It’s important to note that some of the best breeds for ESA work are often too challenging for novice dog owners.

Rottweilers and German shepherds, for example, clearly fall into this category. These are both large, strong, assertive breeds, who’re best left to owners that are experienced with dogs and confident in their skills.

Where Can I Get a Dog for ESA Work?

training for emotional support dogs

You can adopt, purchase, or train your current dog for emotional support work, with each option having its own set of pros and cons to consider. What works best for you may not work for someone else, so carefully weigh your needs and expectations. 

Adopting an ESA

Some people choose to adopt an ESA from a shelter or rescue. This might mean adopting a puppy or an adult, depending on your preference and training plans.

Pros

  • Adoption fees are generally affordable and include basic veterinary care, including a given year’s vaccinations and spaying/neutering 
  • Adopting an adult dog who already knows basic obedience can save you time in training
  • Allows you to save a homeless dog in need 

Cons

  • Shelter environments can make it hard to see a dog’s personality
  • Can’t always find the exact breed or age you’re looking for
  • You may not know much about the history of a shelter dog

Purchasing an ESA

Many people opt to purchase a dog specifically for ESA work, generally a puppy from an ethical breeder, though others opt for a fully-trained adult.

Pros

  • Allows you to pick the exact breed and individual you’d like
  • Breeder can typically suggest a puppy with the right temperament 
  • Reputable breeders generally offer a health guarantee on puppies

Cons

  • You may wind up on a long waitlist for puppies 
  • Most expensive option for acquiring a canine ESA
  • Starting from scratch in terms of training, if you’re opting for a puppy

Training Your Current Dog as an ESA

You may already have a doggo at home you’re interested in training for ESA work, and that’s great. While it’s the most convenient option, it does still have its ups and downs to consider, too.

Pros

  • Allows for additional bonding with your best fur friend
  • Most affordable option
  • Already have a connection with your pooch
  • Basic obedience is likely already mastered, letting you get right into ESA training 

Cons

  • Not every dog’s personality meshes with ESA work
  • Socializing an older dog can be difficult

ESA FAQs: Questions About Emotional Support Dogs

best emotional support dogs

You may still have some questions about ESAs, but we have answers. Check out these frequently asked questions about emotional support animals.

How do I get an ESA certificate?

You can acquire an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional. This document is provided on official letterhead and includes your licensed mental health professional’s name, contact information, license number, and issue date.


What training does an ESA need?

At a bare minimum, an ESA canine needs to know basic obedience and must be housebroken. Some handlers also opt to teach their ESA calming exercises such as Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) to help soothe emotional upset and stress.


How long does ESA training take?

ESA training is an ongoing process that can require several months of specialized training. ESA training goes beyond learning standard obedience, as you and your canine need to form a bond to work together effectively.


How much is a pre-trained ESA?

Pre-trained ESAs aren’t common, though you can buy a pre-trained dog who has mastered basic obedience for around $3,000 or more. The problem with this is that you still need to bond with the dog and aren’t guaranteed to be a good fit.

You can also purchase a specially trained service dog for anxiety or depression. However, these service animals can cost more than $15,000.


How much does ESA training cost?

ESA training costs vary, with the average starting around $100 per session. You will likely need multiple sessions, depending on the skills being taught. You can also train your dog yourself or attend group classes to save money.


Is an ESA the same thing as a service dog?

No — ESAs and service animals are NOT the same thing.

Service dogs are specially trained to perform specific, often complex tasks for their people. This includes undergoing vigorous testing and completing certifications that afford them rights that an ESA is not granted. Because of this, service dogs can cost upwards of $25,000 or more.

While ESAs help handlers in many ways, service dogs are trained to recognize serious and sometimes life-threatening behaviors or conditions. This is beyond the scope of what’s expected from an ESA.

***

Is your dog an emotional support animal? What training did she complete? Any tips for other pup parents? Please share with us in the comments. 

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Written by

Kelsey Leicht

Kelsey is a lover of words and woofs. She worked with dogs for several years at a boarding kennel as a shift runner and office manager before venturing into the world of writing. She lives with a menagerie of furry and not-so-furry kids, including three dogs, some cats, a grumpy turtle, and her husband. Her favorite type of dog is a happy one.

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