Emotional Support Dog Training

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September 28, 2023
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Training for Emotional Support Dogs

In recent years, there seems to be an uptick in dog adoptions. One possible reason for that could be due to the surge in people adopting during COVID-19 as an attempt to bring some new energy into their sometimes repetitive routines. 

It’s hard to explain the emotional joy that comes along with being a dog owner. Yes, there’s frustration and even sometimes moments of doubt, but once you get through that, what emerges on the other side is a companion and relationship like none other. 

Maybe if you’re a dog owner you know exactly what I am talking about – if not, and you’re planning on becoming an owner, please believe you’ve got some great moments ahead of you!

While the majority of dogs peak at becoming loving members of our families, some dogs are trained to a heightened level of obedience, earning them a different type of status. These dogs go from being man’s best friend to being someone’s official support companion. 

As you read this article, we will explain the difference between some common types of companion dogs, as well as lay out some skills to teach emotional support dogs. You’ll get some intel about what kinds of things these dogs can do, plus we’ll lay down some guidelines for what dogs make the best Emotional Support Dogs. 

By the end, we will put it all together to give you a glimpse into the types of people who do well with Emotional Support Dogs.

Service Dogs vs. ESD vs. Therapy Dogs: What's the Difference?

Lately, there seems to be some confusion around the technical naming of different types of dogs that offer varying levels of support. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably when there are actually some real differences between them. 

Below we will explain what distinguishes these different types of dogs. It’s worth noting that the list appears in a deliberate order, from the most dog training required to the least.

Service Dog

A service dog requires intensive training in order to successfully engage in the work at hand. And yes, it is work. The dogs classified as service dogs are ones that are taught specific behaviors in order to execute specific tasks – it’s like teaching a human how to do a new job.

Common Tasks: Service dogs are trained to help individuals live a more accessible lifestyle due to the tasks they perform. These dogs are task-specific and can provide service to a variety of people.

For example purposes, here are some tasks service dogs are trained to do: 

  • Waking someone from a nightmare
  • Providing medication reminders
  • Redirecting attention when the human is overstimulated
  • Giving assistance in a medical crisis

Distinguishable Characteristics: Because service dogs receive such a high degree of training, they are set apart from the other types of dogs because they:

  • Are granted protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning they can go anywhere with their owner(s)
  • Can detect when their owner might be approaching a state of emotional dysregulation (panic attack)
  • Can alert their owner to something as profound as low blood sugar levels 

Common Uses:

  • Healthcare
  • Mental health
  • Disabilities

Emotional Support Dogs (ESD)

An ESD provides such acute emotional support to its owner that these types of dogs are actually prescribed by a licensed mental health care provider. 

People receiving support from an ESD develop strong bonds with their ESD which makes sense given the situation: a human in need of emotional support being offered by an animal. Emotional support dogs are not trained to execute specific physical tasks like service dogs. 

While an ESD does undergo some training, it does not compare to the specialized training that service dogs receive. ESD support is strictly emotional and/or therapeutic and because of that, ESDs do not get the same public access as service dogs. By this, we mean that an ESD can not go places in public that service dogs can go. 

There tends to be confusion about how an ESD differs from a service animal providing mental health support. To clear this up, there does exist a subset of service animals called psychiatric service dogs that receive extensive training in detecting a psychiatric episode beginning in their owner.

Therapy Dog

A therapy dog likely begins as someone’s pet. These dogs are trained to give affection, love, and emotional comfort to people who might be in need. Owners of therapy dogs often volunteer their time to bring their therapy dogs to places where people could benefit. 

Therapy dogs are a lot like an ESD, but the biggest difference is that therapy dogs most often serve a group of people at a time, as compared to an individual that an ESD serves. You’ll most often see therapy dogs at hospitals or other care facilities as well as schools. 

Because they serve big groups of people, therapy dogs get training in learning how to be calm and comfortable in unfamiliar situations. 

Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are limited in their public access.


The official name for a dog that’s a pet is called a companion dog.

As if this list wasn’t long enough, there are actually even more types of dogs: 

  • Assistance Dog: dogs that can perform three or more tasks to support an owner’s disability. Reasons for getting an assistance dog cannot be for protection, personal defense, or comfort. 
  • Courthouse Facility Dog: specialized dogs that provide a calming influence to people in legal proceedings. 
  • Facility Dog: dogs that work in specific residential or clinical settings that use their specialized training in very particular ways for a variety of situations. 
  • Guide Dog: dogs that provide guidance to those who are visually impaired or blind. 
  • Hearing Dog: dogs trained to alert their owners who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Working Dog: dogs that are experts with scent detection; they are used in search and rescue, police, TSA, and military settings, as well as cancer detection and allergy alerts. 

With all of this laid out, you can see why there’s a lot of confusion out there around the different classifications and supports.

It’s also worth mentioning that different states and countries have different legal requirements for some of these classifications

general training skills for most emotional support dogs

8 Basic & Advanced Skills to Teach Your Emotional Support Dog

Given that ESDs are specific to an individual, the training program will differ from dog to dog in order to best suit the owner. However, there still exists some general training skills for most emotional support dogs. 

We also want to point out that there currently are not any specific training tasks that ESDs must prove they can do. While you do need a letter from a licensed therapist stating his/her recommendation that you have an ESD, there aren’t any legal requirements beyond that. 

A professional trainer can likely equip your dog with emotional support skills – but, if you have the time and motivation to do so, you can certainly give training a go yourself! 

Here are some common skills that most emotional support dogs have:

1 - House Training

A dog that has accidents isn’t likely the best option for an ESD. Getting your dog on a solid schedule with frequent potty breaks as well as teaching your dog how to signal they need to go outside are great ways to house train your dog.

2 - Basic Training

Because emotional support dogs can sometimes travel with their owners, it’s wise that these dogs know basic commands like sit and stay.

3 - Come When Called

Teaching your emotional support dog to come when called is a very necessary skill to instill in your dog. You won’t always be side by side and when circumstances call for your emotional support dog to come right to you, you will definitely appreciate your dog having the ability to do so!

4 - Loose Leash Walking

A dog that knows how to properly walk next to you is an essential part of being an emotional support dog. When you are in need of support, it will not be helpful to have a dog that is yanking or pulling on the leash. 

As a matter of fact, that will likely cause more distress – do yourself a favor by training your dog how to walk on a leash with some slack.

5 - Shadow Me 

This can be a fun skill to teach your dog! By helping your dog learn how to be more or less your constant companion, you will benefit from forming such a strong bond! Your dog will be trained to follow you just about everywhere so if you have a need, you can rely on your dog to be there.

6 - Familiar Routines

It should go without saying that successful emotional support dogs are given the opportunity to go as many places as possible with their owner.

This way, when you need to take your dog in the car to go to the airport, riding in a car and/or walking through a highly trafficked area will not trigger your dog to be reactive. 

Overall, the more exposure, the better!

7 - Deep Pressure Therapy

There’s definitely something to be said about the calming effect felt by a dog that plops right down on you! As a matter of fact, this has a real-deal name! It’s called deep pressure therapy (DPT).

Dogs can be taught to provide pressure to certain parts of your body in order to relieve your stress. Emotional support dogs should be trained on how to apply the necessary amount of pressure to certain parts of your body and to do so while calm. 

A dog that sprints to the couch and body dives you is not likely the calming aura you’re going for! 

While that can be comical, it doesn’t jive with the intended energy. But your dog can learn how to correctly do pressurized therapy with some DPT training.

8 - Teaching Your Dog Your Signals 

Dogs are perceptive animals and they can be taught how to know when you are in need. To do so, you’ll have to give your dog the practice they need to recognize the visible symptoms of your distress.

This might sound strange, but faking a situation like crying or pacing around a room is what your dog needs to see in order to learn you are in distress. 

And if those aren’t the things you do when you are in distress, then replace those with your specific behaviors so your dog can get used to identifying those as signs to help you.

What Kinds of Things Can ESDs Do?

Depending on their level of training, ESAs can provide an array of helpful services. The nature of these services will also vary depending on the needs presented by the owner of the ESD. 

Given that ESDs support individuals as compared to groups, they can be trained with a narrowed scope in order to most effectively target the needs of the owner. 

The basis of what kinds of things an ESD can do is emotional support. People suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental conditions often find relief from the love, affectionate energy, and calming power that emotional support canines offer. 

Stress reduction is a common benefit provided by emotional support canines. If you’ve ever been around a dog, it’s likely that you have felt that rush of happiness and joy elicited by cuddling with the dog or seeing its tail wag in excitement. 

There’s a scientific explanation for this because when people spend time with dogs, endorphins and oxytocin are released. These are chemicals proven to reduce stress, aka cortisol levels, and reduce blood pressure. 

Warding off isolation and loneliness is another inherent pro of having an emotional support canine. People suffering from certain mental illnesses and emotional conditions often struggle with feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Being put in social situations can also trigger feelings of panic that sometimes prevent people from leaving the security of their homes. 

However, when an emotional support dog enters the situation, owners are given a sense of comfort that grows into a calming feeling of security. Dogs are known for their loyalty, and you can bet that an emotional support dog will deliver on that characteristic. There’s a reason dogs are known to be man’s best friend!  

Distraction from negative thoughts is another ability of emotional support dogs. People with mental disorders often struggle with negative self-talk that can trigger an array of unwanted implications. This can all snowball into an emotional episode that can take quite some time to rebound from. 

The presence of an emotional support dog can help alleviate these feelings. The hope is that a person’s focus goes from listening to their negative thoughts to listening to the positive thoughts stemming from their dog’s comfort and unconditional love.

Who Should Get an Emotional Support Dog?

Perhaps everyone might benefit from an emotional support dog, given the amount of pure love only a dog can offer. While that might be ideal, not just anyone can call their dog an emotional support dog. 

To do so, you must have a proper prescription from a licensed mental health practitioner that states the nature of your condition that could benefit from an ESD. 

Some of these conditions include:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder
  • Autism
  • Bipolar
  • Cognitive Disorder
  • Depression
  • Gender dysphoria 
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Learning Disorders
  • PTSD
  • Severe anxiety

Again, it is up to a professional to determine if you are eligible for an ESD.

Conclusion - Emotional Support Dog Training

By now you should be able to understand the different categories of dogs that perform services for humans. 

Dogs are known for their unrelenting love and deep loyalty and that’s what the world needs more of! 

People suffering from certain medical and emotional conditions may be eligible to receive the benefits from an emotional support dog. Dogs like this help alleviate symptoms and provide a distraction from the sometimes daunting world that people with mental illness live in. 

At Minnesota Canine Consulting, we believe in the power of a well-behaved dog. Simply put, dogs are able to do certain things that humans do not harness the ability to do. And that’s why so many different jobs exist for dogs. Maybe adding one to your life could position you for something better!

Questions? We are happy to chat with you about emotional support dog training. Call today! 651-505-3585.


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