What Is an Emotional Support Dog and What They Are Used For

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Dealing with emotional trauma and ongoing mental illness can be very difficult. But just like dogs have been our companions for physical labor and specific tasks for millennia, dogs can also sometimes provide emotional and mental health support.

These special dogs, called emotional support dogs, are sometimes recommended by mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists. Those who have emotional support dogs can bring them with them in certain circumstances and may see significant benefits or improvements to their mental health.

Let’s explore emotional support dogs in detail and break down when they may be useful and who they are intended for.

Emotional Support Dogs Explained

Emotional support dogs (sometimes called emotional support animals or ESAs) are pets recommended by licensed mental health care professionals, like therapists, to people who have one or more disabling mental illnesses. An ESA can be any type of domesticated animal, including rabbits, rats, cats, and more.

In short, emotional support dogs provide emotional support and comfort to those who need it.

Emotional support dogs are used to help people who have difficulties with mental health conditions or symptoms like:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • And more

Emotional support dogs may be suggested by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. These professionals can help determine whether an emotional support animal will be helpful for their patients’ mental health.

They also determine whether a patient can handle the responsibility of taking care of an emotional support dog, which still requires stimulation, feeding, healthcare, and so on. A professional will also make sure you have the right equipment to care for a dog.

An emotional support dog is not "prescribed," and keep in mind that any "certification" or "license" offering company is likely a scam. There is no registry for service animals or emotional support animals.

Emotional Support Dogs Compared to Service Dogs

Although they have many similarities, emotional support dogs are not the same as service dogs.

Service animals, in a nutshell, are specialized companion animals who are trained to provide one or more physical or behavioral gestures to or for their parents. For example, a service dog may help a blind person navigate the world by acting as a companion, by giving the blind person signals, and by tugging the blind person away from potential dangers.

Similarly, a person with epilepsy or a similar disorder may have a service dog who can help them recover from an episode or protect them from falling dangerously during a seizure. Service dogs, also called psychiatric service dogs or guide dogs, are allowed anywhere the general public is allowed.

In contrast, emotional support dogs cannot usually accompany their owners into places like shopping malls, restaurants, and more. Emotional support dogs are also less restrictive in terms of their breeds. While golden and labrador retrievers are commonly used as service animals, any breed of dog can be a service dog. (Even some miniature horses have worked as service animals.)

Put another way, a service dog:

  • Has been trained to perform at least two specific tasks related to a person’s disability

An emotional support dog:

  • Has not specifically been trained for anything and is more often selected for personality and companionship

Further Details for Service Dogs

More specifically, service dogs are trained to do something that they would not normally do instinctually or in generalized circumstances. For example, cuddling with someone experiencing a panic attack or having an epileptic seizure does not qualify as a specially trained task. Many dogs will cuddle with or nuzzle their owners if they detect stress. On the other hand, if a dog is trained to provide Deep Pressure Therapy on command, this would be a service dog task.

A service dog can do things like pick up items for an individual in a wheelchair or provide Deep Pressure Therapy on command are a service dog's tasks. Service animals like these are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

It is illegal to pretend that your emotional support animal is a service animal.

Do Emotional Support Dogs Get Special Considerations?

Yes. Although emotional support dogs are not allowed in the same areas as service dogs, emotional support dogs are allowed certain accommodations regarding housing. For example, an individual with an emotional support dog will not be charged a pet deposit for having the animal live with them, despite the pets policy in the housing units.

Additionally, tenants will not be denied housing availability from an apartment complex or condo complex that normally does not allow pets. Landlords and housing providers must follow the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They may request an ESA letter from a qualified individual — likely your medical healthcare provider.

Previously, emotional support dogs were allowed on the aircraft because they were broadly classified under the same Department of Transportation rules that allowed service dogs to fly on airlines.

However, at the end of 2020, the DOT reclassified its rules, and, as a result, emotional support dogs are no longer allowed on aircraft as service dogs. Instead, they must be recognized and treated as regular pets in accordance with the Air Carrier Access Act.

This is different for therapy dogs. A therapy animal is a highly trained animal that visits public spaces like hospitals and libraries to provide emotional support.

Benefits of Emotional Support Dogs

Although they are not as trained or specialized as service dogs, emotional support dogs can provide many benefits for those who have them.

Improved Mental and Physical Health

For starters, most patients are prescribed emotional support dogs to see improvements in both their mental and physical health. Emotional support dogs provide invaluable companionship and emotional support for their parents.

If a person is struggling with a mental illness or with physical health trauma, an emotional support dog can make the challenges of daily life seem more manageable. This may, in turn, alleviate symptoms like depression and anxiety and help a person enjoy their daily life more fully.

In the long-term, an emotional support dog could help an injured person or an individual with a chronic disease recover or overcome their trauma given time.

Support for Trauma

Emotional support dogs are often used as direct support for trauma, especially trauma from post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, if an individual is triggered by a particular sound due to PTSD, an emotional support dog can act as a calming and balancing presence. They may cuddle with their owner, nuzzle them, or distract them from the potential trigger to prevent a full traumatic episode.

However, emotional support dogs are only helpful for certain types of trauma. Once more, this highlights the importance of licensed mental health care professionals prescribing emotional support animals rather than allowing anyone to get an emotional support dog for themselves.

Reduced Loneliness/Anxiety

Perhaps most importantly, emotional support dogs can significantly reduce feelings of loneliness or anxiety in their caregivers.

Especially in this day and age, many people report suffering from increased loneliness and anxiety. They may have few friends, be distanced from family members, and may have difficulty forming new social connections. Emotional support dogs act as important family members who offer love and attention to those who have difficulty getting it anywhere else.

Who Are Emotional Support Dogs Best For?

Emotional support dogs may be useful for a variety of individuals, especially those suffering from conditions like:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • A chronic disorder or disability

In some cases, patients or individuals with mental health issues think an emotional support dog will help, but it may just add unnecessary challenges to their lives. Because of this, taking on an emotional support dog should be considered carefully. They’re a big responsibility, just like a normal pet.

If you believe an emotional support dog will be helpful for your chronic condition, speak to your psychiatrist soon. Explain your symptoms and why you believe that an emotional support animal will help with those issues.

Support and Love

Ultimately, emotional support dogs are important companions for those suffering from PTSD, mental illness, or other ongoing challenges. The right emotional support dog can help a person overcome massive difficulties and provide continual emotional and mental assistance in the best way: just by being a friend.

Even the best trained emotional support dogs need regular care and pet supplies, however. If you're being prescribed an emotional support dog and want to make sure they have a comfortable home, visit Wild One's store today. We have beds, bowls, treats, and anything else you may need for your new canine companion!


Service Animals | US Department of Transportation

Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals | Counseling Today

Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA | ADA

Service Animal Scams: A Growing Problem | Psychology Today