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Guide to Emotional Support Animals: Characteristics, Training, What Rights They Have | Pupford

December 26th, 2023

Filed under Health + Wellness

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If you're already part of the Pupford community and reading this blog post, it's probably safe to assume that you believe pets are wonderful. But if you don't know this yet, allow us to convince you: caring for a living creature is immensely rewarding (and challenging). It can also be an effective form of therapy.

Talking about therapy, we are sure all pet lovers and guardians must have come across the abbreviation ESA. ESA stands for emotional support animal.

These animals support the mental health of their guardians in several ways. Technically, any animal can be ESA. However, the large majority are either dogs or cats.

It's important to understand that emotional support dogs, service dogs, and therapy dogs are different. Often these three terms are used interchangeably. People often confuse the functions of these three types of dogs. While they can share some similar characteristics, each one serves a very distinct purpose. They all have different roles and rights.

In this guide we will share:

  • What emotional support animals do
  • What characteristics and training these dogs should have
  • What rights emotional support animals have
  • The difference between service dogs and emotional support animals
  • The difference between therapy dogs and emotional support animals

Let’s get started!


girl cuddling her emotional support dog

Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their guardian, to be legally considered an ESA or an emotional support animal, a pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness.

A licensed mental health professional must prescribe an emotional support dog like other medical solutions. However, to get an ESA, the patient must be diagnosed with a disabling mental condition and limited in at least one aspect of their life. For these patients, emotional support dogs are critical to dealing with otherwise disabling challenges.

Unlike service dogs trained to do specific tasks like pressing an alert button when they sense their diabetic companion's blood sugar is dangerously low, ESAs serve a simple yet extremely important purpose: to provide comfort to their guardians.

They're considered companion animals and ease anxiety, depression, some phobias, and loneliness. Whether the dog stays close, so they're available for petting and cuddling, or simply stays close to provide companionship, they offer valuable emotional support.

You may qualify for an emotional support dog if you have emotional or mental illnesses. You may also be eligible for an emotional support dog if you suffer from one or more mental illnesses listed below.

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Learning Disorders
  • Autism
  • General Anxiety Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Cognitive Disorders
  • Depression
  • Severe Anxiety
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When attempting to get one certified, you must prove the ESA's support is necessary for your daily functioning.


labrador retriever dogs make for good emotional support animals

While technically, no training is necessary to consider a dog an emotional support animal, generally they should be calm, socially adapted (with humans and other pups), and know basic cues/behaviors. They shouldn't be shy, overly excitable/wild, bark too much, or jump/bite people.

Some dog breeds are more apt to be emotional support dogs or companion animals. Dogs with gentle, obedient, calm, and loving characteristics make excellent ESAs. Here are some of the best breeds suited to be ESAs:

  • Golden Retrievers are loyal and lively; make sure to give them enough exercise
  • Labrador Retrievers are gentle and obedient, making them easier to train
  • German Shepherds are friendly and intelligent
  • Beagles are loving and calm but also playful
  • Poodles are smart and thus train well
  • Yorkshire Terriers are small and affectionate lap dogs that don't need much exercise
  • Collies are sensitive and intuitive to their owners.
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniels are loyal and loving
  • Pomeranians love to snuggle and make excellent lap dogs
  • Pugs are small but with big hearts
  • Corgis are affectionate and friendly

Emotional support dogs aren't required to be trained by a specific set of guidelines like service dogs are. But there are a few rules they should follow. The ADA requires ESAs to:


emotional support animals are allowed in apartments that are not dog friendly

ESAs or emotional support dogs do not enjoy the same wide protections that service animals do as highly trained animals.

For example, service dogs can access all public places, such as stores, movie theaters, hospitals, and restaurants. On the other hand, emotional support animals can access only residences (including buildings with no-pet policies).

Please keep in mind that although ESAs do not need any special training, they still need to be well-behaved and should have the ability to follow basic cues.

Guardians must present a letter of diagnosis from a doctor or psychiatrist for reasonable accommodations. However, some laws support guardians' rights to live and travel with their emotional support animals.

The two laws that protect guardians of ESAs are Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Aircraft Carrier Access Act (ACA).

In an effort to be considerate to people with disabilities, the Fair Housing Act allows individuals to keep Emotional Support Animals in buildings that don't allow regular pets. However, as of January 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals on flights.

For a list of airlines that allow dogs, click here.


service dog sign on harness

When it comes to the ADA, service animals have a precise definition—they are dogs individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Some common service animals include Seeing Eye dogs, Hearing dogs, Psychiatric Service dogs, and Seizure Response dogs.

The difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs is the training they receive. Service dogs are trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to their guardian’s disability. An emotional support dog does not receive such training but provides comfort and companionship in everyday settings.

In our Intro to Service Dogs Course, Amber Aquart, CPDT-KA shares what it takes for a dog to become a service dog, demos basic skills, and more. Learn about it here.


therapy dog in a hospital comforting patients

Therapy dogs are similar to ESAs in that they provide therapeutic and psychological benefits by allowing others to pet, cuddle, and hold them. The biggest difference in these duties is that therapy dogs provide this service to many people beyond their guardians.

Therapy dogs are specially trained animals who bring joy and comfort to people in various settings, such as nursing homes, schools, libraries, group homes, hospitals, and airports. They are friendly and easygoing and respond positively to the attention they receive.

The comprehensive training they receive prepares and encourages them to tolerate various interactions in different environments—prospective therapy teams (dog and handler) test for certification. Therapy dogs do not have the legal right to visit public places with their guardians unless the institution invites them.

A therapy dog's most important "job" is to share their special love and companionship with anyone in need. If you think your dog may be suitable to be a therapy dog, a few organizations provide training.

For example, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs tests dogs for their suitability and, if accepted, has guidelines that must be followed. The AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program offers its training program to organizations. The CGC test is often a prerequisite required by therapy dog organizations.

Emotional support dogs can play an important role in the lives of people with mental or emotional conditions. When people with mental or emotional conditions rely on their emotional support dogs, they often experience greater well-being.

But when people abuse the system by misrepresenting a pet as an ESA to obtain special accommodations, they undermine accommodations for those who really need them. So do right by your pets and by society, and if you need more advice, do not hesitate to reach out to the Pupford Team and ask your questions in the comments below.

For more information about Service Dogs, and the difference between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs, be sure to check out our course in Pupford Academy+ taught by Amber Aquart.


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