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Dogs are wonderfully versatile creatures that often work alongside their human counterparts. While many of us may only perceive dogs as pets, police officers, therapists, and soldiers around the world can dispute this notion with tales of the heroic working dogs that they’ve spent time with.
Support dogs come in many different shapes and sizes, and service dogs for the visually impaired may be the most recognizable of them.
Today, we’re going to take a look at emotional support dogs, more specifically, how they’re trained and certified. We’ll start by discussing exactly what an emotional support dog consists of.
What is an Emotional Support Dog?
Emotional support dogs are similar to service dogs in a few ways, but the main difference between them and service dogs is that emotional support dogs can’t necessarily accompany their owner anywhere. While these animals are granted special permissions, it isn’t mandated that they’re allowed into restaurants and stores like service dogs.
Another difference between these two types of working dogs is that service dogs receive much more specialized training that depends on the disability of their owners. On the other hand, emotional support dogs require specific training, but it is much less complicated and more affordable.
In fact, emotional support dog training is simple enough to be conducted at home, using your own time and resources. If you have a special touch when it comes to animals, then you may wish to undertake your emotional support dog’s training on your own, especially since that will strengthen the bond between you and your pet.
Another thing to consider is that dogs aren’t the only type of emotional support animal that exists. Birds, cats, and other pets can be trained to support their owners emotionally, though emotional support dogs are still the most common type of pet used for this job.
What Kind of Dog Can You Train for Emotional Support?
Before you decide to train your dog as an emotional support animal, you’ll have to determine whether or not it’s fit for the role. Unfortunately, not all dogs are cut out for the task of emotional support, as each dog differs from one another just as surely as every human being has different characteristics.
There are a few things that should be prioritized in a dog that’s a candidate for emotional support, and if your pet doesn’t exhibit these characteristics, then it may simply not be suited for the role. Unfortunately, no amount of training can make up for this lack of suitability, so it’s important to determine this early on.
Whether or not your dog can be trained to be an emotional support animal isn’t directly linked to its breed, although certain breeds of dogs are more suitable for the task. These breeds typically share the desirable characteristics of dogs that are good candidates for emotional support.
Some of the main traits to look for in dogs that are ready to be trained for emotional support include a stable temperament, as too much energy will make a dog difficult to train and unable to provide emotional support in an emergency.
An emotional support animal also shouldn’t be timid, as that will lessen the likelihood of it helping you out when you really require the aid. Emotional support animals also need to be sociable, and they need to have good behavior around other people as well as other pets.
Finally, your dog should also show some compliance with basic training, and ideally, it should know basic commands like sit, stay, and heel. Some of the dog breeds that tick all of these boxes include golden retrievers, labradors, German shepherds, and poodles.
Keep in mind that the connection you share with a dog is an important factor that should not be overlooked when determining its suitability for training as an emotional support animal. Since the dog will be there to support your emotions, what you feel about it also counts for something and may even hold more weight than some of these other characteristics.
How to Train an Emotional Support Dog
Before you start giving your dog special training to act as an emotional support animal, you’ll have to ensure that your pet has a baseline level of training. In most cases, your dog’s behavior shouldn’t just be acceptable, but it should be top-notch, including responding to commands and being on its best behavior around the house.
It’s essential that your dog knows how to act properly before you start training it as an emotional support animal as poor behavior on your pet’s part can do the opposite of what you want. If you’re relying on a poorly trained animal for emotional support, it may worsen how you feel when that pet suddenly tears up your furniture.
After you’ve minimized your dog’s behavior that can make you stressed, you’ll want to focus on a training routine built around positive reinforcement. This means that you never want to punish your dog for doing the wrong thing but you should instead reward your pet for doing what you want it to do.
Some of the most important training for an emotional support dog includes teaching your dog to hold a certain form of behavior for an extended time. Your dog should be able to keep doing something until you command it to stop. Start by getting your dog to emulate a behavior for a few seconds, slowly building up to longer periods.
Next, your dog should be able to respond to your commands even when you’re physically distant from it. To do so, give your dog a command and move away from it gradually, ensuring that it keeps doing what you commanded it to do, even when you’re far away. As with the previous exercise, slowly build up your dog’s capabilities for this.
Finally, you’ll have to teach your emotional support dog to ignore distractions and to focus on your commands. You’ll need your dog to be able to emotionally support you even if there is a flurry of other things that can potentially tear away your furry friend’s attention.
Advanced Emotional Support Techniques
So far, these steps may seem like the type of training you’d use to teach a dog to do anything, like performing tricks or doing another job. Once you’ve established this training, you can start teaching your pet more advanced techniques that can help you manage your stress with its aid.
There are a few different ways that dogs can help you manage your stress levels, but the most common one is by applying pressure to your body to help you manage your stress. When your dog comes and touches you, it helps remind you that you have an animal there that loves you, and it may help calm your nerves.
The exact method of applying pressure depends on the size of your emotional support animal. For example, small emotional support dogs may sit on top of you in their entirety to help you manage your stress. Larger dogs may resort to putting their head on top of you to establish some contact.
Before you teach your pet to establish contact, you should teach it how to get itself up on the couch or on your bed, as you’ll likely want to sit down when going through an emotional episode. Use commands and positive reinforcement to teach your dog how to get on the sofa and when to get off of it.
When your dog is comfortable getting on and off of the bed or sofa, you should start teaching it how to apply pressure to you. Show your dog the position that you would like it to lay in and use positive reinforcement to get your dog to repeat that behavior, associating it with a command.
Keep your dog calm when it rests in the position that you want it to be in, and be sure not to reward it too soon. Ideally, your dog should remain in that position for a few minutes as that will give you enough time to calm down and establish a connection with the animal in the midst of an anxiety attack.
Should I Certify My Dog as an Emotional Support Animal?
Getting your dog certified as a genuine ESA takes a few more steps, but it has a few benefits, as well. One of the main advantages of having a certified emotional support dog is that it will be able to live with you in places that typically don’t allow pets.
However, to certify your dog as an emotional support animal, you’ll have to get an underlying condition that it can help with diagnosed by a doctor. These conditions include autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Once a doctor has diagnosed your condition, they will be able to give you an ESA letter and a prescription for your emotional support animal. You will have to get this letter renewed every year to ensure that the information is current and that the animal is still supporting you with your condition.