What is an emotional support dog?
Emotional support animals (ESA) provide comfort and attention and can be any species from the animal kingdom. We’re most familiar with dogs as being the primary animal to fill this role. When people care for their dog, whether feeding, grooming, or walking, it creates a sense of purpose and can distract attention away from the things causing anxiety and other mental health issues. And while dogs can’t offer advice, they are excellent listeners (or at least appear to be)—and that’s a tremendous help for those who want to talk it out without being judged. Whether they’re a cute small dog breed or a lovable large one, they all add up to the most loyal and affectionate dog breeds you could ever ask for.
Service dogs vs. emotional support dogs
The waters can get kind of muddy when determining the difference between a service and emotional support dog. The American Disabilities Act states, “A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks for the person with a disability. For example, a seeing eye dog helps people who are blind or have visual impairments travel safely, and a psychiatric service dog helps people with psychiatric episodes. The dog can remind a person to take their medicine or turn on lights and do safety checks for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. A service dog is virtually allowed anywhere the public is permitted.
Emotional support dogs and therapy dogs are not considered service animals under ADA because they don’t have special training to perform specific tasks that assist people with disabilities. Emotional support dogs provide their human with love and companionship. By definition, they aren’t considered pets, though they live with their human and typically live a pet’s life. Therapy dogs are usually seen in hospitals and nursing rooms. They offer a pleasant distraction by lavishing affection and cuddling service to patients and clients who could use some encouragement. When the dogs are done “working,” they go home with their handler and are treated as pets.
Can emotional support dogs really make a difference?
Dog lovers inherently understand that dogs make people feel better. When we pet a dog, it brings a smile to our faces, our blood pressure goes down, and stress and anxiety fade into the background even during a chance encounter.
Even so, it’s validating to know that some studies show companion dogs can decrease anxiety and depression and improve overall mental health. A 2018 review published in BMC Psychiatry included 17 studies that featured measurable evidence relating to the ups and downs of pet ownership, how people connect with pets, the multiple ways companion animals help mental health conditions, and the psychological impact of losing a companion animal. In a nutshell, the review found pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions.
A more recent study conducted at the University of Toledo showed people who adopted companion animals experienced reduce depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Though more research is needed, so far, studies point to companion animals as being a beneficial partner in human health and well-being.
What makes a good emotional support dog breed?
“The most important aspect to consider is the connection between the dog and the owner,” says Angela Logsdon-Hoover, ABCDT, a certified dog trainer and canine behaviorist, and regional technician director with VCA Animal Hospitals.
In her experience, the person’s current dog is the best fit for the person who needs an ESA. “The dog already has a strong bond and the dog likely already naturally picks up on the owner’s stress response to triggers and can offer calm, comfort, and security,” says Logsdon-Hoover. If a person doesn’t have a dog, the connection factor is equally important when looking for an emotional support dog. Additionally, the dog should already have good doggy manners at home, in public, and with other people and dogs. If not, you can learn together with basic obedience training.
Ideally, emotional support dogs are tuned into their human and react accordingly to what their person says or does, whether that’s with a celebratory dance, cuddling on the couch, or crying when they’re having a tough time.
Emotional support dog breeds
Calm dog breeds with easy-going personalities and loyal dog breeds who will never leave your side are naturally suited for emotional support dogs. With that in mind, our experts shared some of their favorites. Note that this is by no means an exclusive list. Any breed—or mixed breed for that matter, has the potential to be an excellent emotional support dog.© Page Light Studios/Getty Images
1. Cavalier King Charles spaniel
Cavaliers were initially created to be companions dogs, so their genetics run deep as warm-hearted comforters. They are undeniably cute, well-mannered, and petite in size, making them great apartment dogs. “For people who want the companionship of their emotional support dog in a metropolitan area, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel is a good pick for a canine friend,” says Stacy Chocznski Johnson, DVM, and veterinary expert for Pumpkin. They love adults, children, and animals and are “irresistible to pet on a city street,” says Dr. Chocznki Johnson. They could act as an ice breaker and help socially awkward situations and reassure or console you when you’re back at home.
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2. Labrador retriever
As one of the most popular dog breeds in the country, it’s no shocker the loveable Labrador retriever is also a top-notch emotional support dog. As temperament goes, they’re happy, laid-back, and nothing seems to bother them much. They are trustworthy, dependable, and always there to lick your face—or your ice cream cone. “This breed is super food motivated,” says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer, and Pet Lifestyle Expert with Rover. Because of this, it’s easy to train them and teach them helpful tasks, such as laying beside you, resting their head on you, or providing deep pressure therapy, which is used to help reduce anxiety. It can be brought about by hugging, weighted blankets, and yes, by brushing a dog or a dog laying across your body, Ellis explains.
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“Corgis are happy, playful, easy-going dogs, making them a great choice for an emotional support dog,” says Dr. Chocznski Johnson. “Watching a Corgi play can bring entertainment and joy to anyone. Seeing them zip around with their short legs and rotund hind ends can easily bring a smile to your face.” And you can have your pick of two types of Corgis—the Cardigan Welsh Corgi or the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. The Cardigan is slightly larger and has a fox-like bushy tail and the Pembroke, a docked tail. They do share similar temperaments—fun-loving, playful, clever, and affectionate with a touch of boldness. After all, they are classified as herding dogs and have a strong instinct to protect their human.
To see all 11 breeds, click on the link below.
Article by Lisa Marie Conklin for Readers Digest©
Photo credit: © AleksandarNakic/Getty Images