The Complete Guide to Emotional Support Dogs in 2021

Learn about emotional support dogs in our comprehensive guide. We discuss how they can help, the current laws in the UK, which dogs are best, and how you can find one.

Happy dog with closed eyes in female hands

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are rapidly gaining in popularity – and dogs are among the most common choices of animal to provide comfort to people with mental health difficulties.

Since emotional support dogs are a relatively new addition to mental health treatment plans, however, there are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding the concept.

Today, we’ll explore the topic of emotional support dogs, explain how they can help and how you can get one, and suggest some popular dog breeds that make excellent ESAs.

What is an emotional support dog?

Most dog owners have, at some point in their lives, experienced a situation when their four-legged friend helped them through a difficult time. Even if you don’t suffer from a diagnosed mental health disorder, you probably know what it’s like to be cheered up by your dog when you’re feeling down or having a bad day.

The purpose behind emotional support animals is to regularly provide this feeling of comfort and companionship to people who need it most. Emotional support dogs help people with mental health problems manage their symptoms by offering emotional comfort.

Woman petting dog wearing coat

For example, a person with PTSD who becomes anxious when alone at night may find that having an emotional support dog by their side makes them feel safer and more comfortable. Similarly, someone suffering from panic attacks may be comforted by the presence of their dog during critical moments, making their symptoms less acute.

Emotional support dogs are live-in pets. They are a type of support animal, although they are not the same as service dogs or therapy dogs.

The three types of support animal

Service dogs are specially trained to provide practical help and physical support to disabled people and those affected by certain conditions. For instance, they serve as seeing-eye dogs for the blind, alert deaf people when necessary, or are there to turn over someone who is having a seizure to ensure physical safety.

Emotional support dogs, meanwhile, don’t require any official training and don’t have specific tasks to fulfill. As Dr Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders puts it, “Service animals do, while emotional support animals are.”

Dr. Hendriksen adds, “Emotional support animals help simply by being there. They don’t undergo any specific training because their presence, in and of itself, is comforting to someone suffering from anxiety, depression, or another mental or physical illness.”

Woman pets dog in the nature at sunset

Although this article focuses on dogs, any pet could technically be an emotional support animal – commonly including cats, birds, and hedgehogs, among others. Meanwhile, service animals are almost always dogs or, more recently, miniature horses.

Lastly, therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and affection in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and other such settings. They are brought into a facility by a handler and taken away at the end of a session – unlike emotional support dogs, which are live-in pets helping one person.

Emotional support dog vs psychiatric assistance dog – what’s the difference?

It’s important to note that there is a special type of service dog for people with serious psychiatric issues.

Psychiatric assistance dogs are individually trained to assist their handlers in practical ways. For instance, they can remind the person to take medication, act as physical support if the handler becomes dizzy, or interrupt problematic behaviours (such as repetition in the case of people affected by OCD).

Although they are becoming increasingly more common in the U.S., psychiatric assistance dogs are not easily obtained in the UK. Currently, the only way to get one is by training one yourself with the help of an appropriate charity, or by securing the help of a non-profit organisation – such as Service Dogs UK, which trains assistance dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Emotional support dogs don’t have any such training, since their purpose isn’t to actively assist the person in everyday activities or to react to specific behaviours.

However, this is not to say that they are ‘not as good’ as psychiatric assistance dogs: for some people, it’s enough that the dog is just there for them. Despite not having training, many dogs can intuitively find ways to make us feel better.

In what ways can an emotional support dog help?

Scientific research into the measurable benefits of living with an emotional support dog is still in its early stages. However, reviews of existing research show that there is a good amount of anecdotal, qualitative evidence that ESAs can be highly effective in managing mental health problems.

Examples of ways in which an emotional support dog can be helpful include:

  • Managing stress and alleviating worry
  • Reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Providing a positive distraction from negative thoughts and anxiety
  • Giving a person a sense of purpose
  • Providing physical contact and companionship
  • Increasing self-esteem and offering a feeling of belonging

In addition to direct emotional support, having a dog can also promote physical health and the formation of positive habits. The responsibilities that come with looking after a dog result in:

  • Providing a daily schedule and structure, which is important in managing mental health disorders (particularly depression)
  • Enabling exercise during walking and playing with the dog, improving overall physical health

Alongside anxiety, depression, and PTSD, emotional support animals can also be helpful for:

  • People on the autism spectrum – a dog can provide a simple, reliable relationship with straightforward communication and become a soothing influence
  • Those suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other ongoing mental health conditions
  • People who don’t have a diagnosed mental disorder, but are going through a period of extreme stress or lowered mood – such as those suffering from physical conditions or recovering from injuries/surgery

As we’ve already seen, emotional support dogs don’t require any kind of training. However, they do need certification to be considered support animals rather than ‘standard’ pets.

Benefits of emotional support animal certification in the UK

If a certified emotional support dog doesn’t need professional training to fulfill its purpose, why would you go to the trouble of getting your dog certified?

Official certification is needed for your dog to be considered a support animal, which in turn can have a series of benefits.

People who have emotional support animals rely on them for management of their mental health conditions, and may require the presence of the animal in places that are not usually fond of pets. Certification lets other people know that the dog is more than a pet and that their presence is a necessity rather than a whim.

If your dog is a certified emotional support animal, it may be easier to bring him with you to shops, restaurants, and other places that typically don’t allow animals. Landlords may also be more willing to allow you to keep a dog in a rented home or flat.

In some cases, having certification might make it possible for you to bring your emotional support dog on a flight with you, in the cabin. However, this depends on individual airlines – some are more accommodating than others. Currently, Virgin Airlines, EasyJet, and Ryanair allow emotional support dogs (but not other emotional support animals, such as cats or hedgehogs) on board, while British Airways does not.

Emotional support dog – UK law

Unfortunately, emotional support dogs are not considered service animals in the UK, and therefore don’t have the same rights as, say, seeing-eye dogs.

Therefore, having certification doesn’t guarantee you’ll be allowed to bring your dog with you anywhere you want – you’d still need to obtain permission from shop owners, restaurant staff, landlords, airlines, and so on. What certification does is to let such people know that you genuinely need your dog to be present with you.

Because UK law doesn’t oblige businesses to treat ESAs as anything other than pets, it’s up to the business to decide whether it will make allowances for you and your dog. ESA UK has a helpful database of ESA-friendly businesses in the UK, which you can use to find out where you can take your ESA dog.

How to get an emotional support dog in the UK

What do you need to do to qualify for an ESA? The matter has been widely discussed in the context of the U.S., where emotional support animals are considerably more common – but what about the UK?

Only people who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder qualify for an ESA. Therefore, the process of obtaining certification for your dog starts with receiving a valid diagnosis for yourself.

Man hugs his dog in sunset by the lake.

Visit a licensed mental health professional (clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or counsellor) for an evaluation of your needs. Typically, ESAs are considered appropriate only for people whose daily life and activities are significantly impacted by the mental health condition.

The mental health professional will determine whether an ESA could genuinely benefit you, as well as evaluating the suitability of a specific pet to become your official ESA.

Researchers and lawmakers are still in the process of refining a standard assessment procedure that would ensure efficient and effective registration of ESAs, and minimise the risk of abuse. Currently, it’s up to the judgement and expertise of the mental health professional to decide whether an ESA is right for you.

If the mental health professional decides you need an ESA, the animal will be ‘prescribed’ as part of your treatment plan and you’ll be issued with an ESA Letter of support.

The ESA Letter is an official document that proves that your dog is an emotional support animal, needed by your side for medical reasons. You’ll need to show a valid ESA Letter every time you attempt to take your dog somewhere animals are not typically welcome, such a restaurant or a flight.

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Online registration

You may come across websites offering UK emotional support animal registration for a fee. It’s recommended to be cautious when using online services, since many of them turn out to be scams.

If in doubt, it’s always best to follow the official route and obtain a valid ESA Letter from a licensed mental health professional – if only for your own peace of mind.

The best emotional support dog breeds

Any dog can make a great emotional support animal – after all, it’s all down to your relationship with the pooch and how their presence makes you feel.

If you don’t already have a dog and are considering getting one as part of your mental health treatment, we can suggest a few dog breeds best-suited to act as assistance dogs for anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Calm, gentle, and cuddly, dogs of this breed have a strong reputation for being affectionate. They’re quite small (weighing 6 to 8 kg) and don’t require much exercise, which makes them a good breed for first-time dog owners.

A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a great choice for those looking for a laid-back dog that’s happy to spend all day cuddled up at home.

Golden Retriever

Popular service dogs and therapy dogs, Golden Retrievers are typically highly trainable, gentle, patient dogs. They tend to be predictable and even-tempered – they also have a playful side and enjoy physical exercise.

As such, Golden Retrievers offer a great mix of providing a lot of emotional support and requiring a moderate level of maintenance. They’ll follow you around all day and cuddle up to you, but they’ll also need you to take them outside for some exercise, for at least an hour a day.

Pomeranian

Pomeranians are ‘toy dogs’ – small enough to carry with you in a bag and weighing only around 2.5 kg. In addition to the fact that they tend to enjoy being close to you all day long, they make for highly affectionate, playful companions.

Pomeranians are a good option if you want to take your dog with you everywhere you go – their small size makes them ideal for transportation.

Border Collie

Allegedly the most intelligent breed, Border Collies are highly energetic and extremely loyal. Dogs of this breed rarely show aggression and tend to be predictable, playful, and very easy to train.

However, they do require a large amount of exercise and mental stimulation. Ideally, they should get around two hours of off-leash exercise every day. For stimulating their minds, you can teach them tricks or play around with scent work.

Border Collies are a great choice of assistant dogs for depression, for people who find they need the motivation to go outside. They can keep you busy all day long and motivate you to exercise and to organise your time.

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How to choose an ESA dog breed for you

The choice will be down to your personal preference, needs, and environment. Small dogs are easier to take with you wherever you go, while large breeds can make you feel safer and protected if you get anxious while outside your house.

The costs and effort required are also worth considering. The upkeep for large dogs costs more, and some breeds may require a lot more exercise – but the latter could be a good thing if you’re looking to get out more.

At the end of the day, though, what matters most is your personal connection with the dog. Whether you choose a specific breed or fall in love with a particular pooch without planning to, your dog is sure to provide you with lots of love, affection, and positive emotions.

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