ESA Training: Emotional Support Dog Training Essentials

Behavior & training
Emotional Support Dog Comforting Owner by Lying Down on Their Lap

Does your dog seem to have a sixth sense for when you need them most? That's the incredible connection many people experience with their furry companions. For those facing emotional or mental health challenges, a dog becomes more than a pet – it's a source of comfort and support. Emotional support animals (ESAs) can truly make a difference, and training your ESA can strengthen that bond and enhance their ability to help you navigate daily life. While everyone can benefit from a dog as a companion, some people with certain mental or emotional conditions need a dog to help them function in daily life.

What is an Emotional Support Dog?

While it’s been proven that all dogs can improve our mental health, some dogs can legally be considered an emotional support dog, or emotional support animal (ESA). Emotional support animals are pets that provide therapeutic benefits to a person with a mental health or psychiatric disability and are prescribed by a licensed mental health professional in a formal prescription letter.

While this article will focus on emotional support dogs, any domesticated animal may be considered an ESA (cats, dogs, hedgehogs, ferrets, birds, etc.). While there is no formal, legal database for emotional support dog or emotional support cat registration, it’s important to remember any animal, even a cat, can be an emotional support animal with an ESA letter.

Emotional support animals do not have to be trained to perform specific tasks. Rather, their presence provides a therapeutic benefit, like emotional support, comfort, or companionship, that can relieve the symptoms associated with the person’s mental health condition.

Training Requirements for Emotional Support Dogs

Federal guidelines specify that emotional support dogs (ESD) do not need to complete any specialized or formal training since their purpose is to provide emotional support just by being present.

However, even though specialized task training isn’t required, emotional support dogs should still be trained on basic life skills to coexist peacefully with their owner and when out in public. At a minimum, ESDs should understand basic obedience and be fully housebroken. While you can always train your emotional support dog to have more advanced skills or specialized tasks, there is no legal requirement to do this.

Training Your Emotional Support Dog

As we mentioned above, there is no legal requirement to train your emotional support dog to perform any specific task or behavior. However, emotional support dogs go out and about with their owners regularly, and even travel with them, so they need to have good basic life skills to be able to be in public without causing a disturbance.

While it’s true that you can teach an old dog new tricks because any dog at any age can learn, it’s always best to start training your dog as soon as possible. The key to any training regardless of dog breed or age is being consistent with positive reinforcement techniques and remaining patient.

Potty Training

One of the most important life skills to teach a dog is to how to go to the potty outside. Since emotional support dogs often travel with their owners, it’s important they can hold their bladder and not have any indoor accidents.


Sit is another basic command that is typically one of the first commands an owner teaches their dog.

To teach your dog how to sit: With your dog in front of you, hold a treat in your hand and place it in front of your dog’s nose. Slowly move your hand up and backward until your dog sits. When your dog’s butt hits the ground, say “yes!” and then immediately give your dog the treat. After a few repetitions, you can begin saying the word “sit” before you begin moving your hand up and backward.


Once you teach your dog how to sit, you can begin working on “stay.” This is a helpful command to teach your dog to sit and stay in one spot, and it can be useful in a variety of situations.

To teach your dog how to stay: First, ask your dog to sit. Second, show them the palm of your hand and take one small step backward, but then immediately return to your dog and give him a treat. Then, gradually increase the number of steps you take backward. Always reward your dog immediately when you return to him.

Once your dog can successfully do this several times, you can add the verbal command of “stay” right before you put your palm out. If your dog shows signs of getting up, start from the beginning and go back to taking fewer steps backward at a time.


Once your dog can successfully sit and stay, you can work on teaching them to lie down. This can be one of the more challenging commands to teach your dog, so be patient as your dog learns this. Since this position can be a little uncomfortable for your dog, teach this on a carpeted area or use a small mat.

To teach your dog how to lie down: Place your dog in a sit in front of you. With a treat in your hand, hold your hand at their nose level and move your hand in a straight line from their nose to the ground. Some dogs struggle lying down flat on the ground, so moving your hand in a straight line from their nose to the ground but then dragging your hand when it’s on the ground toward your body and away from your dog can help encourage them to lay down flat.

Once your dog can do this successfully, you can begin adding the verbal command “down” before you move your hand from their nose to the ground.

Leave It

Since emotional support dogs do go out and about into public with their owners regularly, “leave it” is an incredibly important skill to teach. This can prevent your dog from picking up something dangerous off the ground as they’re walking.

To teach your dog to leave it: Place one treat in one hand and close both fists. Naturally, your dog will start to nudge the fist with the treat in it. Eventually, your dog will stop nudging that fist. The moment your dog stops trying to get the treat from your fist, say “yes!” and reward your dog with the treat. Once your dog can do this successfully, you can say “leave it” before you present both of fists. If your dog stays still and doesn’t try to nudge your fist, say “yes!” and immediately reward him.

Once your dog has mastered this game using your fists, you can place a treat on the floor and ask your dog to “leave it.” The goal here is that your dog doesn’t even try to go for the treat, so you can say “yes!” and reward your dog for just calmly sitting and not going after the treat in any way. If your dog does go for the treat, cover it with your hand and restart the process. Teaching your dog to “leave it” is actually teaching your dog to ignore food items on the ground and not go for them until you tell them it’s okay.


Teaching your dog to come is an incredibly important life skill that can even be life-saving in some circumstances.

To teach your dog to come: Start by placing them in a sit stay and then back up a few steps and say the word “come.” Since this is the first time teaching your dog to come, you might need to use an excited voice or make other silly sounds that encourage your dog to come to you. When your dog gets to you, say “yes!” and immediately reward them. Keep practicing several repetitions of this and continue to increase the distance you are asking your dog to come to you by increasing the number of steps you take away from them.

Person Training Labrador for Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

What is Deep Pressure Therapy Training?

Deep pressure therapy (DPT) is a form of therapy that uses firm touch to calm the nervous system. This can be an incredibly useful technique that would be beneficial to most owners of emotional support dogs. Since emotional support dogs help a person feel more comfortable in situations, ESDs can perform DPT by placing pressure on their chest or abdomen to help relieve anxiety.

How to Train Your Dog to Do Deep Pressure Therapy

Training your dog to perform DPT is similar to teaching them how to come and then additionally teaching them to climb into your lap or on your chest and lie down.

To teach your dog deep pressure therapy:

  1. Teach them to climb up onto furniture like chairs and sofas. Do this by using a treat in front of their nose to lure them onto the furniture and use a command like “up.” Reward them with the treat when they get onto the furniture.

  2. Sitting in a chair or on a sofa, lure your dog onto you with a treat using your “up” command and then reward them.

  3. Pet your dog while they are on you to help get them used to this position.

  4. Start to incorporate any signs of your anxiety (like restlessness) into the training by acting restless and then asking them to get “up” and petting them while they’re on you. This will help your dog understand your particular signs that you need them to perform DPT.

  5. Teach your dog an “off” command to jump off when you no longer need them to perform DPT by saying “off” and tossing a treat onto the floor.

With all training, it’s important to remain patient and work at your dog’s pace. If your dog appears to be struggling at any stage, go back and work on the previous steps before continuing.

Dog Training Tips and Resources

While it’s important to start training at a young age, you can certainly train an older dog. While there is a ton of information online about how to train a dog, having so much information can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to know where to start.

When training any dog, it’s important to stick with positive reinforcement techniques. These methods are based on the science of how animals learn and have been proven to be effective. Quite simply put – positive reinforcement focuses on rewarding the good behaviors the dog does so that the dog will repeat the behavior.

When training a dog, you’ll need to find something they enjoy to use as the positive reward in training. For most dogs, this is a high value treat, but other dogs may be more motivated by toys and play. In my experience training dogs, even the pickiest of eaters will happily work for a high-value treat like a piece of freeze-dried liver, cheese, or deli meat.

While training your dog early is crucial, another smart step is getting pet insurance as soon as you welcome them home. What is pet insurance, and how could your ESD benefit from it? Pet insurance helps give you peace of mind that you can care for your dog’s needs during stressful times of accidents or injuries while not having to worry about the cost. It reimburses you for a portion of veterinary expenses incurred due to accidents, illnesses, or emergencies. This could include anything from surgery and medication to diagnostics and hospitalization. Signing up for pet insurance as soon as you get your dog, before they have pre-existing conditions, can give your dog as much coverage as possible. This financial security allows you to prioritize your ESA's care without the burden of unexpected costs, strengthening your bond during a stressful time.

Socialization and Leash Training

Since emotional support dogs are often out in public, it’s important that they are properly socialized and can walk well on a leash. While the primary socialization time period for a puppy is from 3-12 weeks of age, you can socialize any dog of any age by ensuring that they have positive, calm interactions out in public.

One of the first things you’ll want to work on with your dog when you begin your training is loose leash walking. In my experience, loose leash walking is one of the most important things you can teach, since you don’t want your dog to pull you over when you’re on a walk. While your dog is going outside in public with you and socializing, you’ll want to make sure they can walk nicely on a leash.

  1. Reward desired behavior: Carry high-value treats (like small pieces of cooked chicken or cheese) and reward your pup generously whenever they walk calmly beside you with a loose leash. This positive reinforcement encourages them to associate walking nicely with yummy rewards.

  2. Stop and stand still: If your ESA starts to pull, stop walking immediately and stand still. Don't yank the leash or pull back – this can create a power struggle. Simply wait patiently until they turn their attention back to you. Once they approach you with a loose leash, reward them with a treat and praise! This teaches them that pulling makes the walk stop, while walking calmly gets them yummy rewards and keeps the walk going.

Online Training Programs

In reality, training a dog is a lifelong commitment. While emotional support dog owners can train their dogs themselves, it’s always a good idea to reach out to a professional trainer if you have questions or want to make sure you’re on the right path with the skills you’re teaching your dog. Doggy U is a wonderful online dog training community specifically geared towards training service dogs and their handlers and is taught by a multi-certified dog trainer who is also a service dog handler herself.

If you want to make your dog a service dog, you have the choice to train them yourself or to train them with the help of a professional. Working with a professional dog trainer can ensure you’re teaching your service dog all the right tasks that will benefit you.

Woman Training Dog for ESA

Know the Differences between Emotional Support Dogs, Service Dogs, and Therapy Dogs

Emotional support dogs are dogs that help people with disabling mental health disorders feel comforted and calm. Emotional support dogs have no requirement to be trained for tasks and have limited legal rights. For example, emotional support dogs don’t have unlimited access to public spaces, but the Fair Housing Act does mandate reasonable accommodations for emotional support animals.

Service dogs are dogs that have been individually trained to perform specific tasks to assist a person with a disability. These dogs essentially function as life-saving medical equipment for their handlers. Only service dogs and their handlers are allowed unlimited access to public spaces and can be in spaces where regular pet dogs aren’t allowed.

Therapy dogs are pet dogs that have been certified to visit certain places and provide comfort and joy to people who need it. Therapy dogs have limited public access and only have the right to be in a public place where they are providing pet therapy.

Choosing the Right Emotional Support Dog

Most dogs can be trained to be successful emotional support dogs, but those who are overly excited or very shy might have trouble performing certain duties. When selecting your emotional support dog, it’s a good idea to consider what type of duties you want them to perform.

Do you crave a cuddly companion for anxiety attacks? Look for a gentle, affectionate breed known for calmness. Do you struggle with social interaction? A confident and outgoing dog can be a great social bridge, encouraging interaction in public settings. Emotional support dogs should always be gentle, easy-going, intelligent, in good health and shape, and have a stable temperament.

Are Certain Breeds Better as an Emotional Support Dog?

Any breed and any size dog can be trained to become an ESD. It’s important to select the dog breed that works best for you and your lifestyle.

Labrador Retriever

The Labrador Retriever is consistently one of America’s favorite dog breeds and for good reason! Labs are known for being gentle but also having energy to perform work. They’re generally very easy-going and friendly with people and dogs.

Golden Retriever

Like Labs, Golden Retrievers are another well-loved dog breed. Golden Retrievers are energetic and goofy yet easy to train. They have a great optimistic attitude and can be very comforting to people with anxiety or depression.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a wonderful comforting dog to most people since they are lap dogs and love being near their person. They have a mild, easy-going temperament and are a small to medium dogs that’s the perfect lap size, so they’re easy to take out into public.


Poodles make a great ESD because they have very stable temperaments while being incredibly intelligent. Plus, they don’t shed much. While standard Poodles are medium sized, mini and toy Poodles are two smaller varieties that would be easier to take into public.

Requirements for Emotional Support Dogs

In order for a dog to qualify for as an emotional support dog, there are only two requirements that must be met:

  1. The dog must display good behavior in public and understand basic obedience.

  2. The handler must have an emotional support animal letter from a licensed mental health professional.

While there are many websites that may sell other emotional support animal specific items, like vests and patches, none of these other items are a true requirement.

Emotional Support Dog Registration and Legal Rights

Unfortunately, there are many fraudulent companies that claim you must register your emotional support dog or service dog, and this is not true. This is why it is vital to learn about the myths and misconceptions about the emotional support animal registration process. Contrary to these misconceptions, there is no requirement to register or certify your emotional support dog or service dog. The only legal requirement for an emotional support animal is a letter signed by a licensed mental health professional.

While emotional support animals do have some legal protections with the Fair Housing Act, they don’t have any special rights for being out in public spaces. If a public space is not dog-friendly, emotional support animals aren’t exempt. Only service dogs trained to perform tasks related to a disability have public access rights. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the overarching federal entity that protects the rights of service dogs to have public access, emotional support dogs do not qualify and are not protected by the ADA since they do not have to be task trained.

Protecting Your Emotional Support Dog

Emotional support dogs provide a lot of comfort, it’s important to protect them and keep them healthy and happy. Since ESDs are out and about with their handlers and may even travel with them, there are certain safety precautions that should be followed. Keeping a first aid kit on you when out in public and signing up for pet insurance are two small ways to protect your dog. Dog insurance can help protect your dog by giving you peace of mind so that you can treat them if they get an accident or injury, instead of stressing over finances.

Wrapping Up Training Your Emotional Support Dog

The journey of training your ESA isn't just about teaching them commands; it's about fostering a deeper understanding and connection. With each session, you'll not only refine their skills but also create a unique language of communication. Celebrate every milestone, big or small, and embrace the inevitable hiccups with patience and humor. Remember, the process itself strengthens your bond, building trust and a shared sense of accomplishment. As your well-trained ESA walks confidently by your side, you'll find a newfound sense of security and companionship, enriching your life in countless ways.