Companion Dogs for Anxiety: All You Need To Know

Emotional support animal concept. Portrait of elderly woman with jack russell terrier dog. Old lady and her pet sittinng on grey textile sofa. Close up, copy space, background.
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Key Points

  • Companion dogs for anxiety are not the same as service dogs. 

  • You need a prescription to register an emotional support animal. 

  • Companion dogs for anxiety provide comfort to their owners in a variety of ways that include repetitive moments and deep pressure therapy. 

The benefits to dogs are endless. For some, companion dogs for anxiety are key to ensuring that they get to live a full life. Having a pup in your life goes way beyond just the physical benefits of owning a dog.

Not only does the pet provide emotional support and comfort, they also provide all the benefits of your everyday dog. 

Unfortunately, people have abused what an emotional support dog is, which led to people doubting the legitimacy of one. Many people were using this concept to take their pets where they would otherwise not be allowed to go. For people who need these animals, it may be hard but it is still possible to have an emotional support dog

What Are Emotional Support Animals 

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a mental health professional that offers therapeutic benefits to individuals. ESAs provide companionship and don’t need any specific training to become one. ESAs are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act better known as the ADA. 

An ESA doesn’t have to be a dog, either. Any animal within reason is able to be an ESA. This means you likely wouldn’t have an ESA emu; however, some folks have ESA rodents or reptiles. Unfortunately, public distrust of ESAs has made it harder to get a qualified emotional support animal for many people who need one. 

Emotional Support Dog on aircraft

Are Emotional Support Animals Service Dogs?

ESAs are not service animals. Service animals are animals that undergo specific training to help their owner with a specific disability. Think of the seeing-eye dogs for the blind. You might even see service dogs that help people with PTSD or even severe anxiety by providing them medicine, getting their phone, using deep pressure therapy, or even going and getting someone for them. 

Service dogs do what their name says: They provide a service. While ESAs help their owners they are not trained to do specific tasks for them. The law also states that service animals only include dogs and miniature horses. 

How To Get an Emotional Support Dog 

How do you get an emotional support dog? Unfortunately, you can’t just decide your pet is your new ESA. That isn’t how it works. You need to talk to a qualified doctor or a mental health professional.

Before you get to Googling, it’s important to note that there are many ways to get assessed and certified online. Sure, some of these sites are legitimate but many others are scams that are using people who need an ESA to make a quick buck. 

Woman looks longingly out the window while dog rests on her lap

You have to speak with a live person, either in person or over something like Zoom, who is a licensed therapist or health professional. You can take an online quiz to get an idea of if you need an ESA or not. 

Sadly, there are people that carry around the fake documentation that their pet is an ESA. There isn’t much training on handling these animals, and people often have to accept what they are told in blind faith or risk denying it. Those who use fake documentation put people at risk because non certified pets can pose a risk to the public.

Once you have a prescription – an ESA is considered a prescription – then you can get or register your animal. 

Disabilities That Qualify for an Emotional Support Dog

While all you need is a mental health professional’s prescription, not everyone needs an emotional support animal. Just like with regular medicine, not everyone benefits from an ESA. You likely won’t get a prescription just because you want one unless you fall under one of the disorders that these animals specialize in treating. 

The following are not the only disorders that qualify you for an emotional support dog; however, they are the most common:

Bipolar Disorder 

This disorder is characterized by unusual shifts in energy, mood, and activity levels that disrupt one’s ability to carry out everyday tasks. These shifts cause those affected by this order to lose control. An emotional support dog becomes the constant anchor amidst the drastic shifts in your life. ESAs allow you to regulate yourself safely and comfort you in whatever state you are in. 


Depression isn’t simply being sad. This disorder is serious and negatively affects your feelings, thoughts, and energy levels. Clinical depression leads to serious emotional and physical problems to the point that simple tasks are too much. Your ESA is able to comfort you during these extreme times and is always there no matter how bad you feel. Sometimes, they may be able to even encourage you to get out of bed by bumping you, licking you, or even tugging at your clothing. Regardless of how you feel, these dogs are a tether back to reality during your toughest times. 

Dog places paw in the palm of a human hand

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

This disorder is caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. PTSD affects many individuals including victims of abuse, veterans, those who lost a loved one, or those who were in serious car accidents. 

Trauma affects people differently and what you might think was scary leads to PTSD for someone else. Because of experiencing a traumatic event the symptoms of severe anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and uncontrollable reactions to similar events occur. These episodes are often debilitating but an ESA is there to help you back to a calmer state of mind. Just having your ESA there is often enough to prevent attacks before they get too overwhelming. 

Anxiety Disorders  

No matter who you are, anxiety is a tough disorder to live with. It is more than just not wanting to be around people. It is an intense fear that causes you to live in a constant state of fight or flight. To put it simply, anxiety causes you to think of the worst things that happen, regardless of whether such things are  even possible. 

An ESA allows for a sense of calm and grounding during these heightened states of mind. The comfort of an animal is critical to help calm your nervous system from thinking the worst-case scenario is going to happen.  

Benefits of an Emotional Support Dog

Mental health professionals understand that there are vast improvements in patients that have a mental illness thanks to an animal’s emotional support. 

They Help You Produce Neurotransmitters 

Animals, especially dogs, help humans produce neurotransmitters that make you feel happy according to a study covered by PhD student Julie Hecht for Scientific American. When you cuddle your pet, it produces a neurochemical in the brain called dopamine which is responsible for love, bonding, and pleasure. When you take care of your pet, your own capacity for love increases and you feel less depressed. 

Emotional Support Animal provides services to human in electric wheelchair

Animal Therapy Works in Conjunction with Other Forms of Therapy 

Using ESA animals in conjunction with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is becoming more common. It is akin to advising people to eat healthy foods and exercise to control the symptoms of mental health. An ESA encourages you to spend more time outside and helps you feel safe during highly stressful events. 

ESAs Provide Social Support 

Most families consider their pets to be family members. The reason for this is that these animals provide social support and unconditional love. Your pet doesn’t care what you look or sound like; they love you no matter what. 

No matter who you are, you need social interaction to meet your emotional and mental health needs. Yes, even introverts need this. Having an ESA, or even a pet, gives you a good reason to go out for a walk, go to the dog park, or may give you the extra confidence to go to the grocery store. 

What Makes a Good Emotional Support Dog

Ideally, your ESA is in tune with your needs and reacts to what you say and do. The bond you have with your ESA is critical to making a good support animal. If you don’t have a dog already, taking the time to find a dog you bond with is important. Ideally, the dog already has good doggy manners at home, in public, and with other dogs and people. If they don’t, get them into basic obedience training before claiming them as your ESA. 

Emotional Support Animal with red vest

Common Dog Breeds for Emotional Support Dogs

Calm breeds with easy-going personalities are naturally suited to be ESAs. It’s important to know that any dog is eligible to be an ESA as long as they are well-trained. Small, large, purebred, or mixed breeds are great and this list is not putting any dogs above others. 

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

This breed of dog was initially created to be a companion dog. Their genetic makeup makes them some of the best dogs to use for an ESA. Not only are they small, so carrying them is easy, but they are social dogs. They enjoy pets and cuddles, but they are attentive to your needs as well. 

Labrador Retriever 

One of the most popular breeds in the country is the Labrador retriever. These dogs are happy, laid-back, and seem to be unbothered by just about everything. It makes them a breed that’s attuned to your needs and is there to give you a shoulder to cry on. They are food motivated, so it’s easy to train them to do helpful tasks, like laying in your lap to perform deep pressure therapy. 


These happy, playful, and easy-going dogs make them great for an ESA. It is fun to watch them run around with the zoomies. Corgis are clever and affectionate, making them good at tasks like calming you down, or fetching your phone for you during an episode. They are classed as herding dogs and have a strong instinct to protect their humans. 

Great Pyrenees

These giant fluffy clouds of a dog are exceptionally calm and mellow. These chill dogs love being brushed, which is perfect for stress relief in humans. The repetitive motion is good for your brain. They are also dogs that aren’t particularly active, making them a good fit for people who prefer a stroll over hours of playing fetch or running. 

Emotional Support Animal sits near owner on duty

Breeds To Avoid 

All dogs are individuals and all of them have the capacity to be loving, intuitive, emotional support dogs. That being said, there are some breeds that may not be the best for the job. 

Chow Chows, Boerboel, and Tibetan Mastiffs may not be suitable because they are naturally independent and strong-willed dogs. Breeds like the Australian cattle dog or Belgian Malinois are constantly in work mode, meaning they may get bored not having tasks that service dogs do to keep them busy. Breeds with high prey drives like the rat terrier are more interested in chasing that squirrel than helping you. 

Once again, all dogs are individuals and if your Chow Chow is devoted to you and helps you, then looking into them being an ESA is worth your time and effort. You know your dog better than anyone, but remember they need to be well-behaved in public and around other dogs. 

Frankness About Anxiousness: Support When You Need It

Getting the support you need when you need it is crucial to your mental health. An ESA is there to improve your life. While they are not service animals, they make a huge impact on the lives of people that need them. Sometimes you just need the extra support to make it through the day. Any dog is eligible to be an ESA with some basic training and a prescription from your health care professional.

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