How Does a Dog Become an Emotional Support Animal?

What makes an emotional support animal (ESA) different from a regular pet or even a service animal? While service animals are trained for specific tasks like guiding the visually impaired or detecting seizures, ESAs provide a different kind of healing—emotional and psychological. They're not just pets; they're part of a therapeutic approach to managing mental health conditions. 

By offering unconditional love and companionship, ESAs help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, creating a sense of calm and security for their owners. In this piece, we’re going to answer a very critical question: how does a dog become an emotional support animal? 

Eligibility Criteria for Emotional Support Dogs

How does a dog become an emotional support animal

Stable Temperament

Your dog must be predictable and even-tempered. An ESA should bring calmness into a room, not chaos. They should be able to handle unexpected situations or loud noises without becoming overly anxious or aggressive.

Social and Friendly

An ideal ESA is approachable and friendly, not just to you but to other people as well. They should be comfortable around strangers and in various social settings, which helps in situations where they accompany you to public places.

How does a dog become an emotional support animal

Responsive to Emotions

One of the key traits of an ESA is their ability to respond to their owner's emotional cues. A dog that can detect your mood changes and offer comfort when you're feeling down is crucial.


Basic obedience is a must. Your dog should respond to your commands, remain calm in public, and not exhibit destructive behaviors. This ensures that they can be a soothing presence rather than a source of stress.


How does a dog become an emotional support animal

The ideal emotional support dog does not react excessively to other animals or people. They maintain their composure and focus on their owner, providing steady emotional support.

No Age Limit

Unlike some service animals, emotional support dogs do not have an age limit. However, mature dogs often have a more settled temperament, which is beneficial in an ESA.

The Legal Requirements

Certification and Documentation

How does a dog become an emotional support animal

Unlike service animals, ESAs do not require formal training or certification. What they do require is a letter from a licensed mental health professional. This letter must state that your emotional support dog is part of your treatment plan for a mental or emotional disability diagnosed by a healthcare provider. It should include the date, the professional's license type, number, and the state that issued the license.

Fair Housing Act (FHA)

How does a dog become an emotional support animal

Under the FHA, individuals with ESAs are allowed to live with their animals even in housing complexes that generally prohibit pets. This act prevents landlords from being able to charge a pet fee for emotional support animals but remember, it's crucial to provide your ESA letter to invoke these protections.

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

This act used to allow ESAs to fly with their owners in the cabin for free. However, recent changes mean that airlines are no longer required to accommodate ESAs as they do service animals. Each airline now has its own policy regarding ESAs, so you'll need to check with your airline ahead of time.

State-specific Laws

How does a dog become an emotional support animal

Some states have specific laws that expand the rights of individuals with ESAs. These can include provisions for public accommodation and additional protections against discrimination. It’s advisable to check the specific laws in your state to fully understand your rights and responsibilities.

Responsibility of Ownership

Having an ESA also comes with certain responsibilities. You must ensure your dog behaves well in public and does not pose a threat or nuisance to others. Failure to do so can result in your ESA rights being questioned or revoked.

Choosing the Right Dog

Emotional Support Dog Breeds

How does a dog become an emotional support animal

While any dog breed can potentially be an ESA, some breeds are naturally more suited to providing emotional support due to their inherent traits. For instance, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Poodles are known for their friendly nature and ability to form strong bonds with humans. These emotional support dog breeds are chosen often for their adaptive and empathetic nature. However, the key is to focus on a breed whose characteristics align with your personal needs and living situation.

Health Considerations

A healthy dog is more capable of providing consistent support. Ensure that the dog you select is healthy, with up-to-date vaccinations and a clear health record. This not only ensures the dog’s well-being but also reduces the stress of dealing with veterinary emergencies.

Meet Potential Dogs More Than Once

Spending quality time with a dog before deciding to take them home is vital. Visit the dog multiple times, interact in different settings, and see how they adapt to you and different environments. This helps in understanding if the dog's behavior is consistently compatible with your needs.

Professional Advice

How does a dog become an emotional support animal

Don’t hesitate to seek advice from professionals such as veterinarians, experienced dog trainers, or therapists who understand your specific needs and can guide you in choosing a dog that is right for you.

Visit Dr. Jeff Werber’s Instagram account (@werbs_dvm) to view and submit questions and answers on weekly AMAs – or call and leave a voicemail at 424-835-0576. Your call will be returned posthaste. For emergencies, download Dr. Jeff Werber’s app Airvet, a video-chat option for veterinary needs at any time of day or night!