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.
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 behaviourist.
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.
With that in mind, our experts shared some of their favourites. 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.