If you sit and visit with a dog for more than a few minutes, chances are good that you’ll begin to feel calmer, more relaxed, and generally more positive. In fact, dog owners enjoy real health benefits thanks to their four-legged friends including better mental health, less feelings of loneliness, an increase in physical and outdoor activities, and more opportunities for socializing with others.

The myriad of mental health benefits that come from owning or simply spending time with a dog means that canines are especially ideal for those with intellectual disorders and mental health issues. Those with autism, anxiety and depression, and even post traumatic stress disorder can find their symptoms greatly reduced – and life a lot more enjoyable – with the help of an emotional support dog.

Emotional support dogs are not the same as service dogs, which are specially trained to assist those with physical disabilities; for example, a seeing eye dog or a dog that can alert an epileptic person when they’re about to have a seizure. Emotional support dogs are meant to provide a calming presence and unconditional love to people who suffer from intellectual disorders, as well as other emotional and mental conditions.


How Do I Qualify for An Emotional Support Dog?

If you or a loved one has an intellectual disorder like autism that affects cognitive and social abilities, or if your daily life is compromised by mental health issues including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, bipolar disorder, or fears and phobias, as outlined by the National Institute of Mental Health, you could be a candidate for an emotional support dog.

Because the American Disabilities Act (ADA) does not recognize emotional support dogs as service animals, there are no registrations required for your dog to be considered an emotional support dog. However, a letter from your doctor is necessary when needing your dog to accompany you on flights or to allow your dog to reside with you in housing where they are otherwise not permitted.

  • The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This allows emotional support dogs on any airline to travel with their owner. A doctor’s note to the airline – no more than a year old – is required and should be presented to them at least 48 hours before the flight. There is no additional cost for the dog, however, they must be trained to behave on the flight and will require current vaccinations.


Organizations That Connect Emotional Support Dogs with People

If you think an emotional support dog could be a great addition to your family (for you or a loved one), check locally for organizations that may train dogs for a specific condition. For example, Project HEAL offers dogs trained by inner-city youth to service men and women who suffer from PTSD; while Canines for Christ is a Christian-based ministry in Tampa that connects dogs with people having significant developmental disabilities.

For those with autism, Autism Service Dogs of America is a great resource as well as 4 Paws for Ability. A great overview on emotional and support dogs can be found here at friendshipcircle.org.


What Types of Dogs Offer the Best Emotional Support?

Because emotional support dogs do not have to undergo the often rigorous training required to become official service dogs, a wider variety of breeds are ideal companions for added comfort and anxiety relief. However, breeds that are typically easier to train, including Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds, are recommended if you’re considering taking them on planes or living in an apartment or condo.

Dogs with calmer dispositions like Newfoundlands, Golden Retrievers, and even Bulldogs can help keep their owners stay calm in stressful situations. When it comes time to choose your dog, start with asking a few important questions like: How much exercise will the dog require? Does the type of breed you’re considering bark often or is it quiet? Are you able to handle its size and weight? Then, check with the American Dog Breeders Association and Animal Planet’s Dog Breed Selector tool to make sure it’s a perfect match.

Photo credit: Calsidyrose / CC BY 2.0