Almost half of all Americans own a dog, and the majority of owners adopted their furry friend. According to ASPCA, Americans adopt approximately 3.2 million animals annually from shelters. This figure includes 1.6 million dogs. 

Adopting a pet from an animal shelter has numerous advantages. First, you play a valuable role in helping save a life. According to the Humane Society, 2.7 million adoptable dogs and cats get euthanized every year. Euthanization happens because shelters become overcrowded, and there is not enough space to accommodate all the animals.

Moreover, shelters take care of their animals. Most of them engage in frequent examinations, regular vaccinations, and they spay, neuter, and microchip before any adoptions. Additionally, they often screen animals for various temperaments to ensure that families are well-matched for their desired pet.

Additionally, adopting can help you save money. Buying a dog through a private breeder can cost thousands. Most shelter animals cost less than a few hundred dollars- and that fee includes all the vaccinations and spay/neutering costs.

Finally, many animal-rights groups advocate against puppy mills and other unregulated breeding facilities. Often, these organizations value profit over compassion and well-being. These breeders often breed their pets in unsafe conditions without appropriate medical care. Often, they keep them contained in small cages with limited human interaction. When no longer profitable, such breeders typically abandon or otherwise discard them. 

Unfortunately, many owners are unaware of these cruel practices. Breeders often use well-crafted sales pitches to convince people about their practices. Then, owners purchase a puppy thinking the animal was properly treated- only to discover medical or behavioral issues that arise months later. As a result, frustrated or unable to make the expensive payments, they may rehome the dog. This process only perpetuates a vicious cycle for the animal. 

Adopting An Emotional Support Animal Or Service Dog


Are you considering adopting an emotional support animal or a service dog? Both animals provide tremendous advantages for their owners.

Emotional support animals provide comfort, companionship, and safety. They support emotional disabilities, but they do not provide any specific clinical tasks.

Psychiatric service dogs can help with a variety of support tasks including:

  • Security enhancement: warding off intruders, calling for help, lighting up rooms, increasing personal safety when out in public
  • Support for emotional overload: provide calming, tactile stimulation, find safety exits, provide deep pressure, help owners maintain distance from others via crowd control
  • Treatment-related assistance: offer medication reminders, speech impairment tasks, retrieve objects, wake sedated owners
  • Medical crisis support: answer doors, call 911 or a designated hotline, provide stability and balance, respond to smoke alarms, carry medical-related supplies

Subsequently, with specialized training, emotional support animals can become service dogs. Service dogs have fewer restrictions than emotional support animals. They are permitted to accompany their owners in any area accessible to the general public. This includes places like beaches, churches, and malls.

Tips For Adopting The Best Dog For Your Emotional Support Or Service Needs

While any dog can technically become an emotional support animal or service dog, certain breeds may offer more advantages than others.

  • Golden retrievers: They’re coveted as one of America’s favorite dogs, and for a good reason. Golden retrievers have calm and patient demeanors. They are friendly to everyone, and they are easily trainable.
  • Labrador retrievers: Labs are popular choices for emotional support or serving needs. They have calm and gentle demeanors with a knack for pleasing their owners. That said, they also have a strong desire to explore, which can help owners get out of the house.
  • Yorkshire terriers: Perfect for people seeking a smaller dog, Yorkies are affectionate, confident, and love playtime and cuddles. Likewise, they’re adaptable and highly trainable.
  • Cavalier king charles spaniels: These dogs love to cuddle, hang out, and cozy up to their owners. They’re reliable and loyal, and they’re happy to please their owners.
  • Chihuahuas: Usually weighing no more than 6 pounds, these small dogs can pack a powerful, emotional punch. They have loving personalities, and they are eager to please and be affectionate.
  • Irish wolfhound: Often deemed as the ‘gentle giant,’ these dogs might weigh more than you do! That said, they are kind, loving, and can attune well to the needs of their others.

You may not have specific breed information available when adopting from a shelter. However, you can always inquire about any known family history or observable behavior.

Biological And Temperament Factors

When interacting with a potential emotional support or service dog for adoption, you’ll want to consider a few key variables before taking him back to his forever home.

The Right Age

Some people prefer to train a puppy as their emotional support animal or service dog. However, it can be hard to find puppies in a shelter. Instead, you may want to consider a dog between 1-3 years old. At this age, they are potty-trained and may have some command skills, but they are still teachable and eager to learn.

Quiet and Relaxed

When walking through the shelter, pay attention to the dogs who relax in their kennels. The ones that are barking and making a lot of noise may be more difficult to train. Dogs that can stay relaxed in stressful situations make for great support animals. However, to rule out depression, you also want to determine that they come up to you and wag their tail appropriately.

Social and Playful

When interacting with the potential dog candidate, pay attention to his comfort around you. Does he seem interested in being held? Does he like playing fetch? Ideally, you want them social, without the premise of fun being their top priority. They should show excitement without it being over the top. Likewise, they should be mostly interested in engaging with you- as opposed to toys or treats or other external stimulation.

Starting Your Training

Ideally, you should start training as soon as you bring your dog home. Dogs thrive on routine and predictability. If you implement good habits early, you’re setting the stage for future success.

All training requires boundaries and consistency. Training dogs are eager to please their owners. But they need some kind of incentive. And they need to know they can depend on that incentive consistently. Otherwise, they’ll lose interest or even act out.

Emotional support animals don’t need formal training. However, they should know basic commands including sit, stay, heel, drop it, leave, and come. They also must be well-behaved and appropriate in public settings. They should not lunge, growl, or otherwise attack people or other animals under any circumstances.

#1 Tip: Identify Your Essential Priorities

When first working with a psychiatric support dog, you need to identify your priorities. Do you want the dog to retrieve specific items like your medication or cell phone? Do you want your dog to provide deep pressure during a panic attack? Think about the most essential priorities first. You don’t want to overwhelm your dog with too many tasks. Most of these skills require advanced training that can take weeks or months to implement.

#2 Tip: Set Aside Time Daily and Frequently

Aim for structured training sessions in a controlled environment every day. These sessions should be no longer than 15-20 minutes at a time. Aim for 2-3 training sessions per day when teaching a new skill.

You may want to structure your training time before your dog’s typical mealtime. They tend to be more motivated to work when they know they’re getting a yummy treat! Subsequently, you want to make sure your dog isn’t restless- take him on a walk or have a tiring play session before you start the training.

#3 Tip: Always Implement Positive Reinforcement

All dogs need encouragement and praise during their training. Rather than correcting unwanted behavior, focus your efforts on making a huge deal when he does something you want. This often requires creating step-by-step tasks. Use high-value treats that you know your dog loves, and don’t overlook the influential power of positive praise.

Registering Your Emotional Support Animal Or Service Dog

You need a valid ESA letter to enjoy the benefits associated with your emotional support animal (housing privileges, etc.). Signing up is easy. Just fill out the intake form, schedule a video conference for consultation, and receive your letter!

Feel out the form to get an ESA letter here.

You don’t need to legally register a service dog. But there are benefits to it. For one, it establishes legitimacy. Additionally, most people don’t understand the laws, so registration eliminates potential awkward conversations. Through registering your service dog, you receive a legitimate doctor’s letter, identification card, harness, vest, and a listing in a national database. 

Final Thoughts

Dogs provide immense joy, meaning, and playfulness into our daily routines. With the right training, they can help boost your mental health and offer practical support in your usual functioning. Adopting may just save two lives- yours and your new friend’s.

Nicol Arzt

Nicol Arzt LMFT

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in substance use disorders, depression and anxiety, and complex trauma. A professional content writer, she is passionate about teaching through the written word and providing dynamic mental health advocacy. Nicole lives in Southern California with her husband and son.