Mental and emotional disorders are commonly overlooked in children. One in eight children, for example, suffers from anxiety according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, yet only a fraction of those cases are even diagnosed, let alone properly treated.
This can lead the child to experience difficulty socializing and adapting to the world in which they live. In turn, this can lead to avoidance and other problems with their learning and growth and, ultimately, the possible development of additional and potentially far more serious psychological and emotional problems. Fortunately for those children in whom such an issue is actually detected, much can be done to help that child adapt and live a full and happy life. One such measure is to get the child an emotional support dog.
More and more people are becoming aware of the value of emotional support dogs for adults, but fewer people are aware that children can qualify for and benefit from emotional support dogs as well. The same laws that give adults with mental or emotional disabilities the right to have emotional support dogs—namely the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Air Carrier Access ACT (ACAA)-all apply to children as well.
Benefits of Emotional Support Dogs for Children
Children are eligible for any type of emotional support animal, but dogs may well make the best emotional support animals for children. Dogs are endlessly loyal, friendly, loving, affectionate and eager to please.
As suggested above, an emotional support dog can help a child to engage fully with life without his or her mental or emotional disability impeding on that. This, in turn, can support that child in learning, growing and developing optimally in a safe and healthy manner where he or she might otherwise be encumbered by the disability from doing so.
One of the best advantages of emotional support dogs for children is that they can help prevent or limit the need for the child to take medications to alleviate symptoms or keep them at bay.
Emotional support dogs have been found beneficial for children with diagnosed anxiety, depression and social disorders. In addition, children with autism have been found to bond closely with their emotional support animal, which then has helped them to develop improved social skills outside of that relationship. In a Journal of Pediatric Nursing study, almost two-thirds of parents of autistic children surveyed said their family owned a dog. Of these parents, 94% said their autistic child bonded closely with the dog. Among the parents of autistic children who reported not having a dog in their families, seven of 10 nonetheless said their autistic child liked dogs. In addition, the study revealed that autistic children who grew up from a young age with a dog in the household tended to have better social skills than those who did not.
The Different Types of Service and Support Dogs
Before getting an emotional support dog for your child, be sure that it is indeed the right type of dog for your child’s needs. Besides emotional support dogs, therapy dogs and psychiatric service dogs are also options available for children with mental or emotional needs. Which type of dog is most appropriate for a given child depends on that child’s needs.
All three types of service and support dogs are considered medical tools, as distinct from pets, and as such are afforded certain rights not afforded to pets. The rights afforded to each type of service or support dog, however, vary, as do the uses or purposes and duties or expectations of each one.
Emotional support dogs are intended for children with a mental or emotional disability. They are not to trained to perform any specific tasks or duties, but rather serve their function through their companionship and affection. Their presence, in essence, is intended to help keep a child calm, grounded and loved enough to deal better with situations normally made more difficult due to the child’s mental or emotional disability. The rights of emotional support dogs extend to air travel and housing exclusively and are described in greater detail in the next section below.
Psychiatric service dogs, by contrast, are a type of service dog, and therefore have the same rights afforded to all service dogs, namely to enter or access any and all places open to the public. That includes airplanes and no-pet housing as well as hospitals, office buildings, schools, public transportation, theaters and stadiums. They are trained to perform specific tasks for children with a severe psychiatric disability. For example, a psychiatric service dog might be trained to recognize when a child is having a panic attack and lie down over the child to provide pressure therapy. Or a psychiatric service dog might be trained to protect a child and alert others nearby when the child is having a seizure. If a child has a condition requiring regular medication, whether on a set schedule or when symptoms are triggered, a psychiatric service dog might be required to provide medication reminders whenever needed no matter where the child happens to be at the time, at home or in public.
Therapy dogs are intended to provide comfort to children in medical need. Unlike an emotional support dog, a therapy dog is trained to recognize when a child is experiencing a symptom of his or her disability and in need of comfort. Unlike a psychiatric service dog, a therapy dog is not trained to perform any specific tasks or duties for the child other than to remain close and provide comfort and affection, in particular upon sensing the child in mental or emotional need, such as experiencing anxiety. Therapy dogs may not serve a single child but rather work with one or more handlers who brings them to one of more facilities where they provide comfort to multiple children. Therapy dogs have the same rights as emotional support dog as well as being allowed in facilities where health care is conducted, such as hospitals and hospice, as well as certain non-profit or government facilities attending to a child’s other basic needs, such as a school.
Ultimately, a doctor will know best which type of service or support dog is most appropriate for a given child.
What Children With Emotional Support Dogs Can & Can’t Do
Children with emotional support dogs have certain rights that other children, and people in general, without emotional support dogs don’t have. These rights are extremely limited, however.
Specifically, a child with an emotional support dog can bring that dog onto an airplane with him or her, even if that plane normally doesn’t allow dogs. There are exceptions to this permission, such as flights lasting longer than 8 hours uninterrupted or flights to certain foreign countries. If a flight normally does allow dogs on board in cabin but charges a pet fee, that fee is waived for a child’s emotional support dog.
A child with an emotional support dog also has the right to live with that dog in housing that normally doesn’t allow dogs. And, again, if a landlord normally charges a fee or deposit for tenants with pets, that fee and/or deposit is waived for a child’s emotional support dog.
Beyond those rights, a child with an emotional support dog must obey the same laws, rules and regulations imposed on children with pet dogs. Unlike children with therapy dogs or psychiatric service dogs, children with emotional support dogs do not have the right to bring them into any other public place where dogs are normally prohibited. In order, for example, for a child to enter a movie theater, library, hospital or public bus with a dog, that dog must be a therapy dog or a psychiatric service dog and not an emotional support dog.
Best Emotional Support Dogs for Children
While any dog can be an emotional support dog, certain dogs make better ones than others. Moreover, since certain breeds of dogs are better or worse with children in particular, certain dogs make better emotional support dogs than others specifically for children.
An emotional support dog must not be too young to be calm and still when needed or too old to keep up with the child. It must not have medical needs of its own that the child would have to be aware of, compensate for or attend to throughout the day, and it must not becoming overprotective of the child to the point of behaving aggressively toward other children, adults or animals.
In terms of a dog’s size, both large and small dogs can make suitable emotional support dogs for children, with some key considerations. Large dogs can be particularly great emotional support dogs because they provide a sense of confidence and safety, offer more full-body cuddling and can withstand the incessant petting, prodding, pulling and pushing of a child without becoming injured or upset. They must be well-trained and obedient enough, however, for a child to keep it fully under his or her control.
Best Breeds of Emotional Support Dogs for Children
With the above criteria in mind, the following are some of the best breeds of dogs to have as emotional support dogs for children:
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Bull Terrier
- Golden or Labrador Retriever
- Great Dane
- Old English Sheepdog
- Pitt Bull
Mixed breed dogs (or “mutts”) can also make excellent emotional support dogs for children. The only hitch is that you won’t be as easily able to predict the dog’s traits and demeanors to determine how good of an emotional support dog it may be, whether for a particular child, for children in general or even for adults.
Above all, consider the child’s own preferences and idiosyncrasies when selecting a dog to be the child’s emotional support dog. The child must like the dog, of course, first and foremost. Also be aware, however, of factors the child might not be so quick to notice. For example, a particularly sensitive child may have trouble around a particularly active or excitable dog or one that barks frequently.
How to Get an Emotional Support Dog for a Child
Getting an emotional support dog for a child is the same as getting one for an adult. The child needs to be diagnosed with a mental or emotional disability or disorder found in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) The doctor making that diagnosis or another doctor or Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP) licensed to practice in the state where the child lives must then write an emotional support animal letter (ESA letter) stating the following key points:
- That the child has a diagnosed mental or emotional disorder or disability as found in the DSM-5
- That this disability or disorder impairs the child’s ability to perform certain everyday life functions
- That an emotional support dog may be an effective medical tool for relieving some of these symptoms enough to remove some or all of the life impediments they cause
The letter need not reveal the exact diagnosis the child has or the symptoms and life impediments an emotional support dog may help alleviate in him or her. It also need not identify a specific dog as your child’s emotional support dog.
This way, your child can use the same ESA letter, even if he or she changes emotional support dogs, or has more than one, each for different purposes. An ESA letter must, however be signed within one year of the date of its intended use to be valid in many cases, such as to fly with an emotional support dog on a plane at no extra charge.
Note that some services that link people with doctors to obtain an ESA letter will not serve anyone under 18 years of age. This does not mean that a person under that age is ineligible for an ESA letter. It just means that young person must get it somewhere else, ideally from his or her own doctor.