7 qualities of the best ESA dog breeds and how to choose

9 November 2023 - 6 min read

Life can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and during the low points, our four-legged companions often become our emotional bedrock.

Today, we're diving deep into the world of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)—specifically dogs—and we'll be spotlighting everything from Golden Retrievers to lovable mixed breeds from your local shelter.

What is an ESA dog?

Before we roll into our list of the best breeds for emotional support dogs, let’s clarify what an ESA dog actually is. The terms "therapy dog," "emotional support animal (ESA)," and "service dog" are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct classifications with their own roles, training requirements, and legal protections.

In essence, an Emotional Support Animal provides therapeutic emotional support to individuals with disabilities.

Unlike service dogs, ESA's don't require specialised training to perform specific tasks. Of course, they'll still need to be well trained, or they'll cause you more stress than comfort.

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Qualities of a good ESA dog

Choosing the right breed for your ESA can be a bit overwhelming. There are so many dog breeds to choose from!

So what makes a dog better suited for offering emotional support?

1. Calm demeanor

A good ESA dog should be calm and not easily agitated. This calmness often rubs off on their human counterparts, helping to alleviate symptoms of anxiety or depression.

2. Social and friendly

Your ESA dog should be amiable, not just to you but to others as well. A social dog can often help you open up more and may also serve to reduce anxiety in social situations.

3. Trainable

Being easily trainable is a great quality in any dog, but particularly for an ESA, who will need to behave well in a variety of settings, including public places.

4. Intuitive to emotional needs

Some dogs seem to have a sixth sense about human emotions. These canines can detect when you're feeling down, anxious, or uneasy and will react by offering comfort, often without any cue from you.

5. Non-aggressive

An ESA dog should not show signs of aggression. Aggression not only poses a risk to others but can also add to your stress and anxiety levels.

6. Affectionate but not overly clingy

Affection is important, but an ESA dog that's too clingy may become a source of stress rather than a form of support. A good balance is key.

7. Adaptable

Life is full of surprises, and your ESA dog should be able to adapt to different environments and situations without becoming anxious or stressed themselves.

You can find all of these qualities in a mixed-breed or shelter dog, more on that below, but if you're hunting for a particular breed, there are a few that stand out naturally as good canine-didates for being ESAs.

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Standout ESA dog breeds

Remember, the breeds listed here are just a starting point, and individual temperaments can vary. Make sure you're sourcing your purebred dog from a reputable breeder if that's the route you want to take. Traits like trainability and aggression have been shown to be passed down genetically.

It's also worth noting that each breed has its own specific exercise and grooming needs, which could align well, or not so well, with your own lifestyle.Consult with a mental health professional and your vet for more tailored advice.

1. Golden Retrievers

Golden Retrievers often set the gold standard for emotional support, and it's easy to see why. These friendly canines are exceptionally trainable, making them well-suited for any household.

Their exceptional knack for reading emotions makes them stand out. Naturally attuned to your feelings, they act as a calming presence, especially when you're dealing with emotional highs and lows. Count on their unwavering loyalty to be a stabilising influence during challenging moments.

2. Cavalier King Charles spaniels

If you're in the market for a comfort companion that fits perfectly on your lap, look no further than the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. These dogs are practically built for cuddling; their compact size and soft, silky coats make them perfect for cosy moments on the couch.

In addition to their loving nature, they're also relatively easy to train and get along well with other pets and people, offering a harmonious addition to your home as a superb emotional support animal.

3. Labrador Retrievers

As quintessential working dogs, Labradors are not only dependable but also full of energy that demands regular exercise. This can actually be a boon for you, serving as a motivational nudge to get moving.

Whether it’s a spirited game of fetch or a rejuvenating walk in the park, this shared activity is a proven mood booster for both of you. With their natural empathy, Labradors have a knack for tuning into their owner’s emotional state, making them not just excellent working dogs but also exceptional companions for emotional support.

4. Shih Tzus

Despite their name translating to "lion dog," Shih Tzus are more cuddly cubs than fierce predators.

Far from being aloof due to their royal Chinese origins, these dogs are grounded and relish spending time with their human families. Their love for attention makes them particularly comforting companions when you're navigating emotional ups and downs.

5. Cocker Spaniels

What makes the Cocker Spaniel one of the best emotional support dog breeds for anxiety? For starters, owners say they can often sense when you're feeling down or anxious and will go out of their way to provide comfort, often by nuzzling or hopping onto your lap for a cuddle session.

Their smaller size also makes them perfect for living in a flat or for those who can't handle a larger dog's needs for space and exercise. That said, don't let their size fool you; they still enjoy a good play session and regular walks to keep them healthy and happy.

6. Bichon Frises

The Bichon Frise, a fluffy white cloud on four legs, brings a cheerful demeanour that's infectious. These sociable pups have an eagerness to please, making them excellent emotional support animals.

Their playful antics can be a great mood lifter, serving as a playful distraction when you're going through a tough time. And let's face it, it's pretty hard to be sad when you're looking into those button eyes.

7. Papillons

Don't underestimate this petite pooch. Papillons may be small, but they have huge hearts and even bigger personalities. These intelligent little canines form close bonds with their owners, making them excellent emotional support companions.

Their alert and responsive nature offers significant comfort, particularly when you're grappling with anxiety or depression. Just ensure you train them well to keep their alert barks from becoming a source of stress.

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Can shelter dogs make good ESAs?

Adopting a shelter dog offers numerous advantages. For starters, you give a forever home to a dog in need. Shelter dogs often excel at providing emotional support, and their love can be a lifeline during challenging times. Many adult dogs in shelters are already trained, easing their transition into your life as support companions.

Plus, many shelters offer a "trial period" to make sure the fit is right—take this opportunity to focus on essential training to set your new friend up for success. Another advantage is the variety of breeds available at a shelter; you’re more likely to find a dog with the specific traits that suit your needs for emotional support.

Wrapping it up

If you're contemplating an Emotional Support Animal, you're on a promising path toward enhanced emotional well-being.

Whether you're inclined toward a specific breed known for its therapeutic attributes or considering adopting a lovable mixed-breed from a shelter, you have a wealth of wonderful options. And remember, it's always a good idea to consult with mental health professionals or veterinarians for advice that's customised to your situation.

As you take this meaningful step, it's important to consider the long-term health of your future four-legged companion. This is where a great dog insurance policy comes in. Buying pet insurance is not just about avoiding unexpected veterinary expenses. It's a proactive way to plan for a lasting, fulfilling partnership with your ESA.

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Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.