Do Emotional Support & Therapy Dogs Help With Mental Health?

Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD
By Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, PhD
Updated: 5/9/20242-4 minutes
woman sitting in the grass with a dog laying back on her lap

Yes, emotional support and therapy dogs can help with mental health. It’s important to understand the differences among emotional support animals (ESAs), therapy dogs and even service dogs.

They all serve different purposes and benefit people’s mental health in different ways. Some are also protected by law.

How Emotional Support & Therapy Dogs Can Help Improve Mental Health

The benefits of emotional support dogs are wide-ranging. Studies have shown petting a dog can increase oxytocin, which can result in feelings of calm and contentment. These interactions may also help decrease cortisol levels in people, which can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

Additional benefits of ESAs include:

  • Alleviating loneliness
  • Enhancing social engagement and interaction
  • Normalizing heart rate and blood pressure
  • Reducing pain
  • Reducing depression
  • Increasing pleasure

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has stated that “Emotional support animals, by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions and affected by stress.”

Owning a dog can also give people with depression or anxiety a sense of purpose they might otherwise struggle to find. Of course, pet ownership also comes with a lot of responsibility, so it’s not right for every person and every situation.

People who are unable to care for a pet can still reap the benefits of therapy dogs, who may work in therapist’s offices, healthcare facilities and more.

Therapy dogs differ from ESAs and service dogs. Understanding the differences among the three can help you decide which option is best for your situation.

Emotional Support Animals vs. Therapy Dogs vs. Service Dogs

Although all dogs can have a positive impact on a person’s mental health, there are key differences among pet ownership, ESAs, therapy dogs and service dogs.

Understanding those differences can help you determine which type of support animal could provide you with the most benefits. You’ll also have a better understanding of your rights by law.

Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support animals (ESAs) include any type of domesticated pet; however, dogs and cats are the most common.

Beyond standard obedience training, emotional support dogs don’t need any special training or certifications.

Emotional support animals are also protected under the Fair Housing Act. This means you and your pet can live in housing that might otherwise be “pet free.” You do need to provide a letter from a mental health professional proving your need for an ESA.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs (and other animals) are used in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, following natural disasters and other circumstances. Unlike service dogs, which are trained to perform specific tasks and should not be petted or otherwise distracted, therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort and can be petted or hugged, and small breed dogs and cats can be held.

Service Dogs

Service animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.”

Emotional support and therapy dogs are not covered under the ADA, so their owners do not have the same legal protection as owners of service dogs.

What Breeds Make the Best Emotional Support & Therapy Dogs?

Many service dogs are larger, easy-to-train, eager-to-please breeds like Golden Retrievers or Labradors. Those breeds also make great emotional support and therapy dogs.

That doesn’t mean other breeds can’t also provide humans with emotional support, though. Some small breeds may be better suited for apartment living than a large breed. What’s most important is how the dog interacts with and responds to his owner and has the right temperament for the job.

Although emotional support dogs and therapy dogs don’t have the same legal protections as service dogs, they still offer many benefits to humans. If you are interested in getting an emotional support dog or want to designate your current pet as an ESA, talk with a doctor or therapist to ensure you have proper documentation going forward.

To learn more about the benefits of dog ownership, visit our Pet Expertise page.

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