June 11, 2018

Companion Animals: Pet, Emotional Support and Service Dogs Explained

Written by Rachel Eddins

young woman with service dog emotional support

There is a reason you call dogs man’s best friend.

Their companionship can help us become calmer, happier people. Some research (and plenty of anecdotal evidence) suggests that companion animals greatly improve our mental and physical health.

Formally trained therapy dogs, registered emotional service animals, personal pets, and even other people’s dogs also provide the same benefits. Let’s take a look at the different types of companion animals and the positive impact they can have on a person’s life and mental health.

Service Dogs

People typically associate service dogs with assisting the physically handicapped. People who are blind or have mobility issues often benefit from a service dog that can help them with everyday tasks.

Service dogs also exist for people dealing with psychiatric disorders.

A service dog can be trained to assist people with severe anxiety find exits during an attack, or to interrupt someone with obsessive compulsive disorder when they begin doing something harmful (such as picking at their skin).

Service dogs are not pets but instead working dogs and protected under the American with Disabilities Act. People with specific needs caused by their mental disorder can use this highly specialized option.

Emotional Service Animals

These are sometimes referred to as “therapy dogs” but do not meet the standards of the American with Disabilities Act. Emotional service animals, or ESAs, are there to provide emotional support and comfort for one designated person as outlined in an official letter from a licensed mental health provider.

The term has received a bad reputation as people try to take advantage of the benefits of having an ESA. For example, getting to fly the pet in the cabin of an airplane rather than in cargo.

However, when properly designated and respected, ESAs can help people with anxiety or other mental disorders do things (like travel) that they would otherwise not be emotionally capable of handling.


Dogs don’t need an official designation to be helpful. Clinical Psychiatry News reports that pets provide “outlets for empathy, connection, self-efficacy, and support for adults with serious illness.”

While those benefits could be increased with ESA or service dogs, physical and mental benefits are still plentiful for companion animals of all breeds and species. With dogs specifically, one of the contributing factors is that pets facilitate social interactions.

For example, taking your four-legged friend on a walk through your neighborhood or to the dog park for playtime. These social interactions combat isolation that many people feel.

Strangers’ Dogs

Some people are simply not in the position to have a service animal, ESA or pet. That doesn’t mean they have to miss out completely on the benefits of animal companionship.

Spending time with pets owned by friends or families can provide smaller doses of relaxation and brighten your day. Dog lovers might also consider becoming a paid dog sitter or walker.

It can become a source of income, as well as provide physical activity and mental relaxation. Volunteering for a rescue or shelter can also provide access to animals without the responsibilities of caring for them daily.

The connection between humans and dogs runs deep. Most dog lovers understand this innately, but more and more research points to tangible proof that their existence in our worlds makes us happier and keeps us alive longer.

Regardless of what type of mental disorder or condition you have, there are likely companion animals out there who want to be by your side to help you through it.

Next Steps

If you would like to learn more about how counseling can help you visit our services page. You can also call us at 832-559-2622 or book an appointment online.

Blog Categories

Join a Therapy Group