Don’t Judge A Dog By Its Bark

An Open Letter

The misunderstanding between service dogs and emotional support dogs is not new, but it is now at the forefront of many animal lovers’ news feeds (like mine) as Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) become more popular. Whether this is because more people are recognizing how their animal benefits their mental health or because people are trying to screw the system, I don’t know. I’d like to think it’s the former. For me, though, I know I would not be as “okay” as I am if it weren’t for my dog, Belle.

Belle. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Pallat.

I adopted her from a local shelter when she was just 10 weeks old, with the intent of having her be my companion. As I began exhibiting more depressive symptoms, though, and I realized how much better I was when I was with Belle, I approached my therapist about making her my ESA officially.

Now, I know there are a lot of sites out there that claim to give you an ESA letter, and a lot of them are just sites to help people get around pet fees for housing. I’m not here to address that. I’m here to address the comments I see about ESAs, specifically dogs, on those social media posts.

Many of these comments revolve around the way an ESA should act in public. Many comments I have seen say that they can’t possibly understand how an excitable dog could make a good ESA; they think that would cause even more anxiety. I agree entirely that an ESA should be well behaved in public and at least have mastered basic obedience, but the only way to make sure the dog masters those skills is to train them.

For me, I was not going to give Belle up to someone else to be trained. First: the mere thought brought me close to tears. Second: I needed to create and establish her commands, I needed to know how to correct behavior, I needed to know what the behavior should (and should not) look like. Third: I needed the training too.

Training Belle has been one of the most rewarding experiences for me. I not only know how to correct her behavior when it needs corrected, but it also built up my confidence in knowing I could do it. After each training session, I feel like I have accomplished something. It has also enhanced our relationship, making her more attuned to me, and me to her.

That isn’t to say either of us is perfect because we aren’t. I don’t always correct her behavior correctly. I don’t always praise her the way I should, and sometimes I give too much praise when I shouldn’t. I sometimes chuckle at a behavior that, while humorous in the moment is not what she is supposed to do — like laying down when she should sit.

She likes tennis balls toomuch. But that is why we are still training.

She likes to “say hi” — she will bark and jump to accomplish this. Her barking at people in excitement is often mistaken for aggression. I know it’s not — no hackles are raised, no teeth barring, wagging tail — but others don’t always know it’s not aggressive. But that is why we are still training.

But how can I possibly train her if I do not expose her to the various environments she is bound to be in? Anyone can get overwhelmed and curious in a new environment, and my dog is no different. In fact, she gets more excited because she can smell and hear things I can’t. If I don’t expose her to that environment and teach her to reign in her excitement, she won’t learn. And neither will I. In fact, her excitable moments don’t cause me any anxiety. They actually provide me focus and help me transfer my anxious energy to something more important: her.

Just because she still has training to do and has her overly excitable moments does not mean she’s not an ESA. Since ESAs do not have to have specific training requirements, the “service” they provide their owner — such as companionship — is dependent on the owner.

Photo courtesy of Alexandria Pallat.

Belle is my ESA because training her has helped me release anxious energy into an accomplishment.

Belle is my ESA because when my anxiety turns to severe frustration, she reminds me to calm down by giving my cheek a little lick.

Belle is my ESA because when that anxiety induced frustration sets in, she reminds me of healthier ways to release it — like taking her on a long walk.

Belle is my ESA because her need to get fresh air makes sure I get fresh air too, which can significantly affect my mental state.

Belle is my ESA because she does love to meet new people and new dogs, and, even if she gets a little too excited, it means I get out of my shell a bit. (And we get to flex that training muscle.)

Belle is my ESA because she always just seems to know when I’m in an episode and will sit right near me, just exuding love.

Belle is my ESA because just being around her makes me smile.

My point is this: it is not your job, as a stranger, to determine if someone’s dog is aggressive. It is not your job to determine if someone’s ESA is an “appropriate” ESA. That is between that individual and their mental health professional. And they don’t owe you an explanation.

So, don’t judge someone or their dog. You don’t know either of their stories.