Clicker training with your emotional support dog

How to Clicker Train Your ESA Dog

Dogs are more than a man's best friend. Dogs, along with other breeds of animals, has been working in the front line, providing emotional support as well as being the watchers and protectors of their human companions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness across America. Although they've received love and care from their human companions, emotional support dogs and other animals have been paying it forward, dedicating their lives in the best way they know-how. So, cut your dog some slack, if you notice their lazy behaviors from time to time, they deserve it!

Providing your emotional support dog with the best training will allow them to become their best selves as they provide support to someone with possible PTSD. Although emotional support animals are not required by law to have formal training, unlike service animals, providing positive reinforcement conditioning like clicker training can enhance the communication and interactions between the animal and their companion.

Before we dive into the effectiveness of clicker training, it's essential to understand the role of the emotional support animal (ESA). By understanding their purpose, it will become quite clear as to why training is necessary and often times vital as they complete their missions.

What are emotional support animals?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) refer to dogs and other pets that provide daily emotional support and comfort to their owners. Emotional support animals (ESAs) legally must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional like a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) help adults and children who suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobias, or other mental illness where medication alone will not help. It's important to note that animals as lovable pets have been known to provide such comforts without being labeled as an ESA. However, there is a specific process that a pet in transition must go through to hold the ESA title.

Emotional support dogs have a unique way of calming people down. Whether your dog can instinctively pick up on your needs or may require a little training, this type of support is a more natural step in healing for those who may otherwise suffer in silence.

Like some jobs, being an emotional support animal (ESA) has its advantages. They are granted specific housing and air-travel accommodations by law.

  • They are protected by the Fair Housing Act, meaning they can live in a non-pet-friendly home.
  • They are protected by the Air Carrier Access Act, meaning they can accompany their owners in the cabin of an aircraft during flights.

These accommodations may seem fair for dogs, cats, or birds. However, keep in mind, an ESA can include a pig or rat, which may turn a few heads in public — especially if you must sit near one on a flight.

Unfortunately, unlike service dogs, emotional support animals (ESAs) are not granted access to businesses like restaurants or malls.

Why do emotional support animals need to be trained?

Emotional support animals are not required to have any official training, although owners should make sure they're well-trained while in public. You could imagine why due to all of the public exposure, as an ESA will be permitted by law to co-mingle in places, animals typically would not be allowed. Also, you can't control the behaviors of the surrounding population.

Ensuring you have trusted control and communication is essential, even if the law says it's not required. Besides, who would want anything to happen to the poor chap in a compromising situation, right?

What is Clicker training?

How to clicker train your emotional support dog

Clicker training is an effective and more natural way to communicate with your emotional support animals and other pets alike. Clicker training is a training method based on behavioral psychology that uses positive conditional reinforcement to create desirable behavior.

Clicker training stems from marker training, which uses a verbal cue, that will produce the desired behavior in turn for a treat. The verbal cues from maker training are replaced by a clicker device that imitates a clicking sound. The clicker is a way to mark a moment. When an emotional support dog unknowingly performs their owner's desired behavior, they will hear a click, then followed by a treat (positive reinforcement). Over time, the lovable pup will learn to associate the click sound with the desired behavior and reward. The clicker is used as a conditioned reinforcer, a cue that something good is coming.

Why is Clicker training better for the emotional support dog and owner?

The science behind clicker training was first pioneered by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1960s. B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist, who developed the theory of operant conditioning -- the idea that behavior is determined by its consequences, whether they be reinforcements or punishments, which make it more or less likely that the response will occur again.

Karen Pryor, American author and former Marine Mammal Commissioner to the U.S. government, specialized in behavioral psychology and marine mammal biology. She is a founder and proponent of clicker training through the foundational theory of B.F Skinner.

Clicker training focuses on positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement, which is more than likely to occur during the traditional animal training. Traditional animal training involved a mixture of both rewards and punishment. Clicker training concentrates on the expectation of something enjoyable (like a treat) after doing something right rather than expecting pain or discomfort from doing something wrong.

Engaging in Clicker training for your emotional support dog.

1. Loading or charging the clicker.

Before you begin the actual clicker training, you must first "charge the clicker." You may be saying to yourself, "Wait, what? Do I plug the clicker into a wall?" Essentially, it means to help your pet understand and identify the purpose of the clicker.

To begin, go into a quiet room with your emotional support dog, the clicker, and a bowl of treats. Simply click and give a treat. Repeat at least 20 repetitions of clicking and treating in one sitting, making sure to place emphasis on giving the treat, only after the dog hears the click. Wait for a few hours before going through another 20-rep round.

By practicing "loading the clicker," it will allow the lovable friend to expect a reward or that "something good" will occur. Once your emotional support dog shows signs of excitement after hearing the click, you're ready to proceed with the clicker training.

Here are some rules to follow while you're loading the clicker:

  • Don't ask your dog to perform tricks during this phase
  • Be sure to get your dog's attention by sounds except for calling him by his name
  • Show your dog the clicker without body movements or gestures.
  • Click only once, not multiple clicks when marking moments.
2. Begin shape clicker training.

Shape training is teaching your emotional support dog how to do the desired behaviors in gradual steps using a marker (i.e., clicker). It's great if your dog has a natural instinct at picking up your desired behaviors. However, if you're like most dog owners, you will need to gradually get your companion to do certain behaviors. Nevertheless, shaping will exercise your animal's brain, pushing them further into more complex desires.

For example, if you're teaching your dog the command "come," be sure to use the clicker, as your dog takes a few steps in the right direction. As your dog gets more comfortable with the command, "come," withhold from clicking until he gets closer to your desired destination. You can then add complexity by having your dog "come," then "sit" to further the training.

Here are some other behaviors that can be taught through clicker training:

  • High fives (holding up one paw)
  • Dancing (sitting up on hind legs)
  • Turning in a circle
  • Fetch
  • Rollover
  • Play dead
  • Bark on command

Practicing shaping during your clicker trainer will get your dog the proper temperance needed as it provides the emotional support required while in public.

3. Take your training outside
Clicker training your esa dog outside

Now that your dog has practiced their clicker training, its time to put it to the test in new conditions.

Here are some new conditions you can introduce in your training:

  • Introducing new locations outside, like the backyard or a dog park where it is still safe for bystanders.
  • Add slightly more distractions into the environment so your dog can differentiate the sound of the clicker vs. other sounds.
  • Introduce luring and capturing when needed to reinforce the desired behavior. Luring is when you use food to steer the dog into the desired behavior. Capturing is when you teach your dog to perform a natural response on cue. Both can be considered progress training when intertwined with shaping.

Where do you go from here?

As you train your emotional support animal (ESA), remember to keep it simple and consistent. Clicker training will allow you to communicate with your ESA, where you can both share a better connection of understanding. Mixed with love and tender care, your emotional support animal will be mentally armed to operate in the best capacity possible.