Have you ever heard about someone getting an emotional support dog? Getting a dog for your child who has an eating disorder can be a great way to help them heal. Dogs provide unconditional love and affection. This can help your child during the healing process.
Eating disorder treatment includes professional care. Your child’s treatment team will support the development of a healthy self-image. Your child will learn self-care techniques and build self-worth. But even the best care team will tell parents that true healing takes place at home. This puts parents and siblings on the front line of care.
Getting a dog can help eating disorder recovery
This pressure can be a bit intimidating. It’s hard to provide the constant affection, reinforcement, and attention that will support eating disorder recovery. Luckily, there are four-legged-friends who would be happy to help you with in-home care for your child’s eating disorder.
Pets have been shown to support trauma recovery, reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and provide life purpose. Petting a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate and increase levels of endorphins and oxytocin.
We’re focusing on dogs, but of course, there are many options when it comes to pets. Dogs just happen to be easily available, trainable, and loyal. They can be a very good addition to your child’s eating disorder therapy. But, of course, getting a dog is not a simple decision.
Dogs as emotional support companions
There is significant evidence that demonstrates dogs are excellent emotional support companions. This is important in eating disorder recovery, because eating disorders are complicated emotional disorders, and they require a multi-pronged emotionally intelligent approach. While professional support and family support go a long way, a dog or other beloved pet may make all the difference in the moment-to-moment recovery moments.
A relationship with a dog can build a safe connection. This connection can cause a release of oxytocin, which positively impacts emotional security. Interaction with a dog can also lower cortisol (stress) levels. These combined actions make connecting with a dog deeply healing for a person who is in recovery from an eating disorder.
Listen to this Podcast for more about this: Oxytocin, dogs, & pets in General as attachment figures, Therapist Uncensored episode 95
Dogs offer companionship, reduce anxiety and loneliness, increase self-esteem, and improve overall mood.  Dogs have also been shown to increase the following behaviors, which reduce depression and anxiety:
- Physical activity
- Time spent outdoors
- Sense of agency and autonomy
Studies have even shown that a single 12-minute visit from a dog among hospitalized patients with advanced heart failure produced small but significant health improvement. 
Here are some ideas about how to go about getting a dog specifically to support your child’s healing process.
Before getting a dog during eating disorder recovery
Before you get a dog, you want to establish your goals. We’re going to assume the primary goal is to provide a loving companion for your child who has an eating disorder.
A dog will provide comfort and companionship. It can also help your child build a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy. To do this, your child should be responsible for your dog’s care. It’s important to ensure that your child is interested in getting a dog and is willing and committed to caring for it.
Deciding to get a dog is a family decision that will impact everyone. If someone in the family is allergic to or intolerant of dogs, then come up with another idea. Make it clear that if the family agrees to get a dog, there is no going back. Having a dog is a commitment for that dog’s life.
At a minimum, your child should commit to the following tasks:
- Maintaining a clean water bowl
- Feeding the dog 1-2 times per day
- Walking the dog at least twice per day
Feeding may be as simple as putting a cup of kibble in a bowl. But some dogs have digestive problems, which may require a special diet. In such cases, your child may need to prepare simple foods for the dog, such as boiled chicken and rice. You won’t know these details until you live with the dog, so it’s best to be prepared for all possibilities.
Additional dog care requirements
Your child will also need to clean up after the dog. this means daily poop-duty. There’s also the likelihood of random vomiting, diarrhea, and peeing-in-the-house accidents.
Grooming varies based on the type of dog you get. If the dog is going to be inside your home, you should require your child to bathe the dog every few weeks and brush it daily. These duties may increase if the dog is prone to shedding.
Some dogs develop barking or other bad habits that your child will need to address through research and training. Almost every negative habit can be addressed. But it will require your child to learn some new skills. This can actually be a great thing for a child who is in recovery for an eating disorder.
Create a care plan for the dog before you bring it home. Set this up as a contract between you and your child. Print out the care plan and have your child sign and date it to affirm the care they will provide the dog.
Picking a dog
You may be interested in a particular breed of dog. You may decide to find a designated emotional support dog (more on that later). A great alternative, however, is to adopt a rescue dog. Many children/teens respond very positively to the idea of rescuing a dog that has been abandoned.
While almost everyone thinks they want a puppy, the reality is that puppies require a great deal of care. This will not work well in a busy family with multiple commitments. Instead of a puppy, consider adopting a fully-grown 2-5 year old (or even older) dog.
Benefits of getting an older dog for eating disorder recovery:
- You avoid the puppy years, which, though adorable, are also very disruptive. Just like having a baby, having a puppy includes frequent bathroom accidents and hyperactivity. Puppies need training for basic skills like house training, walking on a leash, behaving well around other dogs and children, etc.
- You can observe the dog’s personality and behavior as it will be for most of its life. Puppies are bundles of energy. It’s only after they hit about two years old that they achieve the steady personality you can expect.
- You can observe whether your child has a connection with a particular dog’s personality. Dogs are just like people – they all have a unique personality. You want to find a dog that will fit into your child’s (and your) life.
- Chances are good that your child will leave home soon. Adopting an older dog means that your child gets the benefit of having an animal. But you aren’t left taking care of it for a decade after your child leaves home.
Other considerations when choosing a dog
In addition to the type and age of the dog you get, you should also take into consideration some other key concepts:
- Size: remember that puppies grow into full-sized dogs. If you live in a smaller home or apartment, take your dog’s size into account and consider whether they will (literally) fit into your life. If you travel frequently or move every few years, remember that it is generally easier to have smaller dogs. Larger dogs are more expensive to feed, travel with, and can be harder to board. Rental properties also often have size limits on dogs.
- Energy: different dogs have different energy requirements. Realistically consider how much time and energy your child can devote to exercising your dog, and choose accordingly. Older dogs generally need less exercise than younger ones, and smaller dogs generally need less exercise than larger ones. Dogs tend to get into trouble – such as digging through trash cans, barking all day, and chewing expensive furniture – when they are under-exercised.
- Intelligence: most people assume they want a very intelligent dog, but remember that most highly-intelligent dogs require mental stimulation in addition to physical exercise. Working dogs like Australian Shepherds and Border Collies may develop negative behaviors if they don’t get the stimulation they need to avoid boredom.
- Health: some purebreds have a tendency to develop certain health conditions. Whenever possible, become aware of the weaknesses of your breed before making your choice. Also be sure to check the credentials and breeding history of your breeder.
- Grooming: some dogs require specialized grooming and care. For example, Pugs, Maltese, ShiTzus, and others require regular grooming that can get expensive if you don’t learn to do it yourself.
- “Aggressive” breeds: there is quite a bit of bias against some of the dog breeds that are considered “aggressive.” These include Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and Dobermans. While these dogs can all be wonderful companions, you should know that it may be harder to board, groom, and get dog walkers and other caregivers for your pet. These breeds are also more likely to be prohibited in rental homes and apartments.
Top emotional support dog breeds
Most dogs are naturally adaptable and likely to bond well with your child. However, there are certain dog breeds that are particularly likely to provide the deep emotional connection that will support your child’s recovery from an eating disorder. The following ten dog breeds are commonly considered to be the best temperamental fits for emotional support:
- Labrador Retriever
- German Shepherd
- Yorkshire terrier
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Golden Retriever
Just a reminder on the point we previously made, many of these dog breeds are high-energy in the first 2-5 years and can actually add significant stress to your household.
Labrador Retrievers, for example, are wonderful dogs, but there are a lot of them in the shelters and adoption system due to their high-energy, sometimes destructive behavior in the first few years. This holds true for almost all of the dogs listed here and mixes, such as Goldendoodles and Labradoodles. They are wonderful dogs, but if you do choose a puppy, be prepared to invest significant time and energy in training and exercising them.
Once you have selected a dog, help your child bond with the dog by insisting upon the care plan. Try to avoid stepping in to take care of the dog.
Caring for the dog, even when it is inconvenient, is part of your child’s therapy plan. Caring for an animal provides a sense of ownership and agency. Your child will benefit from sticking to the care plan.
Support your child in building their bond with the dog. Support their interest in training ideas, grooming lessons, and even getting the dog certified to be a therapy dog. Doing this will mean the dog can visit sick people in the hospital or elder-care facilities.
Of course, if all your child wants to do it lie around petting the dog or taking selfies with the dog, that’s OK, too!
Emotional support dog information
All dogs of any breed and age are able to provide emotional support. You may have heard of emotional support dogs, also called emotional support animals (ESA), which are prescribed by a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist.
ESA dogs are not specially trained to respond to specific medical conditions. Therefore, they are not required to complete specialized training and are not allowed the same access as a licensed service dog.
The main benefit of getting an ESA is to circumvent certain housing and travel restrictions against pets. In other words, there’s nothing special about ESAs except that a therapist has provided a letter saying you need one.
How to get an emotional support animal (ESA)
- Get an official diagnosis from a licensed mental healthcare provider
- Request an emotional support animal (ESA) prescription. This is typically a letter from your provider that states you need an emotional support animal.
- Choose an animal. There is no official designation or training required.
- Keep the prescription/letter on-hand in housing and travel situations.
For information about dogs available for adoption, what to think about before adopting, and more, visit Petfinder.com
References Dhruv S. Kazi, Who Is Rescuing Whom? Dog Ownership and Cardiovascular Health, Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, Oct 2019  Cole KM, Gawlinski A, Steers N, Kotlerman J. Animal-assisted therapy in patients hospitalized with heart failure, American Journal of Critical Care, 2007
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.