Emotional Support, Therapy, and Service Animals: What’s the difference?

As a trainer, I get a fair number of calls from people who want to turn their pets into “therapy or service dogs,” or they want me to train their dog to be “certified as an emotional support dog.” While these are admirable goals, they are at times unrealistic and the problem starts with not understanding the terms and how they are recognized in the law. So let’s start with definitions:

1. Service dogs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network Publication Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals:

A service animal means 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.

Examples of animals that fit the ADA’s definition of “service animal” because they have been specifically trained to perform a task for the person with a disability are: Guide Dogs for the blind, Hearing or Signal Dogs for deaf individuals, Psychiatric Service Dogs*, and SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) dogs who are trained to assist a person with autism, and Seizure Response Dogs. These dogs are carefully selected and recieve years of training before they are paired with a particular individual.

The ADA guarantees people with disabilities who use service dogs equal access to public places such as restaurants, hospitals, hotels, theaters, shops, and government buildings. This means that these places must allow service dogs, and the ADA requires them to modify their practices to accommodate the dogs, if necessary. (www.nolo.com)

2. Therapy dogs.** Whereas Service dogs provide a particular service to a particular individual, therapy animals “provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.” (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals).  These are dogs that visit at nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, etc. Since they are not limited to working specifically with persons with disabilities, they are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals, and therefore:

are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals)

Therapy dogs have extensive training and can be certified for volunteer work by Therapy Dogs International or Pet Partners.

3. Emotional Support Animals. Also known as Comfort Animals, Emotional Support Animals may be part of a medical plan to help a person manage depression, anxiety, phobias, loneliness, or to provide companionship. The owner must have a verifiable disability and a letter from a qualified medical professional stating the need for an ESA. To qualify as an ESA, dogs do not need specific working skills, and, like therapy dogs, they are not considered Service Dogs under the ADA: 

It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

The most frequent questions I get about Emotional Support Dogs concern housing and travel. According to the Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center landlords need to make “reasonable accommodations” for Emotional Support Animals if the following conditions are met (emphasis mine):

An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHAct, 42 U.S.C.A. 3601 et seq.). The assistance animal is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is the agency that oversees the FHAct and investigates claims of housing discrimination.

There are only two questions that HUD says a housing provider should consider with a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation:

(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?

(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal…provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?

(FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01 at page 2). A “no” answer to either of the questions means that a housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation according to HUD… If the answer is “yes” to both, then HUD states the FHA requires an exception to a “no pets” rule. The emotional support animal must alleviate, or help, some symptom(s) of the disability.

The second question: “Where can I take my Emotional Support Animal?” is a bit trickier. Are they allowed admittance to stores, restaurants, airlines, etc? Since these dogs are not recognized by the ADA as service dogs, they may not be allowed to accompany their owner in public places. Since public access laws can vary according to state it is best to check with your local government about the pertinent regulations.

For airline travel the ADA’s rules for accommodating service dogs does not apply on airlines. But, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) “prohibits airlines from discriminating against travelers with physical or mental impairments.” However, with Emotional Support animals, airlines may require “a recent, signed certification from a licensed mental health professional that the passenger:

  • 1) has a recognized mental or emotional disability
  • 2) needs the animal’s help in order to travel, and
  • 3) is a patient under the professional’s care.”  (www.nolo.com


given the relatively lax standards for emotional support animals, travelers are increasingly using this designation to skirt the cost and restrictions on flying with pets. This has led to more conflicts on flights, from attacks on other passengers or trained service animals to excessive barking. When Delta Air Lines announced in 2018 that it was tightening requirements for emotional support and psychiatric service animals onboard, the company said that “incidents” with these animals (like biting or defecating on the planes) had nearly doubled in the previous two years. (www.nolo.com)

Dogs are wonderful companions and their ability to provide services, support, and comfort seems limitless. The access that Service Dogs must have to public buildings and services is essential to providing an independent life for people with disabilities. Therapy Dogs brighten the lives of many, and Emotional Support Dogs help to ease anxiety or depression. Knowing how your dog fits into the scheme of service, therapy, or emotional support dogs, and what that means as far as public access goes, will help to keep all of these dogs doing what they need to do.


* A “Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.” Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

**Your Family Dog podcast did an interview with therapy dog handler Mary Graham. If you are interested in therapy dog work, check it out: Therapy Dogs’ Work Brings Joy



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