Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals: What’s the Difference?

Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals: What’s the Difference?

Thinking about registering your dog as an emotional support animal? Here’s what you need to know about the differences between service dogs and ESAs.

The terms “service dog” and “emotional support animal” are sometimes used interchangeably, and this is incorrect. If you are looking into service animal registration, or you just want to better understand the responsibilities and privileges of these categories of pets, here’s what you need to know.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional Support Animals, sometimes called ESAs or therapy animals, are very different from service dogs and have different rights and privileges under the law. The benefits afforded to emotional support animals are not as extensive as those afforded to service dogs.

Emotional support animals are animals that provide support and companionship to their owner. They can be established with a letter from a therapist or doctor, and there is no specific training required for a therapy animal. An apartment can’t prevent a resident from having an ESA or charge them a pet deposit for that animal, but airlines are not required to make accommodations for them, nor are they necessarily allowed in public spaces like malls.

Prescribed by a Doctor

An emotional support animal can be any species of animal – a dog, cat, rabbit, or bird – that is prescribed as part of treatment for a mental health issue. This prescription can be made by a therapist, psychologist, or another type of doctor. The pets can be of any age or breed, as long as a doctor has decided the animal will be beneficial for the patient’s mental stability. These prescriptions, sometimes called ESA letters, are easy to get and can even be obtained online.

It’s important to differentiate between an ESA and a psychiatric service dog, which has undergone extensive training to support a person whose disability is a result of a mental illness. The primary difference is the training, which is not required for an ESA.

ESA's Support Their Owner with Comfort and Companionship

The primary role of an emotional support animal is to provide comfort and companionship to its owner. This doesn’t require any special training – in fact, most people would argue that all pets do this. In the case of an ESA, a licensed doctor has decreed that the pet’s support and companionship are vital to the patient’s mental wellness.

No Specific Training Required

This is the key difference between emotional support animals and service dogs. To qualify as a true service dog and get the benefits afforded to these animals, a pet must be very well-trained. ESAs, on the other hand, require no training at all. A doctor simply has to indicate that the animal’s mere presence supports a person’s mental health for the animal to be considered an ESA.

Protected Under the Fair Housing Act

Emotional support animals are not subject to pet bans, limitations, or deposits outlined by property managers. This violates the Fair Housing Act, which includes ESAs and service dogs in their description of service animals. This opens up a lot of housing options for folks with ESAs who might not otherwise qualify for apartments or houses due to their animal’s size or breed.

Airlines Are Not Required to Allow Them

Recent changes to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) have made it so that ESAs – untrained animals that provide support and companionship for a person with mental health issues – are not considered to be service animals by the Department of Transportation. Some airlines now require passengers to confirm their animal’s training as a service dog to fly with the pet. Other airlines, including WestJet, Air Canada, and Volaris, still accept ESAs as passengers with the same accommodations as service dogs.

Not Necessarily Allowed in Public Spaces

Restaurants, bars, shopping malls, stores, and other public spaces are legally allowed to deny entry to emotional support animals. They do not have access rights to public businesses and facilities the way service dogs do.

A man walking with his service dog.

What Is a Service Dog?

Service dogs are specially trained dogs that help people with disabilities perform certain tasks. These dogs have extensive protection under the law. While therapy animals can be any species of pet, service dog benefits are only afforded to dogs and occasionally miniature horses (under 34 inches tall and 100 pounds in weight). Service dogs:

  • Are specifically trained animals
  • Complete tasks for people with disabilities
  • Are not subject to property pet bans
  • Must be accommodated on planes
  • Must be permitted in public spaces
  • Must be well-behaved and controlled

Specifically Trained by a Person or Agency

All service dogs must undergo specific training. This will vary depending on what kind of tasks the dog needs to perform. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require professional training for any service dog, many professional organizations provide service dog training, such as Guide Dogs for the Blind. Individuals with disabilities are also allowed to train their own service dogs.

Service Dogs Complete Tasks for People with Disabilities

Service dogs must be trained to complete tasks that benefit a person with a disability. This is what differentiates them most directly from ESAs. The tasks that service dogs complete for their owners are diverse and can include:

  • Helping with navigation
  • Providing physical stability and support
  • Obtaining items and bringing them to the owner
  • Alerting individuals about an oncoming seizure
  • Alerting individuals about nearby items they are allergic to

Protected Under the Fair Housing Act

Like ESAs, service dogs cannot be prevented from living in any kind of housing or property. If a property indicates that it doesn’t allow dogs, or only allows dogs of a certain breed or size, that rule cannot apply to service dogs – this would violate the ADA.

Airlines Are Required to Accommodate Them

The recent changes to the ACAA maintained all protections for service dogs. Airlines must provide accommodations for people with disabilities to travel with their service dogs, regardless of the dog’s breed or size.

Allowed in All Public Spaces

Service dogs must automatically be granted entry into public spaces. Public providers are not allowed to demand or even request registration or identification for a service dog.

If the purpose of the service dog is obvious – such as a guide dog helping a person with vision impairments, or a dog that provides support for a wheelchair user – then businesses aren’t supposed to ask any questions, they are simply required to make accommodations. If the dog’s training and purpose are unclear, they are allowed to ask if the animal is a service dog and also ask what it is specifically trained to do.

All Benefits for Service Dogs Are Conditional

While service dogs are afforded many benefits and access to public services under the ADA, these benefits are contingent on the dog’s behavior, its demeanor, and the owner having control over the dog. If a service dog is out of control, wild, or aggressive, public service providers are permitted to deny them entry or access.

Furthermore, a service dog must be under the control of the owner at all times. This means the owner must have use of a leash, tether, or harness. If that interferes with the dog’s work or isn’t possible because of the owner’s disability, then the owner must have complete control with voice commands.

Service dogs are also not required to be permitted in areas where they threaten health or safety, such as surgery rooms that need to be sterile.

A child with her emotional support dog.

Registering a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal

If you have a service dog or emotional support animal, or you want to establish this status for your pet, you might also consider service animal registration. While there are some benefits to registering your pet in this way, it’s important to understand that the benefits afforded to service dogs and ESAs are not contingent on registration.

Service animal registration and emotional support animal registration is available on many websites for a fee, but it’s important to recognize the following about such services:

  • Registering a service animal is never mandatory
  • Registration does not provide any rights or proof of your service animal’s status
  • Local community registration can provide benefits for your pet’s safety
  • Not everyone knows or understands the laws around service dogs and ESAs

Service Dog and Emotional Support Animal Registration Is Not Mandatory

You are not required, by the ADA or any other law or regulation, to register a service dog or ESA. The benefits afforded to these animals are supposed to be available to you regardless of registration or proof. Service animal registration is not mandatory in the US.

Registration Does Not Provide Rights or Proof

Public employees can only ask two questions if you approach a public place with a service dog or ESA: Is this animal a service dog you require because of a disability? And what tasks is the dog trained to perform? Verbal confirmation is enough to require them to provide reasonable accommodations for the pet.

There is no official, centralized registration for service dogs or ESAs, so registering your pet does not provide any additional rights. While it can sometimes be helpful to have proof of your pet’s status, anyone who asks for such proof is technically breaking the law.

Sometimes Service Animal Registration Provides Benefits

Sometimes, a community like a university or local government might offer the opportunity for you to register a service dog or emotional support animal. These kinds of registries can be helpful in the case of an emergency such as a fire so that emergency personnel knows they should look for and try to evacuate the registered animal.

Sometimes, registering with local groups can also offer benefits like discounts on licensing fees. These registrations are always entirely optional and a person’s public participation in classes, groups, services or the like can never be conditional on registration.

Not Everyone Knows or Follows the Law

Service animal registration can be helpful in part because many people don’t recognize or even willingly ignore the laws around service animals. Sometimes, establishments will ask for proof of identification for a service animal even though this is illegal.

While you can technically pursue legal action if an establishment asks for proof or doesn’t provide you with the necessary accommodations, that is rarely worth your time or effort. Instead, you can sometimes simplify the process by providing documentation of registration. Many would argue that service dog or therapy animal registration is worth it because of this.

Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals Are Intended for Those With True Need

There has been an increasing trend of people registering their pets as emotional support animals when they don’t really need the animal for their mental wellness and to complete daily tasks. While saying a dog is an ESA seems like a quick and easy way to simplify flying with a pet, it is unfair to those who need these services to try and capitalize on such benefits. It can also pose a danger to the animal and those around it if an untrained animal is in a stressful situation that causes it to react fearfully or aggressively.

Furthermore, registering your animal as an ESA or service dog doesn’t actually provide any benefits. Those benefits are automatically conferred to people with disabilities who truly need the help of their animals.

If your animal qualifies as a service dog or ESA, then it’s important to know your rights and advocate for yourself. Your pet makes it possible for you to engage with the community, and therefore they should be accommodated!