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

While there is a great deal of confusion around these terms, there are definite differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals.  They each have a different role in the way that they help people.

Service dogs are trained to assist people with disabilities.  There are different types of service dogs such as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf and psychiatric service dogs for those severely limited in their ability to function due to mental illness. These dogs are considered medical necessities as they are trained to help their owners with specific tasks that are directly tied to their owners’ disabilities/symptoms.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA see: ensures that people with disabilities have the legal right to bring their service dogs anywhere in public, as long as the dogs are not a disturbance or threat to others. Also, because service dogs are usually on the job when they are in public, it is best not to approach them so they can focus on their work.

Therapy animals provide psychological or physiological support to others.  They are not legally defined by federal law. They are generally pets whose owners work to provide them with basic obedience training that is then tested, along with their temperament.  They must be well-behaved, obedient and not bothered by disturbances.    There are a number of organizations that test and certify therapy dogs. Therapy dogs often visit people in hospitals and nursing homes to provide comfort and affection.  This can be very therapeutic for people who have little contact with others and therefore feel lonely or neglected.  Therapy animals can also help people with mental or physical therapy, as well as people that have experienced stressful situations like natural disasters.  They are also very helpful with children or people who are learning how to read, as they provide an attentive, affectionate, non-judgmental audience. They can vastly improve the physical, mental, emotional and social well-being of those around them.  Unlike service dogs however, therapy animals have no rights to enter public places like restaurants, businesses, and stores as they are generally considered pets.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide therapeutic support to their elderly or disabled owners through companionship, affection, and a positive, non-judgmental regard.   A doctor or medical professional can prescribe an emotional support animal for a person with a verifiable disability if it’s determined that their patient would benefit from an animal companion.  ESAs help to alleviate or lessen some symptoms of their owners’ disabilities as their companionship and unconditional affection can be a tremendous help to a person’s mental health.  They are also treated as pets with no special privileges to accompany their owners in public establishments.  However, their owners may request residential accommodations, such as the waiving of a ‘no pets’ policy, as long as they can provide proof of disability.  Refusal to make accommodations for those with disabilities is considered discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  ESAs are not task-trained like service dogs, but they must be well-behaved pets. The animal must be fully toilet-trained and with no bad habits that could disturb neighbors such as loud and/or frequent barking or noise.  Also, the animal must not pose any danger to other tenants or workpersons that service the residential building and area.   They generally can’t go where pets would not be able to go without permission, with the exception of flying in the cabin of an aircraft, thanks to The Air Carrier Access Act. (

To briefly summarize:

  • Service dogs are trained to execute tasks to help mitigate the effects of their disabled owner’s symptoms.
  • Therapy animals work with their owners/handlers to improve the health of others with comfort and affection. They have NO public access rights.
  • Emotional support animals help to combat loneliness and social phobias by providing companionship to their owners. They have NO public access rights and are not task trained.

They have different jobs, but they all provide a wonderful service to their owners and the public at large.

For more information refer to:


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