The Differences Between Emotional Support Animals and Service Dogs


With the increasing use of, and attention directed towards, emotional support animals on the internet and social media, there has never been a greater need to lay out the difference between emotional support dogs and service dogs. This article serves to help explain what separates the two and where we should go from here.

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, and service dogs are incredibly important and useful tools for those with all kinds of disabilities. This article will mostly focus on and reference the use of dogs, as that is where most of the confusion between the two lies.

Besides their titles themselves, the first key difference lies in their actual job function. A service dog is for those who 1) require assistance with doing a certain activity; and / or 2) must be alerted to an illness such as diabetes, seizures, and more. In contrast, an emotional support animal does as its name implies, providing a calming influence, comfort and joy.

Those who have emotional support animals do not necessarily have a mental illness; however, it is perhaps one of the biggest assumptions attached to emotional support animals. Many people with ESAs have chronic illness and chronic pain, something which can be difficult to deal with, and may contribute to depression. This leads to the second point, which is the stigma sometimes attached to the owners. People with service dogs, especially those with a visible disability, are usually viewed as legitimate handlers with “real” health issues. However, owners of emotional support animals are often seen as fakers or using it for free pet airfare, looping back to the constant misconceptions of mental vs. physical illness.

The third area where we can see the differences in treatment is the rights of the animals and owners. Only a few rights apply to both ESAs and service dogs. These are 1) the protection clause under the Fair Housing Act, which allows them to have their animal in no-pets housing, provided they have the proper documentation; 2) the animal may fly for free on airlines, provided they have documentation present and can behave properly. Service dogs, by contrast, are allowed anywhere with their handlers, including restaurants, stores, public transportation and any businesses, and may not be asked to provide identification.

The fourth difference is how a person obtains an emotional support dog or service dog. In the United States, there are no national government registries for either emotional support animals or service dogs, and any that claim to be are scams. However, many organizations and businesses will provide their own documentation for you, or accessories such as vests, leads, and patches for both ESAs and service dogs.

There is only one way to legally and officially acquire the documentation for an emotional support animal — a letter from either your doctor or psychologist stating your need for the emotional support animal. The animal can be one you already own or have access to. The animal should have basic obedience and behave properly when in public. If the animal is a dog, the most common and easiest way of having proof of this level of obedience is by passing a Canine Good Citizen test. It is also possible to get a trained emotional support dog, but they are not as common and can be expensive to find, usually with a waiting list.

For service dogs, most training organizations require a doctor’s letter stating your need for a service dog. Medical documentation is also required for no-pets rental housing and air travel, but other businesses cannot require it. The most common way to get a service dog is by finding one from a group or organization who has already trained one. This may involve high costs and/or a waiting list. Some people with dog training experience choose to train their own service dogs; these dogs have the same access as those trained by an organization.

Sierra and Rose.
Sierra and Rose.

I am thankful that my experience has been much more pleasant and easier than many others. Thanks to the encouragement of my doctors and therapist, I got a puppy that I have been training as a support dog, as well as a possible service dog in training. As of now we don’t know what my health is going to bring, and we still don’t even know my full diagnosis, but there is a high probability of me needing a service dog in the future. I worked for a professional dog handler and taught advanced obedience to our 4-H dog project participants for many years.

The end result of this “experiment” has been incredible. She has just turned a year old, and is already fairly advanced in her obedience, and is a wonderful support dog. She is almost always by my side, my little shadow, constantly watching me to make sure I am OK. She has incredible instincts and always knows when I am upset, if I am not feeling well or if I am in pain. She is a living embodiment of the saying “man’s best friend,” and I honestly don’t know what I would do without her.

After getting Rose, I have become more attuned to the world of disabilities, accessibility, judgments, and of course emotional support animals and service dogs. To my surprise and sadness, I discovered that a lot of the judgment of emotional support dogs was coming right from our own disability community. With the recent increase of people  abusing the system so their pets can fly for free, or to get out of pet fees for housing, there needs to be more accountability. Additionally, we as a community need to be more supportive of service dogs and emotional support animals. Those who need them are dealing with a variety of issues, many of which we can’t see, and to pass judgment is exactly what we ask those around us not to do to us.

Emotional support animals are an incredible and amazing tool we should be utilizing to help people, but we can’t begin to do that unless we start embracing them more and stop judging them so much. Emotional support dogs are not service dogs, and we need to continue to separate the two. Nevertheless, service dogs and emotional support animals are critical issues which need to examined and discussed more. The question remains, who else is willing to speak up about this?

For more information:

What are the differences between a service dog, an emotional support animal and a therapy dog?

Frequently Asked Questions About Service Animals and the ADA

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