Emotional Support Animal vs Service Dogs – What’s the difference?

The use of animals in therapy has now become commonplace. However, many people are still confused and don’t know for sure the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal. To start, let’s talk about a service animal.

Service animals 

A service animal is an animal specially trained to help people with physical inabilities. Service dogs are most common among assistance animals, as they are characterized by ease of training and devotion to their owner. 

There are several typical categories of service dogs. The most prevalent group is guide dogs, which are trained to be navigators for the blind or partially sighted. The next category is hearing dogs that can recognize different sounds and notify the handler about them. For example, such a service dog can detect such sounds as a doorbell, telephone, alarm clock, cooking clock, baby crying, and alarm of smoke or fire. 

In general, service animals can respond to attacks of illnesses or other medical cases. Animals can activate an alarm, bring another person for help or warn their handlers about the possibility of an attack or seizure. 

Emotional support animals 

An emotional support animal is a companion animal that improves the owner’s mental state and helps to cope with stress and personality crises. The main purpose of using emotional support animals is to develop positive emotions and mental abilities. It is about cultivating such skills as sociability, fascination, and friendliness. 

Four-legged friends also contribute to the improvement of the mental and emotional state of their handlers, thereby affecting physical health. Getting emotional support animals is recommended for emotional diseases like depression, stress, insomnia, apathy, etc. 

These wonderful animals also help the elderly and children. At the same time, they become not only a “therapist” for them, but also a faithful, kind, sincerely loving friend, ready to help at any moment. Animals grow old too, and they can grow old with you.


Getting a service dog requires some eligibility. The most extended dysfunctions that involve the use of therapy dogs include hearing, vision, and mobility issues. The service animal can be useful in the case of diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, and some severe mental illnesses such as PTSD or autism. Furthermore, the possibility of getting a service animal is stipulated depending on the acuteness of the disease and the symptoms.

An emotional support dog eligibility is determined by a licensed mental health professional. A patient should suffer from emotional or mental maladies that can be relieved by the emotional support animal. 

It is also substantial that the human has the opportunity to take care of a dog. This implies the availability of sufficient living space and the ability to regularly walk and feed the animal. While the service animal is there to help you, life is a cooperative experience.

Training process 

To become “helpers” and begin to assist people who need it animals go through a strict selection. First of all, specialists pay attention to such qualities of an animal as learning ability, friendliness, calm character, lack of aggression, fearfulness of sudden loud sounds or sudden movements. They also check if the dog allows you to touch it, caress it, how well it learns. If the pet passes these tests, it is taught the basic commands, taught to walk on a leash and not to be afraid of crowds and other animals. Then the service dog is trained to perform tasks that will meet the needs of its owner that are directly related to the person’s disability. 

In contradistinction to service animals, there is no specific training for emotional support animals. ESAs do not have to perform certain tasks, they are primarily companions and friends. Later, you can teach your pet some commands by yourself. Although they do not require training, Emotional Support Animal registration is required, so that these pets do not have restrictions on staying in certain places.

However, it is important that the emotional support animal behaves well around people or other animals. The most significant qualities of ESA are amiability, empathy, dedication, and non-aggression. 

Disputes over the use of animals in therapy

The therapeutic benefits of service dogs for people with disabilities are hard to deny. These are individually trained animals that can greatly facilitate day-to-day life and provide comfort to their owners. Thanks to the therapy dogs people with disabilities can fulfill almost all the duties that might not have been possible before.

Emotional support animals are a bit more controversial. It has been proven that any interaction with your beloved pet improves mood and gives positive emotions. That is why some experts are wondering what is the difference between a regular pet and an emotional support animal and even question the necessity of the term “ESA”.

How to get a service dog?

To have the opportunity to get a service dog, first of all, make sure that your disease and its symptoms are on the list of those where animals can be applied in the therapy. If you have enough eligibility you may contact any service dogs providers to get the details and determine the dog breed. Usually, the last step of service animals’ training involves future owners, so that a person could get to know a dog under the supervision of the specialist. 

Registration of an ESA

If you want to obtain an animal with the ESA status, you need to contact a psychiatrist or psychologist to confirm intellectual or other mental disorders. After that, a therapist provides a patient with an ESA letter, which is the main document of an emotional support dog. You can qualify your pet as an ESA or take an animal from a shelter. However, registering your pet as an ESA is not obligatory, you still can get the necessary endorsement from the animal without having an ESA letter.

Basic laws for helper animals

In addition, there is a difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs in their rights. For example, both service and emotional support dogs have equal rights in housing. According to the law, an owner of such an animal has the right to require a Reasonable Accommodation for himself and the pet without paying any extra pet fees. 

In other fields the freedoms of emotional support animals are limited. At the same time, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal has legal access to any public place in order to accompany its handler. For instance, these animals can fly with their owners in the cabin of a plane. For ESA, there are pet-friendly establishments and airlines where customers are allowed to stay with their pets.