Differences Between Service Dogs Vs. Emotional Support Dogs

Published June 3, 2022
service dog assisting disabled man in wheelchair

Although many are confused about what qualifies a dog as a service animal, there's a big difference between what service dogs and emotional support dogs (ESA) are permitted to do. Emotional support dogs can help people with certain psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and depression, through companionship. However, ESAs are distinct from psychiatric service dogs, because ESAs are not necessarily trained to provide assistance behaviors -- such as alerting their owner to an impending anxiety attack, for example. Service dogs, on the other hand, have been specifically trained to perform a task for someone with a disability.

Service Dogs

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as 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. They are not considered pets, but working animals. Service dogs are highly trained, and this training can take up to two years. They must pass not only a rigorous obedience test, but also a public access test in order to be certified.

Although any breed can be trained to be a service dog, the most popular include Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. To find your perfect match, search online, at training organizations or rescues, and work with trainers you trust.


Service dogs are specially trained to assist people with disabilities. They can help people who have visual impairments, hearing impairments, or physical disabilities. Service dogs for the blind help their owners navigate safely by detecting obstacles and alerting them to oncoming traffic.

Hearing dogs help their owners detect sounds that would otherwise go unnoticed. Diabetic alert dogs detect a change in blood sugar levels and communicate this change through specific behaviors such as barking, pawing, licking, or nosing. Service dogs can also be trained to pick up dropped items, dial 911 on a phone, or open doors and drawers. In addition to assisting individuals with disabilities, service dogs also provide emotional support and companionship.

Protection with ADA

Service dogs have protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means they must be allowed access anywhere members of the public are allowed, including hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses open to the public.

However, because service animals aren't required by law to wear vests or other clothing identifying them, some people try to pass off their pets as service animals by putting fake vests on them. This is illegal under federal disability laws, but is difficult to detect for businesses who suspect fraud, but are unable to inquire into guests' claims that their pet is an official assistance animal.

Althought the ADA does not require service dogs to wear any harness or vest identifying them as working animals, many owners of service dogs choose to go into public with such identifying clothing on their dogs in order to avoid having their animals mistaken for pets. The law does require that service dogs be under the control of their handlers at all times. This means that the dog must be housebroken and shouldn't jump on people or try to take food off their plates. The dog should walk nicely on their leash and should sit when told by their handler.

Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal is prescribed by a licensed therapist or doctor for an individual with a diagnosed psychological disorder that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The emotional support animal must be necessary to alleviate the symptoms of the person's mental health condition, and it must alleviate those symptoms in order for them to function normally in everyday life.

Emotional support animals "provide therapeutic benefits, such as decreased heart rate and blood pressure," that are not available through other forms of therapy or medication. The animal does not need to be trained for any specific task that would benefit the owner, and they do not need to be a service dog.


Emotional support animals can help with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may also help those who have difficulty coping with traumatic events such as natural disasters or abuse at home. However, they are not limited only to dogs. They can be any type of animal that brings comfort when needed most.


woman on airplane with emotional support dog

Unlike service dogs who are trained specifically for tasks related directly linked to physical disabilities such as blindness or seizures, ESAs do not need special training, they simply provide companionship while also aiding their owners' well-being through love and attention.

No Protection from ADA

Emotional support animals are not considered service dogs, and therefore, they are not protected under the ADA. The ADA does not require emotional support animals to be individually trained by a professional or certified by any type of organization. Instead, they can simply be any animal that helps an individual cope with a disability. If you live in an apartment building with a no-pets policy, your emotional support animal will likely not be allowed inside unless they qualify as a service dog.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are somewhat similar to emotional support animals, but instead of providing comfort to their owner, they often provide comfort to others. They provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and other facilities. They can also visit schools and libraries to help students with reading or encourage them to read aloud to the dog. Therapy dogs don't just make people feel good; they also help relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Therapy dogs are usually gentle, well-behaved animals who aren't afraid to approach strangers. Most therapy dogs are small breeds, such as Yorkshire Terriers or Chihuahuas. Some larger breeds are also used as therapy dogs if they have a calm temperament and social demeanor. Therapy dogs should be friendly toward everyone they meet because it's important that they're comfortable being handled by strangers.

Therapy dogs don't need special training to become therapy animals. They just need basic obedience skills so that they can perform their jobs safely and effectively. The human partner in the team should be a certified handler who has passed an evaluation program set up by their organization or school of choice.

How to Obtain Certification

While a service dog must be specially trained, any pet can be called an emotional support animal. A person seeking certification must have a disability diagnosed by a doctor or mental health expert, as well as a document explaining how the animal will benefit them in their daily life.

The first step in getting your service dog registered is to find a reputable training facility that offers the necessary classes. Most facilities charge around $3,000 for basic obedience training and $5,000-$7,000 for more advanced training. Certification may cost extra money as well, depending on what type of disability you have; however, many organizations offer scholarships for those who need financial assistance with their dog's training costs.

Once you've found an organization that trains service dogs and determined how long it will take for them to train your dog, you can begin the process of registering your dog. If you have a dog you are interested in certifying, you will need the following documents:

  • Service dog registration paperwork: Available from your state's registry
  • Proof of disability: A signed doctor's note
  • Proof of training: A certificate from an official training program

Complete the service dog registration paperwork. Fill out all sections and sign where indicated. You may be required to take a picture of your dog and attach it to the form. Mail the completed application and supporting documents to the appropriate agency in your state or province.

What Are You Searching For?

If you are searching for a dog to provide love, companionship, and the ability to reduce your anxiety, you may be looking for an emotional support animal. However, if you have a disability and need a dog to accompany you in your daily life, you're likely leaning toward a service dog. Discuss your situation with your doctor or another medical professional to determine what is best for you.

Differences Between Service Dogs Vs. Emotional Support Dogs