What’s the Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Animal?

Photo Courtesy: Hunt Istock/Getty Images

Many people with disabilities seek support from service animals. In addition to providing companionship, service animals are trained to perform tasks, from providing stability to picking up items to alerting individuals about environmental hazards. 

However, in recent years, emotional support animals have also become more prominent. While both offer support, there are stark differences between the two — especially when it comes to legal protections and training. Here, we’ll delve into the differences between service animals and emotional support animals, from the types of services they provide to the training they require.  

How Emotional Support Animals Help People with Mental Illnesses and Disorders

An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal companion that helps support an individual who is living with a mental illness or disorder. Most often, individuals ESAs are dogs, but other animals, from cats to miniature horses to lizards, can all provide emotional support and companionship. By providing companionship, these animals provide a sense of comfort for people with anxiety or depression. ESAs can also help folks who experience panic attacks or who live with anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

 Photo Courtesy: Ivan Pantic/Getty Images

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), emotional support dogs are not technically considered service dogs. While ESAs can be trained to support their owner, they don’t usually receive professional training, nor do they perform particular tasks. That is, providing comfort, while important, doesn’t qualify as a service. 

While ESAs no longer have legal protections on airplanes, many can receive certifications so that there’s no conflict with an individual’s housing situation. Moreover, psychiatric service dogs, who are trained to perform tasks that mitigate a person’s psychiatric condition, such as PTSD, differ from ESAs and have more protections

Legal Protection Is Limited for an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

With emotional support animals becoming more common, patients often request letters of documentation supporting their need for an animal from their psychologist, therapist, or doctor. This official documentation of diagnosis is helpful to have on hand as validation, but, unfortunately, ESAs and their owners still face limited legal protections and rights in public places

 Photo Courtesy: lise gagne/Getty Images

While the ADA covers trained, professional service animals, it does not extend to emotional support animals. In practice, this means that individuals with ESAs don’t have unlimited access to public spaces. Depending on their own policies, businesses reserve the right to deny services to those with emotional support animals. As of January 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate ESA owners, for example. 

However, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires landlords to allow renters to keep emotional support animals in their residence — even if pets aren’t allowed in the building. Under the FHA, landlords or property owners cannot require tenants to pay additional fees for ESAs. Additionally, they can’t ask for extensive information about a person’s disability or request their medical records, nor can they require that the animal have specific training. 

Training Is a Must for Service Animals

Unlike ESAs, service animals are individually trained to perform specific tasks for people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, and/or mental disabilities. For example, guide dogs assist blind and low-vision individuals navigate public spaces as well as their homes. Service animals can also help open doors, carry items and reach objects their owners may not be able to reach. Some of these trained animals can recognize the signs of seizures and will stand guard over their owner or try and find them help. 

 Photo Courtesy: Mint Images/Getty Images

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require service dogs to be professionally trained, though it’s certainly helpful. Individuals with disabilities can train their animals themselves, but sometimes professional training can go a long way. After all, it’s important for service animals to remain calm, alert, and reliable, especially in unfamiliar settings.

Again, most service animals are dogs, and it can take up to two years for a dog to be considered “properly trained” as a service animal. If you need help finding a service dog, service dog agencies can help you find an animal whose training aligns with the support you need. In public spaces, some service animals may wear special vests, harnesses, collars, or tags that identify their status as working dogs.

Service Animals Have Legal Protections

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals have many more legal protections than emotional support animals. Namely, this is because service animals are needed throughout the day to help with physical tasks. As a result, these animals go pretty much anywhere without the fear of being denied access. 

 Photo Courtesy: Maskot/Getty Images

Yes, service animals can be brought into restaurants, stores, libraries, and other public spots, even if pets aren’t allowed. Service animals are even permitted on flights — though, typically, they must sit on the traveler’s lap or at their feet. Though these animals can certainly be affectionate companions, they aren’t exactly pets. After all, service animals are working animals, and they have very important jobs to do. 

Just like with emotional support animals, individuals with service animals can acquire certifications wherein a doctor or mental health professional writes a letter that states their diagnosis and the way an animal will be beneficial. 

Dog Breeds That Make Great Emotional Support and Service Animals

Certain dog breeds make great emotional support and/or service animals based on their dispositions. Labrador retrievers, for example, are one of the most popular dog breeds when it comes to providing assistance, namely because they are naturally friendly, obedient and helpful. As you might expect, golden retrievers are much the same. 

 Photo Courtesy: Jody Trappe Photography/Getty Images

Although known for being protective guard dogs, German shepherds also make great service animals. Well-behaved and easy to train, their size, strength, and attention to detail make them a great choice. Another great choice? The border collie. This intelligent herding breed enjoys being given a task, though they may have a little more excess energy than the other breeds on this list. 

Resource Links: