Thursday, July 9, 2015

Service Dog, Emotional Support Dog, Therapy Dog: What’s the Difference?

There is often a lot of confusion about the difference between a service dog, an emotional support dog, and a therapy dog. What are the differences?

Service Dogs

A service dog is individually trained to perform tasks that are directly related to their human partner’s disability.

Service dogs (and miniature horses) are the only ones covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). By law, service dogs must be allowed to accompany their partner into any establishment open to the public.

In addition to the ADA, service dogs are also covered under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.

On Tuesday, we posted a detailed discussion about the ADAand service dogs. Please check it out for more information about service dogs and the law.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are comfort animals. They are not service dogs. Unlike service dogs that must be trained in specific tasks, emotional support animals do not need any special training. Their mere existence provides comfort and emotional support for someone with a disability.

People who have emotional support animals do not have public access and are not covered by the ADA. Their animals cannot accompany them to public places such as restaurants, movie theaters, etc., unless those establishments allow pets.

However, emotional support animals can go some places where other pet animals cannot. Both the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act include emotional support animals. Documentation from a doctor or mental health professional may be required to prove the animal is necessary.

Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog is a well-trained pet that provides comfort to others. They visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, and other places with their owners.

 However, even though they go to some public places that don’t usually allow dogs, therapy dogs and their owners do not have public access and are not covered under the ADA. They must be invited to these establishments.

Therapy dogs are not trained in specific tasks, although they usually need to meet certain behavior requirements, such as basic obedience and tolerance for sudden noises, medical or assistance equipment, and being handled by strangers, among other things.

Therapy Dogs International has lots of information about therapy dogs and certification.


  1. Thank you for explaining the 3 classes of animals. People get confused and lump them all into the same group. When more people are educated there will be less judgement.

  2. Important article! The only thing I think could be clearer is that any pet can be an Emotional Support Animals (ESA) or "comfort animal". Unlike a Service Dog, for which there are specific criteria for the dog, a person with an ESA pet has no criteria other than that the owner needs a doctor's Rx or letter to have the pet in no pets housing or on a plane.

    I would also like to reiterate that Therapy Animals are also pets but usually have a training requirement. They can do anything from visiting the elderly to working with a therapist with specific therapeutic goals.

    Unlike each of these other categories - therapy dogs usually do have training and an ESA may or may not be trained - Service Dogs are specially trained and are NOT pets.

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