Service Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal: What’s the Difference?

Everyone is familiar with assistance dogs. You may have even seen one in the grocery store or at the airport. Maybe you have mistakenly tried to pet him only to be scolded by the owner. Your doctor may have even recommended one for yourself. 

For those that don’t know, there are two types of working dogs: the first is a medical assistance canine, (i.e. seeing-eye dogs), which belong to a classification of assistance animal called service dogs. The second is any kind of therapy animal, canine or otherwise, commonly referred to as an emotional support animal. Recently the line between service animals and other working dogs has become blurred, so here is some clarification regarding the differences between the two.

What is a Service Animal?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is trained to perform a specific task which is unable to be completed by the animal’s owner. This classification carries the pedigree and understanding that a dog has been specially trained to adhere to a stringent set of guidelines and tasks. 

While the ADA does stipulate that a service animal must be a dog trained to perform a specific task, limited exceptions have been made.

Here are some Key differences between Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals:

Service Animal Vs. Emotional Support    

  1. Performs a specific task vs. Provides general emotional comfort
  2. Trained or approved by an ADA service vs. No training required
  3. Provided by an ADA approved source vs. Procured from any source
  4. Limited to being a canine vs. Can be any type of animal  
  5. Must be registered with ADA vs. No registration required

What Are Some Examples of a Service Animal?

Traditionally service animals fall into roles of assisting those with severe physical or mental disabilities that prevent normal daily function. 

For example, to someone who has lost their sight, a seeing-eye dog is a service animal who acts as the eyes of the blind owner. The seeing-eye dog assists his owner as the two work together to move throughout the world. In other words, the service dog completes the physical job that his owner is unable to do on his own.

What is an emotional support animal?

An emotional support animal, sometimes referred to as a ‘therapy dog,’ is any animal that provides psychological comfort to his owner. For a dog to be declared as an emotional support animal, there must be medical documentation.  

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not limited to being dogs. Some of the more non-traditional service animals include birds, reptiles, and even monkeys.

What are some of the functions that an emotional support animal provides?

There are a few major emotional ailments that require the use of an emotional support animal. Most commonly, emotional support animals are prescribed to those suffering from past trauma like assault or PTSD. 

Therapy dogs and emotional support animals are also a solution for those who suffer from severe social anxiety due to mental or emotional disability. In all cases, the role of the emotional support animal is to assist and comfort the owner. 

How Do I Get an Emotional Support Animal?

To have your pet registered as an emotional support animal, you must be given a formal letter by a licensed mental health professional. While there is an emotional support animal registry, only the letter is necessary to obtain the rights of having an emotional support animal.

How Do I Get a Service Animal?

First, a medical requirement must be identified and established by a medical professional. Once a diagnosis has been reached, confirming the need for a service animal, then the disabled person may procure a service dog. Service dogs can come from an ADA approved source, or an owner’s existing dog may be trained and then approved by the ADA.  

Where Is My Service Dog and/or Emotional Support Animal Allowed to Go?

Under the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs are allowed in any environment where the general public would be allowed. This means that a registered service dog cannot be denied entrance into any public space under US law.  

An emotional support animal does not have the same rights as it is not within the same classification. An emotional support animal may be taken into public spaces but any privately owned business is allowed to make their own rules about whether or not emotional support animals are welcomed.

The Major Difference:

The biggest differences between a service animal and an emotional support animal are the legal rights of the animal and the duties of the animal itself. While a service animal provides a specific physical service to his disabled owner, an emotional support pet is a prescribed companion used for general emotional support.  

Service animals and emotional support dogs are a testament to why we call our canine companions a ‘man’s best friend,’ and hopefully, this article has given you a better insight into the differences between these two different kinds of assistance dogs.


Sailer, C. (2018, May 29). What’s the Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog? Retrieved from

Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals. (2019, July 22). Retrieved from

Emotional Support Animals Can Ease Anxiety, PTSD, and Other Conditions. Here’s How to Get One. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs. (2016, March 16). Retrieved from

Service Animals. (n.d.). Retrieved from

How do I get a service animal? (n.d.). Retrieved from

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