Emotional support dog vs. service dog

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are key differences

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Emotional support animals (ESAs) have become increasingly prescribed as a means to manage anxiety, depression and other psychological challenges. More than 1 in 5 pet owners had a pet recommended for their health by a doctor or therapist, according to a 2021 survey by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

As the popularity of ESAs skyrocketed in recent years, so has the confusion surrounding the specific laws that define and protect ESAs and service dogs. Understanding the differences between the two is crucial when considering how an ESA or service dog could help with mental health or physical challenges.

Key insights

To designate a legal ESA, a medical professional must diagnose a disabling mental illness and detail a plan for how the pet can help.

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The ADA allows service dogs in public spaces, while ESAs lack public access rights under federal law.

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Since 2023, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) no longer protects ESAs and airlines have enforced stricter policies on pets.

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What is an emotional support dog?

Emotional support animals or ESAs can be any species or breed of animal but they are very commonly dogs. As their name implies, an ESA’s sole purpose is to offer comfort and companionship. There is no specialized training required for your animal to act as your legal ESA. They are pets, first and foremost.

A licensed mental health or medical professional must prescribe an ESA. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers examples of activities your emotional support dog can help with, from physical tasks like lifting to emotional comfort like easing anxiety or helping with mental tasks like assisting in focus and concentration.

A licensed mental health or medical professional must prescribe an ESA.

If a trusted pet is deemed necessary to provide life-changing comfort, your doctor will typically write a letter to detail the treatment plan. Landlords or airlines may require documentation to accommodate an ESA in housing or planes.

A prescribed emotional support dog is a pet that offers reassurance, and should not be confused with a trained service dog. The ADA directly states that an emotional support dog cannot qualify as a service animal.

» MORE: What is an emotional support animal?

What is a service dog?

Service dogs are not pets – they are working animals. They undergo specialized training and perform tasks that distinguish them from ESAs. Under the ADA, only dogs – and in some cases, miniature horses – are currently recognized as service animals.

Service dogs are highly trained to perform specific tasks. Beyond the well-known seeing-eye dog trained to help the blind or visually impaired, dogs can be trained to perform tasks that serve a broad range of disabilities. Service animals can alert the deaf, assist with mobility, protect during seizures or alert their handler to low blood sugar.

Psychiatric service dogs differ from ESAs, too, in that they help with mental illnesses in concrete ways, such as turning on the lights for a person with PTSD or applying calming physical pressure at the onset of a panic attack.

Service dogs must be trained rigorously to behave well in public, stay focused on work and reliably perform the tasks required by their handler in a variety of settings.

» COMPARE: Best ESA letter websites

ESA vs. service dog: Training and certifications

A major difference between service dogs and ESAs is the required training. Service dogs must be trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability. ESAs, on the other hand, provide comfort and companionship without any training necessary.

Though the law doesn’t name a specific training or certification program for service dogs or ESAs, your animal must be well-behaved in public and highly skilled to perform the task required by your disability.

“All dogs should have a balanced state of mind,” said certified master canine handler, trainer and behaviorist Cindy Chiacchere. “The thing that separates ESAs from true service dogs is their purpose.”

All dogs should have a balanced state of mind…the thing that separates ESAs from true service dogs is their purpose.”
– Cindy Chiacchere, certified master canine handler, trainer and behaviorist

This temperament is key, along with years of rigorous training that begins virtually at birth, said Chiacchere, who is also the president of Royal Paws in Babylon, New York. Trainers begin selecting puppies that show suitable demeanors, and “from that point on, the dog must learn obedience and then are task-trained,” she said.

This process can take two years or more. “Tasked service dogs must be trained in all types of settings such as parks, restaurants, trains and planes,” she said.

Service dogs should have a minimum of 160 hours of one-on-one training time, which can be completed by a trainer or the handler, she said. “Aside from this in-depth training, the cost associated with service animals can be upwards of $40,000-$50,000,” Chiacchere noted.

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    Do emotional support dogs need to wear a vest or ID?

    The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag or specific harness. Nor does the law require handlers to provide proof an animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal as a condition for entry to many public places.

    Though not required, many people find vests or tags and other documents can be useful and reassuring to the public in signaling a dog as a service animal.

    Are there breed restrictions for service or emotional support dogs?

    An ESA can be any species of animal or breed, while a service animal must be a dog. The ADA does not restrict the type of dog breeds that can be service animals. Nor can service animals be excluded based on assumptions or stereotypes about the animal’s breed or how the animal might behave.

    Even if a municipality has a ban on certain dog breeds, an exception must be made for a service animal of a prohibited breed, unless the dog poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

    What if my emotional support dog or service dog is denied access to a public place?

    If you believe you have been illegally denied access or service because of your service animal, you can file a complaint on the Department of Justice’s website.

    ESAs do not have legal protection in public places. Under the ADA, they are considered pets, not working animals assisting a disabled person.

    Bottom line

    An emotional support dog and a service dog may appear similar, but they serve in different roles to support humans. While service dogs are federally protected in public places without documentation, ESAs do not share these same legal rights. For housing and air travel, ESA owners must provide evidence of their animal’s necessity.

    To have your pet legally become your ESA, a licensed mental health or medical professional must diagnose a disabling illness and prescribe your pet as part of the treatment plan. A service dog must complete rigorous training before it can help a human, while ESAs are classified as pets and do not require additional training.

    Article sources

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:

    1. U.S. Department of Justice, “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    2. Human Animal Bond Research Institute, “Survey of U.S. Pet Owners | HABRI.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    3. U.S. Department of Justice, “ADA Requirements: Service Animals.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    4. Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, “Legal Brief: Service Animals and Individuals With Disabilities Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    5. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “Laws and Ethics Related to Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    6. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Public Perceptions of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs - PMC.” Accessed April 12, 2024.
    7. American Kennel Club, “Service Dog 101: Everything You Need to Know.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    8. PsychDog, “Service Dog Cost.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    9. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Public Awareness Campaign to Ensure Air Travelers with Disabilities Know Their Rights | US Department of Transportation.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    10. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Service Animal Health Behavior Training Form.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    11. University of California-San Francisco, “Laws and Ethics Related to Emotional Support Animals.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    12. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Complaints Alleging Discriminatory Treatment Against Disabled Travelers Under The Air Carrier Access Act and 14 CFR Part 382.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    13. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Traveling by air with service animals: A final rule.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    14. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Service Animals.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    15. U.S. Department of Transportation, “79742 - Federal Register/Vol. 85, No. 238/Thursday, December 10, 2020/Rules and Regulations.” Accessed April 14, 2024.
    16. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Assistance Animals | HUD.gov.” Accessed April 13, 2024.
    17. The Journalist’s Resource, “From best friend to therapist: Research on emotional support animals.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    18. U.S. Department of Justice, “File a Complaint | ADA.gov.” Accessed April 11, 2024.
    19. Cindy Chiacchere, Interview. April 15, 2024.
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