by Jorie Page
Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs are all animals (usually dogs) that help people. The terminology can be confusing, especially since the protections afforded to each can sometimes overlap. Here is an easy guide to keep it all straight.
When we talk about “task training” in the service dog world, we’re talking about the tasks service dogs are trained to do for their disabled handlers. In order to qualify as a task, the behavior must be directly related to the disability or disabilities with which the dog has been trained to assist. Tasks may include retrieving a dropped item, alerting to changes in blood sugar, turning lights on and off, “covering” the handler by standing behind them when they are at a counter or ATM, and many others. Simply providing company and emotional support does not qualify as a task.
Most often, the service dog’s handler is the disabled person for whom the dog is trained to do tasks. Sometimes, as when a disabled child needs a service dog, there may be an adult handler who helps train and handle the service dog. Public access rights – the ability to go into establishments that do not allow pets – follow the disabled person the dog is trained to assist, not the dog itself. An animal trained as a service dog cannot, for example, go into a grocery store with just anyone; only when accompanying the disabled handler is the dog legally allowed to go wherever the public has access.
Service dogs are exempt from policies that prohibit pets, such as apartment leases that do not allow dogs.
If necessary, a note from a doctor provides documentation of the disability which the service dog is needed to mitigate. You can read more about when you might need a note here.
There is no registration or certification process for service dogs. Avoid online “certification” programs and “official licenses,” as these are scams and have no legal weight whatsoever if the legitimacy of your service animal comes into question.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide company and sometimes help with anxiety, depression, and certain phobias, but are not trained in any specific tasks. In order to use an Emotional Support Animal you must have a psychiatric disability.
ESAs are not covered by federal laws that protect the use of service animals and do not have the same public access rights as service animals.
Emotional Support Animals are exempt from policies that prohibit pets, such as apartment leases that do not allow dogs.
A note from a doctor, psychologist, therapist or other mental health professional provides documentation that an individual needs an ESA (such as for housing or flying).
There is no registration or certification process for ESAs. Avoid online “certification” programs and “official licenses,” as these are scams and have no legal weight whatsoever if the legitimacy of your emotional support animal comes into question.
Check out our article dedicated to Emotional Support Animals.
Therapy animals are pets that go with their owners to volunteer in clinical settings like hospitals and counseling offices. They provide therapeutic contact for people who need physical, social, emotional, and cognitive function support.
Therapy animals are not trained to assist their handlers specifically, as service dogs are. While providing therapy, a therapy dog focuses primarily on others instead of the handler, which is the opposite of the behavior expected of a service dog.
Because therapy dogs are primarily pets (since they do not assist their owners with specific disabilities or other difficulties), they are not covered by the same protections as service dogs or ESAs. Therapy dogs are not exempt from housing policies that prohibit pets and cannot enter places like restaurants and grocery stores.
Unlike service dogs and emotional support animals, therapy dogs are often certified. There are many national and regional therapy dog programs with rigorous requirements for registration.
Check out our article dedicated to Therapy Dogs.
Service Dogs vs Emotional Support Animals vs Therapy Dogs
|Service Dogs||Emotional Support Animals||Therapy Dogs|
|Assists a single handler with a specific disability||Yes||Yes||No|
|Must be trained to perform specific actions when needed to assist a person with a disability||Yes||No||No|
|Welcome in stores and restaurants||Yes||No||No|
|May ride with handler in airplanes||Yes||Yes||No|
|Exempt from housing policies that prohibit pets or specific breeds||Yes||Yes||No|
|Requires official certification||No||No||Sometimes|