Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals Explained

Currently, there are nearly 500,000 service dogs in the U.S. and many more animals that fall into the categories of emotional support and therapy animals. While all of these are technically assistance animals, their roles, training, and legal representation are vastly different between each other. Below we will explain the differences between each respective title and dispel the confusion surrounding them.

Service Animals:

Definition: according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is a dog that is trained to do work or perform a specific task(s) for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. There are currently no other animals that qualify as a service animal if it is not a canine.

Examples: Guide Dog/Seeing Eye Dog, Hearing/Signal Dog, Psychiatric Service Dog, SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog), Seizure Response Dog, etc.

Disabilities Supported – Mobility issues, visual impairment (blindness), hearing impairment or complete deafness, seizures, diabetes, PTSD, autism, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS), chronic depression, and other physical/mental disabilities.

Public Accommodation – Under the ADA, the definition of public accommodations is very broad. It includes, but is not limited to:

  • Hotels and other lodging establishments
  • Public transportation terminals, depots, and stations, buses, planes, etc
  • Restaurants and other places that serve food and drink, including movie theaters
  • Sales or rental establishments
  • Service establishments
  • Any place of public gathering, such as an auditorium or convention center
  • Places of entertainment and exhibit, like theaters or sports stadiums, gyms, bowling alleys, and other places of exercise or recreation
  • Recreational facilities, such as zoos and parks
  • Libraries, museums, and other places where items are collected or displayed publicly
  • Educational institutions
  • Social service centers

Protected Under Law –

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act
  • The Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Act
  • The Federal Rehabilitation Act

It is not a legal requirement for Service Dogs to wear a vest, though many owners put a vest on them to denote that the animal is working to avoid unwanted interactions. There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. However, these documents do not convey any rights under the ADA, and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal. The ADA states that workers and owners of public establishments may only ask two questions to the service dog’s owners when entering the premises for verification: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Emotional Support Animals:

Definition – These assistance animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help the person who owns them with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias. The main difference between emotional support animals and service dogs is that they are not trained to execute specific tasks or duties to aid a person with a disability. Also, emotional support animals are not limited to just canines; some people have an emotional support horse or cat, for example. Since these assistance animals do not perform specific tasks and don’t have to be a dog, they are not considered “service animals” under the ADA.

Disabilities Supported – Anxiety, depression, bipolar/mood disorders, panic attacks, PTSD, phobias, loneliness, and other emotional/psychological conditions.

Public Accommodation – Animals that are categorized as emotional support are legally allowed access to housing including apartments or condominiums where pets are not allowed and airplanes. **You will need to check with your individual State and local government agencies to find out where emotional support animals are legally supported in other public places. Under the ADA federal law and Texas law, owners of public accommodations are not required to allow emotional support animals inside, only service animals that fit the definitions of Service Animals under the ADA. (Psychiatric service dogs are, however, covered by both Texas law and the ADA.)

Protected Under Law –

  • Fair Housing Amendments Act
  • Department of Transportation Air Carrier Access Act

**Emotional Support Animals needing entry into housing developments or aircrafts do require a recent ‘ESA letter’ from a licensed therapist to be legally protected.

Therapy Animals:

Definition – Therapy animals provide people with beneficial contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. While a therapy animal could provide emotional support for it’s owner, typically, they are used to help people other than their owners. Therapy animals are trained to be comfortable in new environments and to interact with different people that they’ve either never met before, or don’t know very well. They should have a calm temperament, be unfazed by unfamiliar noises and movements, be comfortable being handled, and have a general love of people.

Public Accommodation – Typically, these animals visit and volunteer their time at hospitals, mental health institutions, schools, daycares, hospices, nursing homes, and more. Admission into these areas may either be granted or denied by the owners/operators of the establishments because they are not legally required to allow them access.

Protected Under Law – These animals are not protected under the law due to the subjectiveness of their roles. Any owner can declare their animal is a “therapy animal,” therefore, they do not have similar rights as service dogs or emotional support animals. Also, these animals are not required to receive any formal training and likely have not.

Although service, emotional support, and therapy animals each carry out different jobs, they all bear the responsibility of helping those in need. It’s important to be informed about the differences between the three types of assistance animals and know what kind of support they are providing when you are in their presence. As a rule of thumb, when you observe a support animal in public, make sure you ask for permission to interact with it before going to pet it or talk to it. Always be respectful of the boundaries established by the owner. We hope that this blog has taught you something new and that you can pass the information you learned here to others!




Credit: Robin Laclede