Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog Explained [2023]

service dog vs emotional support dog

Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog

Service dog vs emotional support dog: What’s the difference? And why are the differences so important? These things matter. Both for the people who own these amazing animals, as well as other members of the community, and businesses. Let’s jump right into it.

Service Dog Balu
Service Dog Balu

Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog – What’s the Difference?

The short answer

In short, the difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs is that service dogs are individually trained for a specific person, and emotional support dogs may not necessarily be trained at all.

Service dogs have public access rights under the ADA law, and emotional support dogs do not. But, emotional support dogs do have rights when it comes to housing situations.

service dog vs emotional support dog

Service Animal Definitions

Yes, this is supposed to be confusing! Part of the reason it’s confusing is that there are indeed many different types of working dogs, different types of disabilities that may be visible or invisible, as well as different laws that govern the use of these special animals.

And of course, different countries have different laws, too. There are different definitions of service animals, depending on the context. Let’s go through the different legitimate service animal definitions and where they are used.

ADA Definition of Service Animal

Service Dog Remi Vs Emotional Support Animal
Photo: working.collie.remmiOpens in a new tab.

The ADA or Americans with Disabilities ActOpens in a new tab., governs the use of service animals when public access rights are concerned. Under the ADA, a service animal is a dog or miniature horse (no other types of animals are included) that has been individually trained to do work or perform certain tasks for the benefit of a person who is living with a disability.

Mini Service Horse
Photo: in a new tab.

The work or tasks that the animal does must be directly related to the person’s disability and must mitigate and help the person by reducing at least some of the effects of the disability. Service dogs are trained, but they don’t need to be professionally trained by a service dog organization. They can be trained by a dog trainer, or, by the service dog owner/handler.

Service animals are not pets. Service dogs can be any type, any size, and any breed of dog, without restriction, under this definition. Even cities that have banned pit bulls, for example, must allow a pit bull service dog. This ADA FAQ page clearly states that emotional support animals are not service animals. Opens in a new tab.

Fair Housing Definition of “Assistance Animal”

Service Dog Fair Housing Act
Service Dog Balu

For virtually any housing situation, the FHA or federal Fair Housing ActOpens in a new tab. is in place to protect people with disabilities and those who use assistance animals, as they are called under this context. Under the FHA, an assistance animal is “an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability. An assistance animal is not a pet.”

Air Carrier Access Act Definition of “Service Animal”

service dog definition for air travel

The ACAA is the Air Carrier Access Act and is in place to assist airlines and people with disabilities who are traveling with service animals on airplanes.

“Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) a service animal means a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog Explained [2023]
Photo: the_working_willowOpens in a new tab.

An emotional support dog is basically just what it sounds like. It is a dog that provides comfort, therapeutic effects, or emotional support to someone who is living with a disability.

These dogs are not necessarily trained to do work or tasks as a service dog does. They help people by “being there.” And, they are a legitimate “reasonable accommodation” for housing situations. Emotional support dogs are not pets, either.

It’s important to note that emotional support dogs are not the only type of emotional support animal. Other kinds of animals may be emotional support animals. One example is cats.

Emotional support animals can:

  • Decrease feelings of loneliness and/or isolation
  • Help people to get out of the house, which can lead to improved socialization
  • Increase physical activity
  • Offer depressed people a reason to get up and take the dog out
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Help to prevent or lessen the impact of panic attacks
  • Improved physical health
  • Improved sense of purpose

If you have a disability and use an emotional support animal, you have a right to housing with your animal. Even housing situations and landlords that have “no pets” policies, must modify their policies to include allowances for emotional support animals.

Emotional support animals are not pets, and so landlords may not charge a pet deposit for them. But, people can be charged for damages that a service dog or emotional support dog (“assistance dogs”) do to the housing property.

If you want to enter into a housing agreement with your emotional support animal, it’s good practice to request the use of your animal in writing to your landlord. The landlord may request some additional information, but you don’t need to offer details about your disability. You may need a letter from a healthcare professional.

What Do Service Dogs Do?

Service Dog
Service Dog Balu

Service dogs are individually trained for a person’s disability, and they basically help people to live improved lives and to be able to have full and equal access to anywhere in society that they need to accomplish their hopes, dreams, or everyday activities.

Disabilities could be:

  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Psychiatric
  • Intellectual

Here are a few examples of some service dog tasks, although there are many, many more:

  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Guide dogs help people who are blind or living with low vision to get around
  • Hearing dogs can help people who are deaf or hard of hearing by alerting them to important sounds, such as their name, a doorbell, a smoke alarm, or other sounds
  • Mobility dogs can help people with mobility and stability, and do things like open and close doors, pick up dropped items, and retrieve items like water or a newspaper, as well as carry groceries, find and press elevator buttons, and many more tasks
  • Autism service dogs can perform a variety of tasks, including making sure someone with autism doesn’t become lost and wander off
  • People with psychiatric disabilities can benefit from a dog doing DPT or Deep Pressure Therapy, to reduce stress and move the body from “fight or flight” into a more relaxed state of being
  • Other psychiatric service dog tasks can include waking someone up from a nightmare, interrupting a dissociative episode, and bringing someone water and medication after a panic attack
  • Seizure alert service dogs can sense impending seizures, and/or keep a person safe during the event, and/or go and get help afterward
  • Diabetic service dogs are able to sense when someone’s blood sugar is getting dangerously too low or high, and alert the person
  • So many more…

Information For Businesses

If you have a business, or work at one, you should know that people with disabilities who use service animals have a right to go anywhere that the public can go, with a few exceptions. The exceptions include hospital operating rooms and burn units, swimming pools, and religious organizations. Read more about the ADA laws here.

The only two questions you may ask of someone with a service dog is, “Is this a service animal required because of a disability?” And, “What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform?” Denying access to someone with a disability who uses a service dog is considered discrimination.

Emotional support animals aren’t the same thing as service animals and can be excluded from public places. Service dogs do not need to be registered or certified. In fact, no legitimate registration or certification body exists. If you see websites online selling these documents, just know that they do not portray any legal rights under the Department of Justice, the ADA laws, or any other laws. Buying a piece of paper does not turn a dog into a service dog.

Service Dog Working
Photo: luna_exploregonOpens in a new tab.


Hopefully, this has answered the common but confusing question of service dog vs emotional support dogs. Just remember that service dogs are specially trained for one person’s disability, and emotional support dogs aren’t (necessarily). Service dogs have public access rights, and emotional support dogs don’t. However, emotional support dogs have rights when it comes to housing.

This basically means that if you have an emotional support animal for your disability, you have a right to housing with your animal. But, emotional support animals can be excluded from public places, such as restaurants, movie theatres, and grocery stores.

Autism Service Dog
Photo: @service.doodle.piperOpens in a new tab.

Sam Nelson

Sam is an experienced writer, advocate for people with disabilities and mental health, dog lover, artist, philosopher, and generally complicated human being.

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