A Guide to Service Dogs, ESAs, and Therapy Dogs

by | March 1, 2022 | Blog

Learn the difference in Service Dogs ESAs and Therapy Dogs

“What’s the difference between a Service Dog, an ESA, and a Therapy Dog?” is part one of a four part series on dogs and mental health in collaboration with Elizabeth Sánchez Arvizu, M.A.’s #ReFrameAndReEnchant initiative on Psychology for Geeks.

Disclaimer: The following information is based on the United States as that is the information that I have been trained in. I have accurately portrayed these roles to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing this article but laws may change.

Exploring the Unique Differences and Benefits of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs.

When it comes to assistance animals, it’s important to understand the distinctions between service dogs, emotional support animals (ESAs), and therapy dogs. Each type of animal plays a unique role in helping individuals with various needs. In this article, we will delve into the specific functions, legal rights, and training requirements for each category.

Service Animals: Reliable Partners in Life

Defining Service Dogs

Service dogs are specifically trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities. These disabilities can include physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental health challenges. Service dogs are an essential part of their handler’s daily life and help them navigate the world with greater independence.

It is a misconception that all service dogs are easily identifiable by their vests. The truth is that vests are optional but can help identify their role.

Tasks Performed by Service Dogs

Some common tasks that service dogs can perform include:

  • Guiding visually impaired individuals
  • Alerting hearing-impaired individuals to sounds
  • Assisting with mobility-related tasks, such as opening doors or retrieving items
  • Alerting to and responding to medical conditions, such as seizures or low blood sugar

Legal Rights and Protections

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs and their handlers are granted certain rights and protections. These include the right to access public spaces, such as restaurants, hotels, and stores, as well as the right to live in housing that may otherwise have pet restrictions.

Training and Certification

Service dogs undergo rigorous training to ensure they can perform their tasks effectively and behave appropriately in public. While there is no standardized certification process, reputable organizations often provide training and certification to ensure that service dogs meet specific criteria.

Suggested Resources for Service Dogs

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs): Soothing Companions

Defining Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide comfort and companionship to individuals with mental health conditions or emotional disorders. Unlike service dogs, ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks; their mere presence helps alleviate the symptoms of their handler’s condition.

It is a misconception that ESAs have the same access rights as Service Dogs. The truth is that ESAs have housing rights under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), but their access rights are more limited.

Roles of ESAs

ESAs can support their owners by:

  • Reducing anxiety and stress
  • Providing companionship to combat loneliness
  • Offering a sense of security and stability

Legal Rights and Protections

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) can live with you in your home under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This means you don’t have to pay a pet fee for your ESA, and they aren’t limited by their size or breed. Although training is not required, it’s a good idea because landlords can say no to an ESA if it causes problems.

In the past, ESAs could fly with their owners under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). But since January 11, 2021, airlines don’t have to let ESAs on board anymore.

Obtaining an ESA Letter

To qualify for an ESA, an individual must obtain a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that the animal is necessary for their emotional wellbeing.

ESA registries are out there, but they’re not controlled or necessary. They might not be enough for FHA paperwork. If someone with a disability wants a letter for their ESA, they should get one from a doctor or therapist. Just know that the professional might need to see you and your pet a few times and keep helping you as long as you need the ESA.

Suggested Resources for ESAs

Therapy Dogs: Spreading Joy and Comfort

Defining Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and emotional support to individuals in various settings, such as hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. They do not have the same legal rights as service dogs or ESAs and are not considered assistance animals under the ADA.

It is a misconception that Therapy Dogs have the same access rights as Service Dogs. The truth is that Therapy Dogs only have special access to facilities where they work and during designated shifts.

Settings for Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs typically work in settings like:

  • Hospitals and rehabilitation centers
  • Nursing homes and assisted living facilities
  • Schools and universities
  • Disaster relief areas

Training and Certification

Therapy dogs must undergo training to ensure they have a calm and gentle temperament, can follow basic commands, and are comfortable in various environments. Certification is often provided by therapy dog organizations that evaluate the dog’s behavior and skills. For more information, see Transform Your Dog into a Therapy Dog.

Benefits of Therapy Dog Interactions

Interactions with therapy dogs have been shown to:

  • Lower stress and anxiety levels
  • Improve mood and emotional wellbeing
  • Encourage communication and social interaction
  • Promote physical activity and rehabilitation

Suggested Resources for Therapy Dogs

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the main difference between a Service Dog, an ESA, and a Therapy Dog? A Service Dog is trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, an ESA provides emotional support and comfort to a person with a disability, and a Therapy Dog works with their handler to help others through Animal-Assisted Activities or Animal-Assisted Therapy.
  • Can any dog become a Service Dog, ESA, or Therapy Dog? While many dogs have the potential to fulfill these roles, they must meet specific requirements, such as proper training and temperament, depending on the role they are meant to serve.
  • Can a Service Dog or ESA be any breed or size? Yes, Service Dogs and ESAs can be any breed or size as long as they can effectively perform the required tasks or provide the necessary support.


Understanding the differences between service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs is crucial for responsible pet ownership, public awareness, and legal compliance.

If you are interested in learning more about Therapy Dogs, please check out my podcast Therapy Dog Talk.

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