“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.

Have you found yourself wondering about the difference  between a Service Dog, an ESA, and a Therapy Dog?

I totally get it. When I first started learning about the difference between a Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal (ESA), I was confused. Then I found out that Therapy Dogs were yet another important role. So I did a lot of seeking, a lot of reading, and a lot of listening to learn about the significant differences in their roles, requirements, and access rights.

This is a lot to take in, but if you’ve landed here then you’re going to want to dig in. So here we go:

Service Animals

A Service Dog is trained to perform tasks for a person living with a disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Service Animals are limited to dogs and occassionally miniature horses.

Some specific types of Service Dogs include:

  • Allergy Detection Dogs
  • Autism Service Dogs
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs
  • Guide Dogs
  • Hearing Dogs
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs
  • Seizure Alert Dogs

Service Dogs have full access rights under the ADA as long as they are accompanying their handler. There’s an important distinction here as the dog does not hold the right to access, the person living with a disability does. If a friend or family member were to take the Service Dog somewhere without their handler, the dog would not have full public access.

Service Dog registries exist but are not regulated or required; however, there are times when an individual may need to submit documentation—for example, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires documentation when flying.

These important pups must be task trained and should have public access training to help them stay focused on their tasks despite distractions in their surroundings. This training can literally be a matter of life and death for their person. Service Dogs usually wear vests but these are not required and anyone can purchase them.

Image Credit: Muppet Wiki

Service Animals in Pop Culture


Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

Emotional Support Animals are medically prescribed animals providing therapeutic benefit through dedicated companionship. While a recent encounter with the emotional support peacock has sparked debate, ESAs can actually be a variety of species. Their purpose is to provide emotional comfort and support to a person living with a disability.

ESAs have access rights to live with you, as a reasonable accommodation, under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This act means that you cannot be charged a pet fee for an ESA or be subject to breed and weight restrictions. Back when we were all a bit more eager to board a plane, ESAs were able to fly with their handlers under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA); however, as of January 11, 2021, airlines are no longer required to extend disability accommodations for ESAs.

(Thank you, emotional support peacock?)

ESA registries exist but are not regulated or required and may not meet the requirements for FHA documentation. A person living with a disability can acquire an accommodation letter for their ESA from a licensed medical professional but as a heads up they might be required to see you for a minimum number of sessions, meet your animal to assess your relationship and your dog’s temperament, and continue regular client care for as long as you need the accommodation.

Training is highly encouraged for these animals as landlords are permitted to refuse an ESA if they are a nuisance.

Note: I couldn’t find any ESAs in pop culture. I’m guessing this is because usually they appear to be a pet unless we know their handler’s disability and have witnessed their relationship and interactions. Have you seen any?

Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs work with their handlers to help others by taking part in Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). Depending on the organization, Therapy Pets can be many species including:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Horses
  • Rabbits
  • Guinea pigs
  • Llamas and alpacas
  • Birds
  • Miniature pigs
  • Rats

Therapy Dogs can volunteer with their handlers in a variety of settings including nursing homes, medical facilities, reading programs, and schools to aid in AAA—providing emotional comfort and support to others. Therapy Dogs participating in AAT often belong to healthcare workers as these pups are involved in treatment goals and progress is documented.

Whether the Therapy Dog participates in AAA or AAT, they are first and foremost a pet and are only granted special access to facilities where they have a working relationship and only during designated shifts. Unlike Service Dogs and ESAs, Therapy Dogs can be registered or certified depending on the organization. Note: Pet Partners makes the distinction that their therapy teams are registered rather than certified as they are only involved in the assessment and not the training.

While not all AAA or AAT programs require your pup to receive the AKC Canine Good Citizen title, training towards this goal can be beneficial as many of the test items are similar to a Therapy Dog test.

Therapy Pets in Pop Culture


Service Animal, ESA, and Therapy Pet Comparison Chart

Feeling a little lost in all the words? Here’s a chart of how these three roles compare:

A chart showing the differences between service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs.

Is the difference between a Service Dog and Therapy Dog clear as mud?

While I know it is a lot to take in, I hope this article has helped you to better understand some of the differences between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs.

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

Disclosure: I earn commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

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