What are the differences between service dogs and emotional support animals?

Hello and welcome to Instant ESA- the fastest way to get a legal ESA letter around! We are excited to have you on board and are eager to help you with all of your emotional support animal needs. You have probably heard all sorts of terms thrown out there and wondered whether or not they apply to you and your pet. Service dog. Emotional support animal. What’s the difference?

It can get confusing. However, have no fear! We are here to help and set the record straight.The first thing you should know is that you are not alone. For centuries, people have relied on dogs for just about every form of “assistance” imaginable.

In addition to being great companions, dogs have also served roles as – guides, aides, and helpers. The list goes on. In recent times, people have given dogs more official roles in the lives of those who require physical and emotional assistance. The most prominent roles are those referred to as service dogs or emotional support animals. Today we are going to tell you exactly what you need to know about these roles.

In particular, this article is going to outline the key differences between service dogs and emotional support animals.

What is a service dog?

According to the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is a dog that is trained to perform a function or specific task that his or her owner cannot perform due to a clinically diagnosed physical, mental, or emotional disability (source).

These dogs likely provide emotional support and comfort but above all, they are specifically trained to provide assistance and perform tasks beyond intangible “soothing” benefits. Thus, they are not considered to be “pets” but rather, working animals.

Some of the most popular functions of service dogs include:

  • Providing seeing functions for the blind
  • Providing hearing functions for the deaf
  • Picking up objects for owners with limited dexterity
  • Serve as medical alert dogs
  • Helping those with limited mobility
  • They have also been used to help children suffering from autism as well.

The big picture that needs to be emphasized here is that dogs are considered to be service dogs if they do an actual job that the owners themselves are unable to perform. However, there is no denying the fact that service dogs exponentially improve the quality of life for their owners beyond the bare minimum of completing everyday tasks.

Anybody can see that service dogs:

  • Make people happier
  • Boost confidence
  • Increase motivation for living life to the fullest

In fact, a recent study conducted by Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine showed how service dogs can have measurable positive effects on the health and overall well-being of individuals with physical disabilities. Ultimately, it was found that those who had a service dog had significantly better psycho-social health, which led to better emotional, social, and work/school function than those who did not have a service dog.

Now comes the task of obtaining a service dog. In order to get a service dog, a person must first be diagnosed with a disability by a licensed physician. Then they must decide on what function or “job” they want the service dog to perform for them. The person would then work with a service dog agency to find a dog best suited to their individual lifestyle and needs.

Now that we have clearly defined what a service dog is- let’s move on to the basics of emotional support animals!

What is an emotional support animal?


Emotional support animals are animals that exclusively provide emotional and mental support for their owners. Technically speaking, emotional support animals are neither categorized as service animals nor pets. Unlike service animals or service dogs, emotional support animals are not trained for any specific task. Their only “job” is to provide companionship for a person with diagnosed mental health issues. Because of this – emotional support animals receive fewer federal protections through the ADA than service dogs.

For instance, they do not have access to all public areas. However, there are two legal protections that benefit emotional support animals and their owners. First, emotional support animals are permitted to fly with a person who has been diagnosed with an emotional or psychological disability. Second, they can qualify for no-pet housing. However, an emotional support animal letter is required by both the airlines and housing authorities.

Now in order to receive the official designation of an “emotional support animal”, the animal’s owner must fulfill the following pre-requisites:

  • fit the medical definition of a disability
  • receive a diagnosis by a doctor or mental health professional
  • receive a letter that states that the animal provides benefits to the owner (with regard to their diagnosed disability)

As of 2019, there are approximately 40 qualifying disorders on the approved list for an emotional support animal designation. Some of the most prominent ones include:

  • anxiety
  • bipolar disorder
  • depression
  • insomnia
  • PTSD
  • Eating disorders

The most important item for an emotional support animal owner is their emotional support animal (ESA) letter. Owners should take the ESA letter anywhere they go with their emotional support animal.

Service dog or emotional support animal? (Which is better?)

There really is no better. Deciding on whether to get a service dog or an emotional support animal depends entirely on your individual needs.

If you are someone who is clinically diagnosed with a physical, mental, or emotional disability AND require assistance with a specific task in your everyday life, then a service dog is your best option. Although you should keep in mind that training an animal for such a task can cost thousands of dollars. If you do not require assistance with an actual task and simply want mental and emotional support, then you are going to want an emotional support animal.

Either way, we live in a great time when animals, specifically dogs, can be given specific roles and make the lives of humans better all around. Here at Instant ESA we are honored to play a role in bridging the gap between humans and animals and help make the world a better place!

9 Responses to “What are the differences between service dogs and emotional support animals?”

  1. […] and love for their owner. Thus, their “assistance” is more intangible in nature. Whereas service dogs are more suited to guiding the blind and assisting the deaf, emotional support animals are most […]

  2. […] that provides therapeutic benefits to their owner through affection and companionship. This is not to be confused with a service dog which is specifically trained to perform a task that a disabled person is unable […]

  3. […] recap, an emotional support animal is an animal offers support to an owner who has a mental or emotional health condition by reducing […]

  4. […] ADA does not give a specific number for how many emotional support animals an owner can have. However, the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) is more specific about the […]

  5. […] emotional support dog is a dog that has been prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to provide a health […]

  6. […] is not to be confused with a service animal or service dog. According to the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are specifically trained to […]

  7. […] you know, emotional support animals are animals that provide therapeutic benefits to their owner through affection and companionship. […]

  8. […] we tend to think of dogs first. However, this does not mean that only dogs can be registered for service or support. This article is meant to answer the question of whether or not you can register your cat as an […]

  9. […] bring unconditional love and joy to those in contact with them. They are not to be confused with service dogs. A service dog is a dog that is trained to perform a function or specific task that his or her […]

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