Service Animals Vs. Emotional Support Animals Vs. Therapy Animals


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There is a lot of confusion and controversy lately about the various classifications for service, support and therapy animals, the roles they play in our lives, and the access rights they have with their owners. We know that dogs can lower our blood pressure, lift our emotions, and serve as our therapists when life is throwing us a curveball. That said, not all are equal.

Service dog (or animal). Many people with disabilities use a service animal to fully participate in everyday life. Service dogs are trained to perform many important tasks to assist people with disabilities—guiding the blind and alerting those with diabetes to changes in blood sugar, for example. They may give mobility to a person having difficulty walking or prevent children with autism from fleeing. They often pick up and retrieve items for people in wheelchairs and assist them with light switches and opening doors. Service dogs can alert the deaf to sounds and help soothe people with post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities.

A service dog is defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as an animal that has been trained to perform a task for a person with a disability.

A service dog is defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as an animal that has been trained to perform a task for a person with a disability. Accordingly, they are allowed to accompany their human anywhere the general public is allowed, including public restrooms, grocery stores, and restaurants. A service dog is not a pet; it is an animal that performs specific vital tasks for a person with a disability and the task performed must be directly related to the person’s disability. The ADA covers an individual who has a physical or mental impairment that (a) substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual; (b) has a record of such an impairment; or (c) is regarded as having such an impairment. Service animals are protected under the ADA and the Federal Housing Act.

It can be challenging to distinguish between a service dog and a personal pet, as there is nothing written in the ADA that states owners of service dogs must visibly identify them as such.

Emotional support animals (ESAs).

An emotional support dog is a dog that a licensed mental health professional has determined provides some benefit to an individual with a mental or emotional disability. They do not require specific task training, but provide emotional or mental stability to their owner through their love and companionship. ESAs have not been trained to perform a specific job or task and therefore do not qualify as a service animal. However, some state and local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. ESAs are covered under the Federal Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act for travel on airlines, but not under the ADA. In short, they are allowed in many but not all of the same locations as service dogs, and we recommend you check the laws in your specific state for clarity.

An emotional support dog is a dog that a licensed mental health professional has determined provides some benefit to an individual with a mental or emotional disability.

Therapy dog (or animal). A therapy dog is a personal pet and provides affection, comfort and love to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices and disaster areas. Therapy animals are not covered or protected under the Federal Housing Act or the ADA and are not allowed in many of the places that service dogs and ESA dogs are allowed.

Animal Samaritans offers an Animal Companion Therapy program that involves pet owners and their dogs. Prior to their participation, these dogs must successfully pass their Canine Good Citizen test, which is offered through the American Kennel Club, and a canine temperament test administered by our certified animal trainer. Therapy dogs bring companionship to people who are isolated, lonely, depressed, anxious, or otherwise emotionally fragile. While important and impactful to the people they serve, this is different than the service dog assigned to a military veteran with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, or the ESA dog assigned to an individual diagnosed with chronic anxiety.

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, staff may ask two questions: (1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) What task does the dog perform for you? Please note that any animal, whether a service dog, ESA, or therapy dog, can be asked to leave any place of business if the animal is out of control, posing a threat to other individuals in the area, or not housebroken. Test your knowledge on service dog vs. ESA vs. therapy dogs and take the quiz below to see if you know what type of animal is needed for each scenario.

There a a few wonderful dogs and cats that are overlooked as adoption options. Take Stefan (see below) for example: A great cat, Stefan is a sweet senior with a laid-back style. This fella adores being combed and he’ll relax into a puddle of purrs. And handsome dog Caviar (left) is a fabulous dog. He’s been a resident favorite for long time with his goofy nature. He likes other dogs, is smart, very affectionate and is a good walker. Maybe Stefan or Caviar or one of the other long-stay dogs or cats will make your family complete!

If you are considering adding a furry companion to your family, stop by the Palm Springs Animal Shelter and ask to see some of our long-stay residents.

  1. What kind of dog helps a person when they experience social anxiety while flying?
  2. What kind of dog helps children in family court?
  3. What kind of dog helps people in a wheelchair?
  4. What kind of dog protects someone with a history of seizures?
  5. What kind of dog provides companionship to numerous people in one environment?
  6. What kind of dog provides no physical tasks, but gives comfort to a person with an anxiety disorder?
  7. What kind of dog identifies the changes in a person’s blood sugar?
  8. What type of a dog is allowed public access everywhere?


1: Emotional support dog

2: Therapy dog

3: Service dog

4: Service dog

5: Therapy dog

6: Emotional support dog

  1. Service dog
  2. Service dog


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