A Quick Rundown on Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

Lots of people with both rare and more prevalent diseases are helped by animals, but the terms service animal, emotional support animal, and therapy animal are often misunderstood, and many people aren’t sure about how exactly these animals differ from pets. To help clear up the confusion, we’ve created a brief guide to the terminology, uses, registration processes, and generally etiquette for these animals.

In Brief

Service animals are trained to carry out specific tasks to help someone with a disability. In comparison, emotional support animals’ main role is to give comfort, and they don’t need special training. Pets, on the other hand, are domestic animals kept by people and families for enjoyment. While they can often help people feel more relaxed or be trained to do things, it isn’t their ‘job’, and they aren’t relied upon in the same way.

Service Animals

According to the ADA National Network, a service animal is defined as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” This means that other species aren’t considered service animals (although there is an exception for miniature horses).

Some of the work service animals do is well known, such as assisting people who are blind or visually impaired, but they can be trained for a large range of tasks depending on their owner’s needs. Some can help people who are having seizures, retrieve medicines or telephones, or detect adrenal crises. Larger dogs can also help people with balance and mobility problems, as in the case of Bella, who has Morquio syndrome (a rare metabolic disorder). Read about Bella’s story in Rare Disease Report.

Since people with disabilities and rare diseases often need multiple forms of assistance, many dogs’ work involves more than one task. For example, this article by Muscular Dystrophy News Today that outlines the various ways in which service dogs can aid people with neuromuscular diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. The support of service animals can have an enormous impact on the lives of people. In the case of Chloe, a teenager with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, having a service dog to assist her meant that her mother (her primary caretaker) had fewer things to help with and was able to go back to part-time work). Read about Chloe’s story in Metro.

Since they play such an important role, service animals are protected under US laws. Typically, people should be able to bring their service animal to most places with them, with exceptions for areas where they would pose a serious safety risk, like sterile areas of a hospital. This information is based on the ADA National Network’s guide, which you can read for more detail.

Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals

While many service animals provide a sense of comfort and companionship to their owners, it isn’t considered to be a work task. Animals whose main role is to do these things usually come under the category of emotional support or therapy animal. If in doubt, the best way to tell the difference between a service or emotional support animal is often to work out if they’re actively doing anything – for example, if an animal is trained to recognise and act on their owners anxiety attack, they’re probably a service animal, whereas if they provide comfort just by being their during an anxiety attack, they are more likely to be an emotional support animal.

Emotional support animals can provide a large benefit to people, and may help with conditions such as anxiety and depression. The medical benefits of keeping animals are well documented, including how they may reduce feelings of loneliness, depression, and low self-esteem. Learn more about this research here. Although the terms therapy animal and emotional support animal aren’t used consistently, a lot of people use the first to refer to an animal that lives with and helps one person, whereas the second term is more commonly used for animals that provide therapeutic contact in clinical settings.

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals can be many different species, although most commonly they are cats or dogs. They also don’t need to be trained to carry out specific tasks, and are regulated by different laws to service animals, although these vary between states. In general, emotional support animals have fewer rights than service animals and are more likely to be denied entry somewhere.

The Registration Process

Currently, service animals don’t require certification. There are a lot of businesses that sell ‘service animal registration’, but these aren’t recognised by US law as official documents, and people aren’t allowed to ask for documentation before letting a service animal enter.

Similarly, ESA Doctors say, there isn’t a requirement to register emotional support animals in the US, and there isn’t an official registry. However, people may need an ESA letter written by a licenced therapist. Ideally, this would be with a therapist someone has a long-term and on-going relationship with.


When out and about with their owner, service animals are considered ‘on duty’. Although they may look cute, it’s best not to distract or interrupt them by trying to pet them or get their attention. Many people also don’t appreciate being asked why they have a service animal – the question can be invasive, and they may not want to talk about their medical history. If in doubt about how to act around a service or emotional support animal, it’s best to respectfully ask; most people will be happy to let you know about any needs or preferences they have.

Stay tuned for a story about one exceptional service dog later today!

Want to learn more about support dogs? Check out The Top Benefits of Getting an Emotional Support Dog on Little Doggies Rules.

Anna Hewitt

Anna Hewitt

Anna is from England and recently finished her undergraduate degree. She has an interest in medicine and enjoys writing. In her spare time she likes to cook, hike, and hang out with cats.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
Close Menu