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The Difference Between Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

By Colleen Williams
published: September 1, 2018 - updated: September 2, 2022 • 3 min. read
Guide dog

There’s no doubt about it…it’s a good time to be a dog! In our not-so-distant past, canines were often confined to solitude in a doghouse or yard, but today’s hounds do more traveling with their owners than before. Now more than ever, animals are accepted, even welcomed, in public due to an increased awareness of the bond they share with their human companions. In fact, a new classification of dog, Emotional Support Animal or ESA, came about as a result of the real difference a relationship with a pet can make in the life of someone suffering from a physical or mental disability. While both service dogs and emotional support dogs are entitled to certain rights that come with their titles, there are important differences to note between the two.

Service Dogs

Service dogs not only assist people with hearing or visual impairment, but also perform an array of specific tasks for their owners. They can be trained to work with people who use a wheelchair, have balance issues, suffer from autism, seizure disorders, or a number of other conditions. These special dogs can be trained to retrieve dropped objects, open and close doors, or even bark to indicate help is needed, and these trained behaviors can vary widely within the service dog classification, depending upon the needs of the dog’s owner. Service dog vests are usually worn by these animals to help identify them as an extension of the handler and to prevent people from petting them, but they’re not required! Please Don’t Pet Me says: “Federal law, The Americans with Disabilities Act, does not require any special identification of service animals. Some service dogs need special equipment to perform their jobs correctly, while others do not.”


Emotional Support Animals

By contrast, emotional support dogs are animals that are specially designated to assist individuals with emotional or psychological needs. They aren’t trained to perform specific tasks, but rather provide a source of comfort for individuals experiencing stress, anxiety, or other psychological disorders. These animals have been found to be an ideal treatment for people who have dealt with traumatic experiences, as well as individuals with a fear of flying. ESAs are identified by a certified emotional support animal letter and can often be seen wearing emotional support dog vests, though again, vests are not required.

Rights of Service Dogs and ESAs

While the definitions of service dogs and emotional support dogs are different, both types of animals are treated similarly when it comes to their public rights, but there are a few key points of differentiation:

  • According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your service dog can accompany you to all public locations, including grocery stores, movie theaters, doctor appointments, flights, and so on. Basically, any public place a person is allowed to visit, a service dog’s presence is accepted. Emotional support animals, in contrast, are more limited with regards to where they are accepted in public. While they’re allowed on airplanes (with the appropriate certified emotional support letter), they aren’t necessarily allowed to accompany you to the movies.
  • Under the Fair Housing Act, neither emotional support animals or service dogs cannot be considered “pets.” Meaning if you live in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets, you’re still entitled to have an emotional support animal or a service animal without penalty. If you live in an apartment that does allow animals, you’re not required to pay any of the typical pet fees or deposits.
  • Because emotional support dogs are considered an assistive aid by the ADA (no different than a wheelchair), they must be provided with reasonable accommodation. A person who uses a wheelchair isn’t charged extra for his wheelchair when he or she flies. The same goes for a person who has an emotional support animal.Service-Dog-vs. ESA infographic
  • So while there are some key differences between a service dog and an emotional support animal, there are certain rights that owners of each are entitled to. These animals serve different functions in the lives of their owners, but the jobs they perform are equally important to the people they help each and every day.

    Min S. Lee is the Senior VP of Business Development for, a telehealth company. CertaPet is the leader in providing emotional support animal letters by internally connecting patients with licensed mental health professionals. Get your ESA letter at

    colleen williams
    By Colleen Williams

    Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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