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Emotional Support Dog vs Service Dog: What's The Difference?

Though emotional support dogs and service dogs can often assist people with similar disabilities they are quite different. Emotional support animals do not require training and are only protected for private housing, while service dogs, with their significant level of training, are allowed in other places out in public like grocery stores and even on planes.

April Brightman
January 12, 2024
May 12, 2023
7 minute read
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Grant FiddesGrant Fiddes
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May 12, 2023
August 18, 2021
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Discover the crucial distinctions between emotional support dogs and service dogs. Uncover their unique benefits for enhancing quality of life on Pettable.

Emotional support dogs and service dogs are both types of assistance animals that provide important benefits to their owners. However, there are significant differences between the two that are important to understand. Emotional support dogs provide comfort and companionship to individuals with emotional or mental health conditions, while service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with physical or sensory disabilities. This article will explore the differences between emotional support dogs and service dogs, including their roles, training, and legal protections.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are any animals that provide support or relief to individuals with mental health or psychiatric conditions. Their companionship brings comfort to their handler, aiding in their ability to complete everyday tasks and helping to improve their quality of life by doing so. ESAs don’t have to be dogs, but dogs are some of the most common animals designated as such.

What Does an Emotional Support Animal Do?

Other than providing companionship, emotional support animals can help those who feel isolated or lonely. They can help individuals who experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, and even those who experience certain phobias.

What is a Service Dog?

Service dogs and other types of service animals (miniature horses) are trained to perform specific tasks that assist handlers with their disabilities. Service dogs have more rights and protections under the law than emotional support animals. 

What Does a Service Dog Do?

Once trained, service dogs can provide assistance in a number of ways. They can physically support their handler if they experience difficulty walking or other mobility issues. Services dogs can also alert individuals with hearing or vision loss, and prevent those with autism from roaming or bolting.

Emotional Support Dog vs Service Dog: Key Differences

The main difference between emotional support dogs and service dogs is that ESAs provide comfort to those with mental or emotional conditions, and service dogs assist in performing specific tasks that their handler can’t complete on their own.

There’s no specific training required in order for a dog to become an emotional support animal, and no defined expectations for their behavior. The support an ESA provides is simply their calming, grounding presence.

To become a service animal, however, dogs are expected to complete training to perform tasks related to their owner’s condition. Their training should enable them to assist their owner directly and provide relief from challenges associated with their owner’s disability.

Housing Rights

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that protects tenants from harassment or discrimination based on race, religion, sex, orientation, family status, or disability. That last one includes the use of any assistive devices (or pets) for disabilities. 

What this means is that even if a rental agreement specifies no pets, assistance animals must be allowed for those with documented disabilities. Both service dogs and emotional support dogs are covered under this law.

Public Access Rights

Emotional support animals or therapy animals are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Though emotional support animals are often an essential part of their owner’s success in managing their condition, they’re not afforded all the same public access rights as service animals.

Under the ADA, service dogs must be allowed in any place where the public, patrons, participants, or clients are allowed — even if the establishment doesn’t typically allow pets. 

Service dogs are defined as having been individually trained to perform tasks assisting those with disabilities. Since emotional support dogs are not required to do the same, they aren’t allowed a pet restricted areas like service animals.

Travel Rights

The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to recognize service dogs and transport them with their handlers. They’re not required to recognize any other species of animal, nor will they recognize dogs that aren’t trained specifically to aid their handler’s disability.

Since the main difference between emotional support dogs and service dogs is their training, behavior, and ability to perform directly related tasks, ESAs don’t qualify as service dogs when it comes to travel. Some airlines will transport ESAs, but they are not legally required to do so.

Keep in mind you may have to provide documentation of your service animal to the airline before your travel date. Airlines are not allowed to ask about your specific disability but may ask directly if your dog is required for it.


As we mentioned, training and task performance are the main differences between emotional support dogs and service dogs. While ESAs aren’t required to have any specific training or to perform specific tasks, they should still be well-behaved and manageable in public places and around other people.

Service dogs, however, are required to complete extensive training. This includes being able to perform repetitive tasks on cue that will assist their owner, staying calm in unfamiliar settings, and being alert without being reactive. 

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal

To qualify for an emotional support animal an individual must have a mental health or psychiatric condition as stated by a mental health professional. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist can make this determination and provide a prescription for care that includes an emotional support animal.

With the prescription, you can obtain an emotional support assistance letter (ESA letter) that will qualify you and your ESA for protection under the Fair Housing Act. 

How to Get a Service Dog

You’ll need written documentation from a health professional To get a service dog. It has to state that you have and are being treated for a disability, mental health, or psychiatric condition, and require a service animal because of it. 

Once you have the required paperwork to get your service dog, they’ll need to be trained in order to have the rights and responsibilities as such. Some organizations train dogs that are ready to work for their handlers and can provide individuals with service dogs, or access to classes and trainers. 

Service Dog Training

Service dog training requires your dog to be able to perform specific assistive tasks related to your disability. To do this, you’ll need the right resources. Service dog training courses will provide you with helpful tips to have your dog memorize tasks and cues in no time.

Pettable’s Online Psychiatric Service Dog Training is an affordable program that will help you teach your dogs the ins and outs of service training from the comfort of your home. Complete sessions for obedience training, public access training, and more. 

Get Your ESA Letter With Pettable

Pettable has designed a seamless process for helping you obtain your emotional support animal letter. Complete a quick assessment to help us best determine your specific needs, and you’ll be on your way.

We’ll match you with a licensed health provider in your state who can give you a timely evaluation and issue your valid ESA letter within 24-48 hours of consultation. Our professionals are experienced and proficient in providing precise, accurate documentation needed to qualify your emotional support animal. 

Meet the author:
April Brightman

April Brightman is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for traveling and hiking with her rescue pup, Marley. She's written for pet-centered sites like Outward Hound, as well as outdoorsy adventure brands like BearVault, Hipcamp, and Explorer Chick.

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