Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, ESAs — What’s the Difference, Anyway?

Currently, only dogs — and occasionally miniature horses — may lawfully receive the designation of service animal.

Only service animals are protected by federal law in the United States under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Photo: COD Newsroom

Years ago, the term “service dog” covered it all.

People with disabilities had specially trained dogs assisting them with the everyday activities of daily living.

This enabled them to live more independently — for example, a blind person’s vision assistance dog would help them safely navigate the streets.

Recently, though, a couple more designations have cropped up to counter rising needs stemming from conditions that may not always be physical but that can be just as debilitating: therapy animals and emotional support animals.

In the United States, certain laws apply to service animals but not to therapy animals or emotional support animals.

In this article, we’ll look at the important differences between:

  1. Service dogs
  2. Therapy dogs
  3. Emotional support animals (ESAs)

Ready? Keep reading!

Service dogs are allowed to accompany their humans anywhere in the United States. Photo: Jean

What’s the Difference Between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and ESAs?

1. Service Animals

The definition of service animals, according to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) website, is “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.”

There are stringent restrictions on what a service animal may be:

  • The animal must be a dog. Currently, no other animal can be given the designation of “service,” with the exception of miniature horses in special cases.
  • Emotional support dogs and therapy dogs are not considered service dogs.
  • Tasks performed by the dog must be tailored to assist the person’s disability.
  • A letter from a physician is not enough to transform a therapy animal or emotional support animal into a service dog.
  • A service dog must receive specialized training tailored to assist with disabilities.

Keep in mind that service dogs are not limited to simply being vision assistance dogs or dogs who assist people with physical disabilities.

For example:

  • The SSigDOG (sensory signal or social signal dog) is trained to help people with autism.
  • And seizure response dogs are trained to alert, protect and get help for their humans at the onset of a seizure.

Both of the above are considered service dogs and are covered under the ADA.

Service dogs (and miniature horses) receive intensive training before they are assigned to a permanent handler. These animals are taught how to assist their handler with the handler’s particular disability, but the service dog is also taught how to behave in public.

Service dogs will not run amok. They will not attack. They remain quietly ready to assist their handler, regardless of the environment.

Note that, service dog or not, if your animal is behaving inappropriately, you both may be asked to leave by representatives of any establishment you visit.

fake service dog certification
This “deluxe package” from an official-looking site called US Service Animals sells for nearly $200. Service dogs need to be trained for specific disabilities, and faking one is a criminal offense in many states.

“Fake Service Dogs”

As we revealed in a blistering special report in 2012, it’s becoming more and more common these days for everyday pets to be illegally posed as service dogs.

That’s because some pet parents think posing their pets as service dogs is a convenient way to get their pets free tickets on trains and airplanes, as well as admission into hotels and restaurants that don’t allow pets.

This is a real problem. Service dogs are not show pieces. They do not work to look good or entertain the public. They are not walking canine advertisements. They are working animals. To falsify the qualifications of a service dog is a criminal offense in many states.

And by the way, there is no real “US Service and Support Animal Registry Database” or “National Service Animal Registry,” as you may have seen advertised online — these are just gimmicks to get you to pay for fake service dog certification.

Interacting With a Service Dog

As we’ve established, service dogs cannot be denied entry to an establishment. However, an employee is allowed to ask the handler 2 questions:

  1. Is that a service dog?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Employees may not ask about a person’s specific disability, and they may not ask for documentation or for the dog to demonstrate their task. The 2 questions above are the only questions that are allowed to be asked by law.

Lastly, never interfere with any service animal performing their designated duties. You could inadvertently cause serious injury to their handler by distracting the animal.

Therapy dogs are usually trained to work in environments where they will interact with many different people, such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Photo: NadineDoerle

2. Therapy Animals

As we mentioned, therapy animals (and emotional support animals) are not protected under the ADA.

This means that they are not allowed to go anywhere that animals are typically forbidden to enter, such as restaurants, on aircraft and in grocery stores.

Therapy animals are not required to receive specialized training, as service dogs are.

They can be any type of animal intended to bring comfort to people. Therapy animals are usually trained to work in environments where they will interact with many different people, such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools.

Always keep your pet’s well-being as the top priority when considering stressful traveling. Photo: StockSnap

3. Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

Emotional support animals are similar to therapy dogs in that they don’t need specialized training and they can be any type of animal: mammal, reptile, aquatic — you name it.

Yes, your ESA can even be a peacock.

The main difference between therapy animals and emotional support animals? ESAs usually trained for and used by one specific person versus many people visited by therapy animals.

These animals bring comfort to their handlers and lessen anxiety. These animals are not covered under the ADA, but they are restrictively covered by a 2009 document released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which specified:

“There can be some circumstances in which a passenger may legitimately travel with an emotional support animal. However, we have added safeguards to reduce the likelihood of abuse. The final rule limits use of emotional support animals to persons with a diagnosed mental or emotional disorder, and the rule permits carriers to insist on recent documentation from a licensed mental health professional to support the passenger’s desire to travel with such an animal. In order to permit the assessment of the passenger’s documentation, the rule permits carriers to require 48 hours’ advance notice of a passenger’s wish to travel with an emotional support animal. Of course, like any service animal that a passenger wishes to bring into the cabin, an emotional support animal must be trained to behave properly in a public setting.”

Also, ESAs have a key protection that therapy animals don’t have: According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), ESAs are granted exceptions when it comes to housing.

In a news release from May 2016, HUD stated:

“The Fair Housing Act requires that housing providers, including condominium and homeowners associations, grant reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, or practices when such accommodations are necessary to afford a person with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing. This includes waiving ‘no pet’ rules to allow emotional support animals.”

The homeowner or landlord should not charge an extra fee for an ESA.

However, landlords do have some protections. They’re allowed to charge a security deposit as well as hold you accountable for any damages your animal causes to the home. They can also ask for documentation to verify your disability.

This woman travels with her emotional support peacock:

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Airlines Are Cracking Down on ESAs

With air travel costs as high as they are, it’s tempting for people to try to nab a free flight for their pet.

A simple visit to a local physician or mental health professional will yield the documentation they require.

If the person so chooses, they can also hop online and buy a fake service vest for their animal — and presto, the airline will fly the animal for free. As a bonus — in most cases — the person’s pet can travel with them rather than in the cargo hold.

But while these people are “winning,” ultimately they are costing us way too much.

There are many individuals who have properly trained, well-behaved ESAs and legitimately have a need to have this animal nearby. These are the people who are paying the price for the fakers.

It seems an outrage that someone with a legitimate mental disorder needs to jump through hoops to keep their ESA with them, but this may be the result if the abuse of the system does not stop.

When ESA Fraud Goes Wrong

According to The New York Times, from 2016 to 2018, reports of “in-flight animal incidents” have risen 84%, a figure that includes not just attacks or threatening behavior but instances of animals urinating or defecating in the cabin as well.

To take just one egregious example, in 2017 a man was severely bitten by another passenger’s emotional support dog.

The dog had been seated on his handler’s lap and without provocation attacked the neighboring passenger, pinning him against the window and inflicting serious bites to the man’s face.

The handler had provide the airline the appropriate documentation for the dog. Clearly, though, the dog had not been trained to handle a public setting properly, as specified in the DOT’s 2009 guidance.

The dog and his handler were later allowed to fly out — with the dog restrained in a carrier. The bitten passenger required 28 stitches in his face and likely now has trauma of his own.

The Real Victims

The actual victims of ESA misbehavior on flights isn’t just the legitimate human sufferers. The animals suffer, too.

Flying is a tremendously stressful experience for people who have a basic understanding of the process. We cannot explain to an animal what is happening and why. They become frightened, anxious and stressed — which may explain why so many ESAs display inappropriate behavior.

Animals need to be trained to cope with this stressor, but many people who decide to bend the rules to fly with their pet overlook this genuine concern.

More tragically, we see incidents such as the recent NBC report in which a college student flushed her “emotional support” hamster down the toilet in order to board her flight. If this animal truly was as important to her as she claimed, it’s difficult to believe she could do something so callous.

Airlines Are Revising Their ESA Policies

Recently, major airlines are taking a hard look at their ESA and animal in-flight policies.

Prompted by recent and ever more outrageous claims — such as the woman who tried to fly with her emotional support peacock — the airlines and the DOT are being forced to make a tough decision.

Both Delta and United Airlines announced in 2018 that they now require stricter documentation for all animal travel. Vaccinations records, veterinary statements, signed statements regarding the animal’s ability to behave and more may be necessary to fly with your animal.

The rub is that ESAs do have a genuine and worthy role to perform in our society. Properly trained, these animals can literally be the difference between life or death to their handlers who are suffering from a wide range of mental and emotional disorders. In their way, these ESAs are as vital as service dogs.

The real solution is to provide the support and training for ESAs that service dogs receive. Create facilities and regulations for training ESAs, and allow them to then fall under the same ADA umbrella as service animals.

There must also be a stronger crackdown on those who deliberately abuse the system. A number of states have laws stating that it is illegal to label an untrained dog a service dog. These laws must be enforced.

In the meantime, fellow passengers are placed in the unfavorable position of having paid for their ticket and potentially having to deal with urine, feces or aggressive behavior from a so-called ESA that is really just someone’s favorite boa constrictor.