Service Animals vs. ESAs - What's the difference?

Despite what some people believe, there are several key differences between therapy dogs, emotional support animals (ESAs), and service dogs. Many aren’t even aware that therapy dogs and ESAs exist. It is not at all uncommon for these two groups to be overlooked or assumed service dogs. But the fact of the matter is, there are distinct purposes and privileges of each group that are important to understand. Read on to learn the main disparities, federal laws/regulations, and what qualifies as a service animal.



What is a therapy animal?

Perhaps the most critical difference between therapy dogs and ESAs/service dogs is that their handler is not the same person being assisted. In fact, therapy dogs typically assist countless people by providing them with affection and comfort. According to Service Dog Express, A Therapy Dog is one that is trained with specific commands to provide comfort and affection to people in long-term care, hospitals, retirement homes, schools, mental health institutions, and other stressful situations to include disaster areas. The handler is typically present during service visitations and might even be a healthcare professional. At the end of a workday, the therapy dog goes home with them where his role transitions to personal pet.

There are two types of therapy animal: comfort animal and therapy animal. Comfort animals work to alleviate stress and calm people during emergencies and crises. Therapy animals improve social, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing by providing schools, hospitals and other institutions with contact.

Therapy dogs have access to approved establishments while working but are otherwise regarded with the same restrictions as a regular family dog.

What is an ESA?

An ESA, or Emotional Support Animal/Dog, is a therapeutic companion for their owner. These dogs do not require much training other than being well-behaved and calm (i.e. no barking at length, aggressive tendencies, or other extreme behavior), which is possibly to blame for some misuse of the term. The Americans with Disabilities Act National Network (ADANN) states that ESAs are not deemed service animals under the ADA, despite their frequent use as therapy animals in a medical treatment. “These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities,” the ADANN says. So even if an ESA is providing therapeutic companionship to a disabled person, it is still not considered a service animal. The dog would be considered a service animal if it was trained to assist said person with day-to-day tasks.


ESAs do have a right to access to their owners’ homes without facing restrictions, including apartment complexes and housing communities. They used to have on-board flight privileges as well; however, in January 2021 the U.S. Department of Transportation passed new regulation that permits airlines to form their own restrictions for travelling ESAs. Be sure to check with yours for rules regarding ESAs.

What is a service animal?

What makes these animals unique is that they are trained to perform particular tasks for their owners. The work they do varies from assisting people with visual impairments to diabetes, seizures, or even mental illness. Conversely, a common fallacy surrounding these animals is that anyone with both a disability and a dog has a service dog. “Simply having a disability isn’t reason enough to categorize your own dog as a service dog,” the specialists at Canine Journal write. “Your service dog must be able to complete tasks that you are unable to complete yourself.” If the dog can do things like remind his diabetic owner to check her insulin every morning, or guide his blind owner across a busy street, he is a service dog.

While there are two categories of service dogs, they both retain the same legal rights. The two groups are physical service dogs and psychiatric service dogs. Physical service dogs are easier to distinguish because you will likely see them physically assisting their owners with their impairments. On the other hand, psychiatric service dogs can be difficult to recognize because they seem similar to ESAs and comfort animals. The key variance here is that a psychiatric service dog has been trained to perform tasks like assess their owner’s current emotional state, create a safe space for their owner (blocking in front, behind, or around them), or provide anxiety relief through Deep Pressure Therapy.

Service animals do ‘rank’ differently than other working animals because they are a necessary tool in their disabled owner’s life. These dogs are permitted on any airline and in any public place. “The only places that are legally allowed to deny entrance to Service Dogs are places of worship and military installations,” the Service Dog Express experts share. Many establishments not only recognize but respect the work that service dogs do for humankind.

Why do these differences matter?

It’s important to understand and acknowledge the different types of working animals because they don’t have the same training and experience. There are variances in the restrictions for each in an effort to keep everyone safe. While the work that therapy dogs and ESAs do is important, they aren’t trained to assist their owner with tasks that they would otherwise struggle to perform. Therefore, they aren’t given the same access as service animals.

Unfortunately, the misuse of these terms has resulted in stricter rules surrounding them. Many people abused the privileges of ESAs, which is a likely factor in the U.S. Dep. of Transportation’s decision to leave their jurisdiction to individual airlines. Further, proof of fraudulent representation of a service animal can result in very hefty fines as well as criminal charges.


Therapy dogs, ESAs, and service animals all provide services to people, just in different ways. Therapy dogs work with large groups like hospitals and schools, while ESAs comfort just one person. Service animals work with one person as well, but their goal is to alleviate specific obstacles in that person’s daily life. I hope this article has cleared any misconceptions you might have had about service animals!




Special thanks to the following sources:

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