Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal: Which is Which?

You’ve probably noticed someone with a seeing eye dog, or seen the signs on the doors of businesses, “Service Animals Only”. These aren’t the only types of animals that can help their human friends, though; emotional support dogs, or ESDs, can be recommended by mental health practitioners to help with an array of mental or psychological conditions. Both service dogs and ESDs are used for specific purposes; the differences lie not only in their functions, but in their training and legal statuses as well. 

Service Dogs


A typical service dog will be trained to help with physical or neurological conditions. They often assist people who are blind, deaf, unable to walk unassisted, diabetic, prone to severe epilepsy, or those who suffer from certain obsessive-compulsive disorders. If the service dog was trained to guide someone who’s blind or deaf, then their most important work would be done out of the house, as they’re responsible for interpreting the world for their owners. For other conditions, such as diabetes or epilepsy, the dog would be trained to sense when there’s a severe drop in blood sugar, or when a seizure is about to happen. In these cases, the dog would know to bring the medication that could prevent a medical emergency. Service dogs can even be trained to bring a phone when it sees certain things happen, like if their owner is conscious but unable to get up. 

Training Process

Each service dog has been trained for a specific purpose, in compliance with set certification procedures. If someone needs a service dog for a condition that’s not severe, then they could train a dog themselves, but most service dogs are trained by an agency. They go through a selection process that determines their aptitude for the job, and then go on to work closely with their handlers for at least a year. The length of the training depends on what skill the dog is learning. In the case of guiding a deaf person, for example, the dog has to be trained to see the world almost as a human would, and then to alert their owner with the appropriate cues. This kind of training involves filtering massive amounts of information in a way that’s foreign to its instincts, which would take quite some time to learn. Just one missed signal could put the owner in a life-threatening situation, so it’s important for the handlers to be thorough.

In some cases, someone might be able to get their service dog early, before it’s been fully trained. For people who have used service dogs their whole life, it can be better to skip some of the wait time and finish the training themselves. While this could make the first year or so with the new animal a little trickier, it can also strengthen the bond between the two. 

Legal Recognition

Service dogs are all certified according to the ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the ADA, if the person with the service dog is allowed to enter a public or private area, then so can the dog. This means that they can go into restaurants, houses or apartments with no-pet policies, and even accompany their owners onto planes. For the people who got their service animal through an agency, the certification is already taken care of; if someone did the training themselves, then it’s up to them to apply for certification. 

Emotional Support Dogs


Make no mistake – emotional support dogs do a lot more than just help you when you’re feeling “emotional”. They’re like the yin to service dogs’ yang. Instead of helping with primarily physical disabilities, ESDs support people who have psychological or cognitive conditions. Anyone who’s been diagnosed with autism, PTSD, anxiety disorders, bipolar or personality disorders, learning disorders, or depression might benefit from an emotional support dog. For some people, it’s as simple as needing something to love and take care of – a dog with the right characteristics could be responsible for lifting someone out of deep depression. Or, an ESD could be the calming influence that consistently pulls someone out of their flashbacks or nightmares. Some people are actually debilitated by their mood disorders, and their emotional support dog is the only thing that pulls them back to the life that they want. Maybe someone could just have a lot of generalized anxiety, and they choose to manage it with a dog instead of medication. 

Training Process

Emotional service dogs are generally trained by their owners. Since they have to match personalities as well as their responses to their owners’ issues, it’s more common for someone to choose their own dog when it’s young, and train it as it grows. Most of the training is just house-training, but to a fairly high standard; most ESDs are also taught to respond when their owner’s condition worsens in any way. Some dogs will place their paw on the person’s chest, or get them to sit down and lay their head on the person’s shoulder. They may simply snuggle up next to their owner to show empathy. Beyond house-training, the way in which the ESDs respond to their owners is up to the individual.

Legal Recognition

The ADA doesn’t recognize emotional support dogs in the same way as service dogs. Any establishment can refuse entry to ESDs, unless the owner is using an airline, or applying for a house or apartment. Even though very few businesses are legally obligated to let your emotional support dog enter, some of them still will. The key here is to make sure that you have proof of your dog being an ESD, and not just a pet. All you need is a letter from your mental health practitioner, stating what your diagnosis is, and how the dog helps you. 

Sometimes when modern medicine falls short, dogs can step in to fill the gap. Next time you see a service dog or ESD, you’ll know just how much they do for the person who takes care of them. 

The National Service Animal Registry has been helping animals help people since 1995. They provide information and services related to emotional support animals and service dogs.

Emma Thompson

Hi, I'm Emma Thompson. Welcome to The Pet Town! I'm a Pet lovers like you and please feel free to get in touch with any questions. Enjoy your stay!

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