Common Working Animals Confusion

Updated: Mar 2

Service animals, emotional support animals, & therapy animals -- what's the difference?

“I need an emotional support animal to go with me wherever I go.” “I want to train my dog to be a service dog to visit my grandma and her friends in the nursing home.” “I took my comfort dog shopping in the grocery store with me yesterday.” Each of these statements make me cringe a little bit more! They all demonstrate the confusion surrounding common types of working dogs in the United States.

Therapy animals, service animals, and emotional support animals have skyrocketed in popularity recently. It seems like you can’t fly anywhere without seeing an animal in the airport or even in the cabin on your flight. Walk into your local Walmart on any given day, and you may see a cart with one or two small dogs riding inside it or even someone holding a ferret or a monkey! As an animal lover and pet owner, you may see this as a wonderful thing! People are finally realizing how useful animals can be!

How could anyone see more animals as a problem? Why are so many animal care professionals up in arms over this plethora of working animals?

The problem lies in the lack of understanding of the differences between therapy animals, service animals, and emotional support animals. Each type of animal can do so many wonderful things for our society, but unfortunately confusing the three causes issues for many -- from those with disabilities to business owners, from landlords to those seeking comfort in times of tragedy.

So let’s clarify those differences! First, we have to look at the federal legislation that applies to these animals. WARNING: This may actually seem more confusing at first! Don’t worry! It should all make sense by the end of the article.

In the United States, there are three different pieces of federal legislation that apply to service or assistance animals:

The ADA & Service Animals

The ADA defines service animals as a dog or miniature horse that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities

Under the ADA, facilities that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. We call this public access.

Service animals must be under control at all times. This means they should be leashed or tethered if it doesn’t interfere with their tasks. If they need to be off leash, they still must be under complete control (via voice cues, hand signals, etc).

If it’s not clear what service an animal provides, facility staff is only ever permitted to ask these two questions:

  1. Is this a service animal required because of a disability?

  2. What work or task has this animal been trained to perform?

Even if someone answers these questions correctly, facilities may still ask a service animal to vacate the premises if it is out of control or not house-broken.

The FHA & Assistance Animals

The FHA defines an assistance animal as any animal that works, provides assistance, performs tasks, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more symptoms of a disability. If the animal serves one of those functions and the handler has physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, then housing providers must provide an exception to their “no pets” rule policy. Housing providers may ask for written proof of a disability if the disability is not readily apparent.

The FHA does NOT limit assistance animals to dogs or horses. It does, however, stipulate that a housing provider can refuse accommodation to any specific assistance animal that poses a health or safety risk to others or any specific assistance animal that would cause substantial property damage.

The ACAA & Service Animals

As of 2021, the ACAA defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The ACAA states that animal species other than dogs, emotional support animals, comfort animals, companionship animals, and service animals in training are not service animals.

The ACAA also allows airlines to deny access to service animals that are too heavy to travel in the cabin, pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, cause a significant disruption to cabin service, or are prohibited from entering the country of destination. Additionally, airlines may deny transport to a service animal if the airline requires the US DOT service animal forms and they are not provided.

Airlines may require two different US DOT service animal forms: a form attesting to the animal’s health, behavior, and training; and a form attesting that the animal can either not relieve itself or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner, if the animal will be on a flight that is 8 or more hours.

Wait! The ADA & ACAA define service animals differently! None of these federal regulations mention therapy animals at all! How do we tell them all apart? This made it more confusing!

No worries! Let’s break these animals down into three categories.

Performs a task or work for an individual with a disability

Service Animals

To avoid confusion, the definition of SAs as set forth in the ADA is the generally accepted definition. SAs are necessary medical equipment, much like a wheelchair, oxygen tank, or walker.

Service animals must:

  • Be either a dog or a miniature horse

  • Be trained to perform a task or work for an individual with disability [1]

  • This task can NOT just be providing emotional support. The work or task a SA has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. [1]

  • Be granted public access [1]

  • Be granted reasonable accommodations in housing with a “no pets” policy [2]

  • Be allowed to fly in the cabin with their handler [3]

  • Be under control at all times [1, 3]

To meet all of these requirements, service animals must undergo intensive training. Federal law does not prohibit owners from training their own service animals, but it is often in the best interest of the animal and the handler to hire a professional trainer. If your animal is lunging, barking, pulling, biting, growling, etc in public, it is not a service animal “under control” as defined by federal laws. Businesses do not have to grant you access if your animal is out of control. Federal law does not require any certification, vests, patches, etc to identify an animal as a service animal.

Since public access is granted to service animals by the ADA, no state law may deny public access to a legitimate service animal. However, some state laws may also grant public access to service animals in training. They may also stipulate fines for those that pretend their pet is a service animal.

Touches on the basics of emotional support animals. Orange background, white dog from King's Creatures Animal Training LLC logo at top, white text

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

The definition of emotional support animals set forth in the FHA & ACAA is the generally accepted definition.

ESAs must:

  • Provide emotional support to persons with disabilities who have a disability-related need for such support [2]

  • Not pose a safety risk to others [2, 3]

  • Not be destructive [2]

  • Have written documentation of the handler’s need for an ESA available upon reasonable request