Updated: Aug 19
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 the common types of support dogs in the United States.
Therapy animals, service animals, and emotional support animals have skyrocketed in popularity recently. Visit a nursing home, and you'll likely run into several people bringing their family pet in for a visit. 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 defines service animals as a dog or miniature horse that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. They must do perform more tasks than just emotional support.
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 to complete a task, they still must be under complete control (via voice cues, hand signals, etc). Service animals are not required to wear a vest or to maintain any type of certification.
If it’s not clear what service an animal provides, facility staff is only ever permitted to ask these two questions:
Is this a service animal required because of a disability?
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 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 most 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.
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.
Service Animals (SAs)
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 
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. 
Be granted public access 
Be granted reasonable accommodations in housing with a “no pets” policy 
Be allowed to fly in the cabin with their handler 
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.
If you need help training your service animal, it is best to start with a trainer that specializes in training service animals. Other trainers may not realize that some of the common pet behaviors they teach may be incompatible with necessary behaviors for service animal work. Need help finding a service animal trainer? Shoot me an email so I can send you some recommendations.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
The definition of emotional support animals set forth in the FHA is the generally accepted definition.
Provide emotional support to persons with disabilities who have a disability-related need for such support 
Not pose a safety risk to others 
Not be destructive 
Have written documentation of the handler’s need for an ESA available upon reasonable request 
ESAs are not granted public access to any space besides their housing facility by any federal laws. ESAs should also undergo training. While this training may not be as extensive as service animal training, training should ensure that the ESA is not destructive or disruptive. While the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test certainly doesn't cover behavior all the behaviors an ESA should know, it's certainly a good initial goal to work towards for your ESA.
Therapy Animals (TAs)
Therapy animals, sometimes known as comfort animals, are not covered by the ADA, FHA, or ACAA. TAs can be any animal that provides comfort or emotional support to others. TAs can serve a variety of people and places including (but not limited to): students at a school or library, patients at a hospital or nursing home, mourners at a funeral home, etc.
TAs are not granted public access by law under any circumstances. TAs may be granted access to public and private facilities upon request, but they will not be given access to facilities that deny access to animals under federal and state health codes such as restaurants and grocery stores.
There is no TA certification required by federal law, but an individual facility may require certification in order to grant access to that facility. There are many national and regional certifying bodies for TAs. Many certifications include vaccine requirements and testing. Many therapy animal organizations base their tests off of the CGC test although most organizations’ testing requirements are more thorough than the CGC. A huge benefit offered by these organizations is liability insurance that covers their volunteer animal/handler teams. If an individual team is not certified by an organization, the handler may need to add an insurance rider to their existing insurance plan.
If you would like your pet to be a therapy animal, enrolling in training program that prepares you for the CGC test class, like the King's Creatures Adventure Team Club, can often give you a better grasp of whether your animal is cut out for therapy work or not. Whether you wish to certify your pet with a therapy animal organization or not, your pet should undergo fairly intensive training to ensure you, your animal, and the individuals you visit are as safe, healthy, and happy as possible. My favorite therapy animal organization is Living Creatures Ministry (LCM)! LCM provides therapy animal training and certification for Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod congregations. If you're trying to determine which therapy animal organization to join, make sure to check with the facilities you'd like to visit with your pet to see if those facilities require that your team be certified with a specific organization. If you still need help narrowing things down, check to see if there is an evaluator and/or active volunteers from each organization in your area. It's always great to have accountability and support as you and your pet work towards becoming a certified animal-handler team!
Why do these definitions matter? What’s the big deal?
Misconstruing these definitions (intentionally or not), can put those with a legitimate need for SAs or ESAs at risk. Fakes ESAs or SAs (untrained animals passed off as SAs or ESAs) can distract legitimate working animals from their tasks by barking, growling, hissing, or attempting to bite. Fakes can spread diseases when they are inappropriately placed in shopping carts, brought to restaurants, eliminate inside, or bite a person or animal. Fakes can confuse business owners and facility managers and lead them to illegally question or deny those with legitimate SAs. It’s important to clarify the differences between these types of assistance dogs to stop the spread of confusion. Let’s look back at those statements from the beginning of this article to identify the issues with each of them: “I need an emotional support animal to go with me wherever I go.”
ESAs are not granted public access under federal laws. This person either (a) needs to leave their ESA at home (b) is actually looking for SA to perform tasks for them.
“I want to train my dog to be a service dog to visit my grandma and her friends in the nursing home.”
SAs perform disability-related work or tasks for a specific individual with a disability. TAs provide comfort or emotional support to others. This person is likely looking to train their dog as a therapy dog, not a service dog.
“I took my comfort dog shopping in the grocery store with me yesterday.”
TAs (often known as therapy animals or comfort animals) are not granted public access under federal law. Furthermore, most state laws ban all animals except SAs from grocery stores and restaurants. A comfort dog is not a service dog, and passing off a comfort dog as a service dog is actually punishable by law in some parts of the US.
How can you help those that do need SAs or ESAs?
Share this information with friends or family that attempt to pass off their pets as SAs. If you run or manage a business, study federal and state laws to ensure you know your rights. Make sure your employees know how to distinguish between pets and SAs. Teach them the two questions they are legally allowed to ask. If your doctor or therapist confuses the legal definitions of SAs and ESAs, help them understand the differences so they aren’t leading their patients to make unintentional mistakes. If you encounter anyone that doesn’t understand the differences between these three common types of assistance animals, take the time to kindly and compassionately explain the differences to them.
Train your animals! If you are able to keep your ESAs or pets under control when you are walking them outside or in a pet-friendly store, you’ll be ensuring that any SA you encounter will be able to safely focus on their handler and their work. If you’re considering getting a SA, make sure that you get them the training they need. This will help them not to get overwhelmed and will also help the fully-trained animals around you to focus on their tasks. If you want your animal to be a therapy animal, consider enrolling them in Canine Good Citizen training program or other advanced obedience training to help prepare them for therapy work.
Do you have more questions about these assistance animal categories? Ask them in the comments below or contact me via email.
1 ADA Requirements: Service Animals https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm 2 Service Animals and Assistance Animals for People with Disabilities in Housing and HUD-Funded Programs https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/SERVANIMALS_NTCFHEO2013-01.PDF 3 Service Animals (Including Emotional Support Animals)
Interested in further reading? Check out these resources from the IACP:
IACP Business Resources Regarding Service Dogs https://www.canineprofessionals.com/business-resources-regarding-service-dogs
IACP Service Dogs Overview
IACP Therapy Dogs Overview