Service Animals vs. Therapy Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals

Posted by CYNDI JENSEN on

Between being a life-long pet owner, a purveyor of pet themed products, as well as being part of a Therapy Dog team, I am often asked for general information about pets, and dogs in particular.  One of the discussions I get involved in quite frequently is the difference between a Service Animal, Emotional Support Animal and a Therapy Animal.

There are quite a few commentaries on the internet that confuse the three, or use the terms interchangeably, so I wanted to write a blog about all of them - what is the same and what is different.

Therapy Animals

Therapy Dog

What Are They?:  Therapy animals are animals that are brought into public situations to provide affection, comfort, or even just a gentle wave of love to people who might otherwise not have an animal available to them.  They go to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, libraries, pretty much anywhere.  But their primary purpose is to provide support or comfort to other people outside of their households, not their owners.

Training:  The ability to be a Therapy Animal is less about training, and more about a simple personality.  In order to be a good Therapy Animal they need to be trained in basic obedience, yes. But more than that, they need to have the disposition to be calm in a variety of situations, not be upset by loud noises or unusual smells, not be spooked by wheels or unusual apparatus, be an overall friendly animal that likes being around a multitude of people - not just cuddling up with their owners.

How to become a Therapy Animal Team:  There are many organizations out there that offer certification for Therapy animals, and many include opportunities for placement and advanced training.  You can try the American Kennel Club, Therapy Dogs International (this is where we have our certification from), US Service Animals, USA Service Dogs, and more. Some have training classes, offer insurance, and other amenities, and some just offer certificates - just make sure that it is a reputable company before choosing your certification credentials.

Where can I take them?:  There is no legal requirement for any location to accept Therapy animals.  Although many organizations and locations allow them for the betterment of their constituents, each location will have different rules for the types of animals or even the type of certifications that owners and pets must have to be considered as a therapy animal.  Make sure you check on all requirements before you decide where to go, and work with the facility management to determine the best fit and activity to support their needs.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Dog

What Are They?  The definition of an Emotional Support Animal is almost the exact opposite of a Therapy Animal. While a Therapy Animal's role is to provide love, comfort and affection to people outside of their home, an Emotional Support Animal's role is to provide that love, comfort and affection to their owner.  The difference between an Emotional Support Animal and just an every day pet lies with the owner, rather than the animal.  In order to be considered to be an Emotional Support Animal, the owner must have a diagnosed psychological need for such support.

Training: There is no special training for Emotional Support Animals.  They just do what they do as a pet - love you unconditionally!  However, they do need to have basic obedience training if you intend to bring them to any public locations.

Where can I take them?:  Legally, Emotional Support animals must be allowed to accompany you where ever you go.  However, you must be able to provide documentation from a licensed mental healthcare professional (therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist - NOT your family doctor) that states that you are under their care and require the Emotional Support Animal to be with you when you are in their establishment (not necessarily their particular location, but that you need the animal to be available within certain time frames or situations).  Just because you say it is a Emotional Support Animal, doesn't mean they have to let them in.

Service Animals

Service Dogs

What Are They?  Service Animals, unlike Therapy or Emotional Support Animals, are thoroughly and rigorously trained for a specific task or duty to assist a disabled owner.  There are many ways in which Service Animals perform their jobs - leading the blind, pulling a wheelchair, alerting owners to acute allergens or health issues, retrieving medication, assisting with siezures, and many more - but they must have very specific training and focus to be considered a true Service Animal.

Training: Training does not necessarily be completed by a professional, but it does need to be thorough and vigorous.  The animal must have complete focus on his job in order to be effective, and thus must be trained to be alert and consistent on the task he is to perform. Most amateurs just don't have the consistency or dedication to complete the training required, so professional help may be required.

Where can I take them?:  Like Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals must be allowed into all public and private locations where their owners are allowed to go - unless the animal is not housebroken or is out of control.  Individuals may ask you the nature of your disability (if it is not evident, like blindness or a wheelchair), or what specific task your animal is trained for, but they are not allowed to ask you to provide proof.

Which animal is right for me?

Determining the right animal for you, whether you are looking for a Therapy, Service or Emotional Support Animal, or even a pet is as easy and difficult as know what it is you need.  Domestic animals are an amazing part of our world, and many times can be the thing that makes your life worth living again after tragedy, trauma or personal struggle.  But determining your needs, and the unique abilities and personalities of the animal are crucial in your decision of what animal will work best for you.

You can find more information on how US Law defines and interprets Service and Emotional Support Animals, where they can and cannot go, and their individual  requirements under the law, go to 

Americans with Disabilities Act

Fair Housing Act

Air Carrier Access Act

If you would like to purchase a bandana that will allow you to notify others that your pet is a Service Animal or Therapy Dog, Mydeye offers several options for you to choose from by going to the Rescue / Service Dog Bandana Collection.


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