The 5 Biggest Differences Among Service, Therapy, and ESA Dogs

Contrary to widespread knowledge, service, therapy, and emotional support (ESA) dogs are different.

May 12, 2023By Olivia Stultz
differences among service dogs

A few months ago, a neighbor enquired how my dog was so calm. As I began to explain that he’s a trained therapy dog, he quickly replied, “Oh, you have a therapy dog? I have a service dog, too! I paid over $200 for the registration, but so worth it. I can take her anywhere now!”.

And then he showed me the registration card that said, “Emotional Support Animal.”

This article will explore the top five reasons these three kinds of dogs are unique: roles, the training required, the certifications required, where they are allowed to go, and where they cannot go.

5. Basic Roles

emotional support dog

According to the American Disability Act (ADA), service dogs are any dog trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability. They help their owners do things they cannot or would have great difficulty doing, such as walking across the street or anticipating a seizure. Examples include seeing-eye dogs, allergy-detection dogs, and psychiatric service dogs. Since they must have full attention on their owner, you’ll usually see service dogs out and about with a “do not pet” patch on their vest.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) defines therapy dogs as those who go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. Their work is to receive petting and affection from strangers, all while staying calm. These are typically the dogs you see on the news or social media visiting patients in hospitals or children at libraries. If you see a therapy dog, ask to pet them- it’s all part of the job!

Emotional support dogs provide emotional support and comfort to their owners to help deal with challenges that might otherwise compromise their quality of life. Any domesticated animal can be classified as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). As they are technically everyday companion animals, they don’t have clear “working” roles like service or therapy dogs.

To recap, service dogs perform a task for one person, therapy dogs provide comfort to many people, and ESAs provide comfort to one person.

4. Training Requirements

service dog labrador

Prospective service dogs must display calmness, alertness, the ability to learn and retain information, steadiness in different environments, and reliability in performing repetitive tasks. Once the perfect candidate is chosen, the dog goes through a rigorous training program to master the task(s) required. A non-profit or for-profit training organization can help prep the dog.

Therapy dogs must display a natural sociable temperament without being too bouncy. One can train a therapy dog on their own, or they can enroll with a training organization that trains potential therapy dogs. The dog should understand basic obedience skills, such as “leave it,” “sit,” or “lie down,” and perform them in novel settings.

Emotional support dogs do not require specialized training. However, it is strongly encouraged for the owner to teach their ESA basic obedience and good manners. Not only is this courteous to their landlord and neighbors, but it helps strengthen the bond and reduce unnecessary stress between owner and pet.

3. Certification Requirements

therapy dog for kids

There is no “standard” certification required for service dogs. They are also not required to wear a vest or ID to show they are one. However, many owners do find it helpful to have some type of identification, like a vest, to display that the dog is working.

Therapy dogs will go through a certification program to show facilities that the dog is insured and well-behaved. National organizations include Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Pet Partners, and Love on A Leash. Therapy teams can even go further and become recognized by the AKC Therapy Dog Program to showcase their philanthropic efforts.

There are no official programs or national registries that certify a dog as an emotional support animal. The only legitimate way to qualify a dog as an ESA is to obtain a letter from a licensed therapist or doctor. This means a landlord cannot ask for an “ID” or “registration card” from an owner to prove that the dog is an ESA.

2. Where they can go

service dog for elderly people

Since service dogs need to be with their owners, they can enter places that traditionally don’t allow pets. This includes retail stores, hospitals, indoor seating at restaurants, schools, and hospitals. It also applies to any type of housing situation. If an employee or other patron wants to know if the dog is a legitimate service animal, they can ask the owner these two key questions: is the dog a service animal required for a disability, and what task does the dog perform? However, by law, they cannot ask the owner what their disability is or have the dog perform the task on the spot.

Therapy dogs can only go to places where they are invited. A therapy dog team wanting to visit a hospital must connect with the facility’s management first to ask for permission.

Emotional support dogs can only enter places that allow pets, such as outdoor seating at a restaurant. However, compared to therapy dogs, they have a leg-up in housing. According to the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), ESAs may reside with their owners in locations covered by the Act, regardless of a “no pets” policy.

1. Where Service Dogs can’t go

service dog shepherd

Service dogs’ all-access pass has one limit: they cannot go into places that compromise a sterile environment. This would be a setting like a restaurant kitchen or a hospital burn unit. Service dogs can also be kicked out of places if they threaten the safety and health of others. A service canine out of control, barking, or not housebroken can be asked to leave the premises, despite their status.

Therapy and emotional support dogs are considered “pets” therefore, they do not have the same all-access privileges that service dogs do.

Olivia Stultz
By Olivia Stultz

Olivia is an animal lover with over 6 years of experience working with therapy dogs and horses. She has one Boston Terrier named Theo, who is a certified therapy dog. In her free time, Olivia loves to walk the trails with Theo or cook up a new healthy recipe for her loved ones.