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What is the difference between a service dog, a therapy dog, and an emotional support dog?

visual chart showing differences between service dog therapy dog and emotional support dog

When you hear the terms emotional support dog, therapy dog, or service dog, what comes to mind? Most will think that each of these terms are synonymous with one another and that they are merely interchangeable when referring to a dog who assists others. However, this is not the case since each term represents a particular role a dog plays in the assistance and support field.

I know, you are probably thinking, "Don't they simply aid a person in need?" The short answer is actually no.

You see each of the types refer to the level of legal rights/privileges, training, and responsibilities that a dog will fulfill when providing support for their human companion. There are differing requirements that must be accomplished before a dog can be classified as one of the three roles. So, we are going to delve into each of these roles so to provide a better understanding what is involved in getting a dog classified into them.

What Is An Emotional Support Dog?

Emotional support dogs are meant to provide their human owner with emotional support for conditions relating to anxiety and other emotional disabilities. They are not trained for a specific disability unlike service dogs. The role of an emotional support dog is to provide comfort and love to their human.

elderly woman enjoying the company of her emotional support dog

Emotional Support Dog Requirements

In order to get an emotional support dog, you will need a letter from a doctor or mental health professional stating the necessity of an emotional support animal to manage emotional disorders. The letter is meant to certify that your dog is an emotional support animal (ESA). This letter must be on official letterhead with the license number of the doctor/mental health specialist and their signature/date.

Even though you don't have to get the dog registered as an emotional support animal with an organization, you can still do so to help with documentation for when needing your dog on a plane or when seeking housing. You can also acquire a vest to help identify the dog as an ESA.

Emotional Support Dog Training

While there isn't any formal training required, emotional support dogs must be able to behave in a variety of environments and around people on planes and inside of the home. Many emotional support dogs will be trained by their owners to perform typical commands. Typically, the owners will train the dog to respond to commands to signal when their owner is suffering from emotional distress due to their condition.

Emotional Support Dog Legal Rights

Emotional support dogs are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for rights. However, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) do provide ESA owners with rights when traveling by airplane and when seeking housing for rental properties. The letter from your doctor or mental health professional must be supplied to establish the necessity of your ESA in order for these laws to apply. You will need to have the letter handy whenever you are looking for housing and each time you are flying anywhere.

What Is A Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is very similar to an ESA in the concept that they are meant to provide comfort to an individual. This type of role is meant to provide therapeutic comfort when addressing anxiety disorders and stress. Unlike ESA's, therapy dogs are given a wider range of access to locations such as schools and hospitals.

therapy dog showing love to an elderly man in a wheelchair

Therapy Dog Requirements

There isn't a formal requirement for a therapy dog in order to be classified. Typically, the dog must have some training and a mild temperament/friendly to ensure that it can function in a variety of settings. It primarily depends on the purpose of the therapy dog. In order to access more locations, it is recommended that the therapy dog go through certified training and certification for ensuring proper behavior when in unfamiliar areas.

Therapy Dog Training

While no formal training is required, it is best to consider the purpose and role the therapy dog will serve. If the dog is mainly meant for home, basic training is needed so that the dog can properly behave in their home environment. For locations outside of the home, you will want to consider formal training of your dog as a therapy dog. The American Kennel Club (AKC) offers several training courses to get your dog certified as a therapy dog which will open up access to more locations by preparing the dog for interacting with others in differing environments. If you would like to know more, visit akc.org

Therapy Dog Legal Rights

Like ESA's, therapy dogs do not have legal protection under the ADA. This means that the therapy dog will not be allowed to go into locations that already do not allow for dogs/pets. Though, many places like nursing homes and schools will allow for a therapy dog to be on site to assist with therapy if they are trained and certified.

What Is A Service Dog?

Service dogs are meant to provide support to their humans, whether it is psychiatric or physical disabilities. Unlike therapy dogs/ESA's, service dogs are specifically trained to assist with specific conditions which can include PTSD, sensory problems (hearing/sight), epilepsy, and more. They are meant to provide necessary support of a person a round the clock to ensure their well-being and safety. In order to qualify for a service dog, you will have to be classified with a disability covered under the ADA.

service dog chihuahua on a red carpet offering assistance

Types of Service Dogs

  • Psychiatric: Provide emotional support and is able to detect signs of an attack coming on. For example, many service dogs are employed to assist soldier with PTSD and are able to sense when their human is having a crisis moment, so they can go into action of employing specifically trained techniques needed to calm the person.
  • Physical: Provide physical support for their humans such as seeing eye dogs, assisting with gate and balance for people with MS and Parkinson's Disease, and even assist with tasks for individuals in a wheelchair.

Service Dog Requirements

A service dog has to be of a mild/friendly temperament first and foremost. They are trained heavily with a particular specialty of assistance so that they can properly aid the right individual's disability fully. They are trained in specific areas to help them handle possible situations that could arise base on the disability they are being prepared for. They must be certified and trained working dog.

Service Dog Training

Service dog training can be extensive. The dog must receive basic training for obedience which will include basic commands. From there, the dog must learn disability related commands and tasks for the type of disability they are being prepared to assist with. Their disability training will teach them to identify not only commands from the human they are caring for, but also to environmental cues that are necessary for support based on the disability. This would be guiding a visually impaired person through obstacles, signaling a hearing-impaired person when an alarm goes off, and even knowing when the person is in distress and contact emergency medical services.

Service Dog Legal Rights

Service dogs are covered by the ADA which means the service dog can go everywhere their human goes to ensure proper safety, which includes locations which normally prohibit animals.


These are the differences between the three types of assistance dogs. They are meant to help their owners as much as possible so that they can live normal lives. These dogs provide services that can be vital to their owners. With that said, it is important to not go up and pet any of these dogs because they are working and must put their focus on their human, which includes keeping your children away from the dog. You can ask the owner if it is OK to pet the dog. Many will say yes, but remember that if the person says no that they mean no.

In the end, please respect these canines because they are performing an admirable service and definitely deserve our respect as lovers of all things canine.