March 21, 2022
Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Animal: know the difference – and the rights

They are cute, loving and similar in many ways, but they come from completely different species – at least legally. Service, therapy and emotional animals are all recognized by laws, but the first has a set of responsibilities that make them critical to their owners' well-being and safety.

Service Dogs

In the United States, service dogs were "embraced" by the justice system only in the 1990s, when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. As per definition of the ADA, service pets are individually trained to perform specific tasks and to work with people with disabilities. According to the ADA, disabilities can be “physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” The work of the service dog must be directly related to the handler’s disability.

Since providing vital work, service animals can and should accompany their owner in public places such as restaurants, grocery stores, and hotels. Additional laws such as the Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act, the Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Act, and the Federal Rehabilitation Act protect the rights of people with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs in a wide variety of circumstances under which the ADA may not be applicable.

Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog, on the other hand, is not eligible for such benefits. Although they receive training and also contribute to society, they haven't been taught to live with a particular handler. Rather, these are canines who volunteer in therapeutic settings such as hospitals, mental health facilities, hospices, schools, and nursing homes alongside their human colleague (typically the dog's owner), where they provide comfort, affection, and even love in the course of their work. Therapy dogs are taught to be at ease in unfamiliar situations and to interact with a variety of individuals. They should have a peaceful demeanor, be unfazed by strange noises and motions, be at ease being handled, and enjoy being around humans.

Therapy dogs can be trained by anyone, but they must meet certain requirements in order to be certified and registered, as well as engage actively in the program. 

Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

In 2019, there were nearly 200,000 emotional support animals (ESA) in the US, but how does this category differ from the others? Well, an emotional support dog is not trained for a specific job and does not have designated responsibilities. This isn't to say that these dogs aren't helpful to persons with mental illnesses. Companion animals can help with anxiety, depression, some phobias, and loneliness. An emotional support dog must be prescribed by a mental health professional for a patient with a diagnosed psychological or emotional illness, such as anxiety disorder, serious depression, or panic attacks, in order to be termed an emotional support dog.

ESA owners, unlike service dog owners, have limited legal rights, which usually need a letter of diagnosis from the owner's doctor or psychiatrist. While emotional support animals do not have unlimited access to all public spaces and housing, the Fair Housing Act requires "appropriate accommodations" for them even in buildings that do not allow pets. Airlines are no longer compelled to accommodate emotional support animals as of January 2021.

Because rules can change based on the company's policy, Dog Sniffer advises everyone to read the fine print and spend some time scrutinizing a private business's set of rules before signing anything.

Final Thoughts

If your pet falls into one of the three categories above, be sure you have all of the necessary documents and that your partner is up to the task before "barking" about it. Whether you have a Service Dog, a Therapy Dog, or an Emotional Support Animal, remember that it takes two to tango.

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