What Is the Difference Between a Service Dog and an Emotional Support Dog?

For centuries, dogs have granted their human owners a sense of protection, security, and companionship. Aside from the roles as pets, dogs have fulfilled various purposes, including hunting, gathering, and herding. In more recent history, humans adopted dogs as service animals and emotional-support animals.


These service dogs can perform a series of tasks, including guiding visually-disabled individuals, assisting mentally-disabled patients, comforting the emotionally unregulated, and retrieving items for the physically impaired. Both a service dog and emotional support dogs are trained in de-escalation tactics and picking-up emotional cues.


Despite their similarities, the functions of a service animal and an emotional support animal are often wrongfully conflated. These service dogs and emotional support dogs serve unique purposes in the disabled community. To understand the distinctions between these furry companions, review the information below.

Duties of a service animal

Service dogs are specially trained to aid individuals with disabilities like diabetes, autism, and visual impairments like blindness. As the disabled folks gain greater visibility in our community and mental health impairments are further destigmatized, service animal experts have trained dogs in a variety of rare and more-common psychological and physical disabilities. There service dogs available for almost every type of disability, including arthritis, cardiac-related disabilities, cerebral palsy, patients suffering from chronic pain, and diagnosed epileptics.


To accommodate a wide range of disabilities, service dogs often specialize in services related to hearing, allergy detection, guiding, seizure response, motion assistance, autism services, diabetic services, and psychiatrist services. For instance, if the dog owner is suffering from mental illness symptoms, the psychiatric service dog should be taught the following tasks. The dog should accompany the owner outside of the home. He or she should tend to and supervise their owner, especially in a state of emotional distress. A service dog should also be taught how to interrupt repetitive behaviors and offer relief when their owner experiences hallucinations.


Along with providing a sense of comfort and companionship, you should train a service dog to remind the owner to take their medications on time and warm the owner’s body when they suffer from a panic attack.


Because these service dogs offer life-saving and life-changing care to the disabled owner they’re assigned, passersby should perceive these dogs as trained workers, not furry friends to casually pet. Petting an on-duty service dog without permission can distract the animal from its duties, potentially exposing the owner to allergens, physical hazards, or emotional triggers. While emotional support dogs provide companionship, comfort, and a soothing presence, you should reserve this emotional support for their disabled owners.

Rights of an emotional support animal

Unlike service dogs, these emotional support dogs don’t have any right to enter public spaces but are authorized to do the following. The first legal authorization is to board an aircraft with an individual diagnosed with a psychological or emotional disability. The second authorization is access to apartments and housing with no-pet policies.


Airlines and housing authorities may need a letter from a doctor for verification to prove the dog is a registered emotional support animal. With proper registration, these dogs are greeted with the same respect granted to their owner. Physical verification is necessary, as some abuse the privileges allotted to emotional support dogs.


While service dogs require extensive training, emotional support animals don’t need any formal preparation. Despite this lack of coaching, emotional support dogs are incredibly responsive to the owner’s commands and emotional cues. These emotional support animals will remain devoted to their owners, regardless of outside stimuli.


The typical emotional support animal has a calm and laid temperament. To build a relationship with a potential emotional support dog, you should pick a young dog that’s approximately one year old. Dogs that fit into the emotional support category include Poodles, Goldendoodles, Labrador retrievers, and Golden retrievers.


Whether you own a Labrador retriever emotional support dog or a Poodle support dog, these animals are known to uplift their owners’ spirits. Suppose a person is suffering from social anxiety, is diagnosed with clinical depression, and often retreats to their comfort zone. These emotional support dogs can help motivate a disabled person to venture outside their house or comfort zone.


Playing with an emotional support animal or walking around the neighborhood can help elevate the owner’s mood, as exercising boosts a person’s serotonin levels. With the sense of companionship a dog provides, a person suffering from a mental health disorder will feel supported in their day-to-day activities.


In summary

Unlike emotional support animals, service dogs are authorized to enter public spaces at-will. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) also permits a service dog to enter apartment complexes, private residences, and retail stores deemed as no-pet zones. These ADA provisions protect the service dogs, as they play a pivotal role in ensuring their handler’s safety.

Unfortunately, emotional support dogs remain unprotected by ADA laws.


Service dogs are specially trained to act as medical alert dogs and help improve the lives of children living with autism and can even help those with restricted mobility. By law, housing officials can’t charge individuals a fee for owning an emotional support dog. Despite their housing privileges, emotional support dogs can’t enter hospitals, restaurants, or other pet-free zones.


Doctors can certify emotional support dogs for their patients coping with a mental health disorder. These officials issue a recommendation letter that grants the emotional support animal and their owner permission to enter the areas listed above. The recommendation letter exempts handlers from pet fees during air travel or in renting situations. Sadly, most laws that protect the service dogs don’t apply to the emotional support dogs.


For service dogs, their training lasts for two years and requires a series of official procedures to verify their documentation. The handler is required to carry the certification all the time. These service dogs can wear vests that signal to pedestrians that they’re on-duty.


While service dogs display good behavior in public places and are comfortable with lots of people, emotional support dogs may not be as comfortable around people and may struggle with stimulus overload.


Note that only service dogs who have undergone extensive training can carry out particular roles for their handler with disabilities. Regardless of their differences, service dogs and emotional support animals, alike, are invaluable resources for disabled people navigating an able-bodied world.


Emotional support dogs have played a significant role in helping individuals cope with chronic pain, seizures, and unexpected sugar dives. Service dogs should be viewed as an extension of their owners, as they have offered life-changing care for disabled folks worldwide.