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The Key Differences Between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Animals

Updated: Jun 26


A strong, attentive Boxer breed dog equipped with a harness and collar.

Animals have always played a huge role in our lives, offering valued companionship and comfort. In addition to the support that an animal’s presence can provide, animals play a huge role in aiding our physical and mental health as well.


With different laws and regulations surrounding the different roles that support animals play in our lives, it’s essential to understand the difference between commonly referenced titles like service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy animals. This article aims to help guide you through some of the key differences between these three categories of support animals.


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


Under the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA, service dogs can be any breed or size and are “trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability”. This stands out as the main difference between service dogs and emotional support animals (or ESAs) because, as the ADA states, “providing emotional support or comfort is not a task related to a person’s disability”. On the other hand, the American Veterinary Medical Association states that therapy animals typically “participate in a range of animal-assisted interventions”. We’ll discuss this more in detail in our Basic Overview of Therapy Animals section. 


However, it can be difficult to recognize the distinction between the two in a variety of different scenarios. To combat this confusion, the ADA offers additional examples of the types of tasks a service dog might tend to. In order to help you best recognize these differences in multiple scenarios, we’ll provide a quick overview of service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy animals separately.


A trio of Boxer dogs, displaying attentive expressions.

A Basic Overview of Service Dogs


As mentioned above, the primary role of a service dog is “to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability”. Some examples of service dogs and the tasks they might perform include Mobility Service Dogs, who can help by bringing their owner objects, or serving as a brace for individuals who may be unsteady. There are also Psychiatric Service Dogs, who can assist individuals with emotional and mental disabilities by preventing them from harming themselves or dissuading them from becoming absorbed by repetitive tasks.


When it comes to the legal protections associated with owners and their service dogs, the ADA dictates that service dogs “are allowed to be with their person, even in places that don’t allow pets”. This might include places like hotels, schools, hospitals, shops, and restaurants.


Additionally, this can apply to types of housing scenarios such as housing at public and private universities, public housing programs run by state, country, and city governments, and emergency shelters.


Individuals who work at a business or state/local government facility that are uncertain about whether or not someone’s dog is a service dog are allowed to ask specific questions to get a better understanding. Under the ADA, they are only allowed to ask the following:


  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?

  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?


They are not allowed to request any documentation that the dog is registered, licensed, or certified as a service animal, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.  


A Boxer dog wearing a labeled vest.

Additionally, not all service dogs are required to wear vests. Therefore, just because a dog isn’t wearing a service vest does not mean it isn’t a service dog. It all comes down to whether or not the dog is trained to do a certain task for a person with a disability.


Can I Pet a Service Dog?


It’s always best to ask the handler for permission. For more insight into service dog etiquette, please read our related article.


A Basic Overview of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)


A dog guiding a handler as they walk with a reflective water feature in the background.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development includes ESAs in their definition of assistance animals, which reads: “There are two types of assistance animals: (1) service animals, and (2) other trained or untrained animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities (referred to in this guidance as a “support animal”). Thus, commonly, ESAs are considered animals that provide therapeutic support for individuals with disabilities.


ESAs are typically not allowed to go everywhere service dogs are allowed. ESA Doctors elaborates on this by supplying that “Contrary to popular belief, emotional support animals are NOT allowed in stores, restaurants, or other businesses. Emotional support animals do not have the same level of public access as psychiatric service dogs, and each business has the right to accept or deny an ESA.” 


When it comes to ESAs in living spaces, the Fair Housing Act “requires a housing provider to allow a reasonable accommodation involving an assistance animal in situations that meet” a series of specific conditions.


Can I Pet An ESA?


Similar to service dogs, it’s always best to ask a handler’s permission. Some handlers are okay with it while others are not.


A Basic Overview of Therapy Animals

As summarized in an article from VCA Animal Hospitals 'therapy animals are animals that are brought to places like hospital, schools, and nursing homes and serve to provide emotional support and comfort to several people there. The American Veterinary Medical Association states that, in regard to therapy animals, “access to facilities where pets are prohibited is at the discretion of management”. This discretion can come in the form of specific permission allowing therapy animals in, in order to provide comfort services. Therapy animals are not recognized by federal law.


Several dogs on leashes walking with a handler.

Can I Pet a Therapy Animal?


As opposed to service dogs, people are encouraged to play with and pet therapy animals, as they are meant to bring comfort and joy to people in specific settings.


Compass Key: Positive Reinforcement Service Dog Training

Compass Key takes our service dog training very seriously and, as such, are committed to providing you with accurate information on how to navigate the world of service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy animals. For more information about who we are and our dedication to providing up-to-date, positive reinforcement, and reward-based training services, please visit our about section. You can also read more about our positive reinforcement service dog training in our recent blog post on the subject. 


For more resources and insights on service dog training and more, feel free to visit our blog!

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