How to Tell the Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

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They say dogs are a man’s best friend. In some cases, it couldn’t be more true.

Animals may not be able to communicate with us directly, but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand our thoughts and feelings. In fact, there are some animals specifically dedicated to helping people in distress.

Both service animals and emotional support animals play important roles in helping people overcome certain challenges. But do you know the difference between the two distinct types of friendly, furry creatures?

Service Animals

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Now that sounds like a wide-ranging spectrum because it is. Service animals serve many different purposes and are vital for some people’s everyday survival. Incredibly, their list of job responsibilities sounds like a full-time job that they should get paid for.

Some service animals are utilized to help calm people with post-traumatic stress disorder—an unfortunate but very real issue that many people have to face. Other responsibilities could include helping guide a deaf or blind person, or even alerting others when their owner is about to have an anxiety attack or seizure.

There is a distinction, though. According to Texas veterinarian Sara Ochoa, “Service animals are used to make their owner’s lives more normal and easier.”

However, she added that service animals do not receive professional training.

Emotional Support Animals


On the other hand, emotional support animals are trained to follow basic commands and can help alleviate stressful situations for their owners. Ochoa pointed out that these animals are not trained to complete specific tasks, so technically speaking they are a bit behind service animals in that regard.

That doesn’t mean emotional support animals are any less important. They can be incredibly helpful healing tools for people who have undergone significant trauma, abuse or depression. And as any pet lover can attest, our furry friends can simply put a big smile on our face after a long, stressful day.

Legal Distinctions Between the Two Types

From a legal standpoint, service animals are allowed to be in many more places than their emotional support counterparts.

The ADA outlines the policy as such:

State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is allowed to go.

No matter the reason, it’s clear that both emotional support animals and service animals play a significant role in helping people through tough times.

Do you have any experience with either emotional support animals or service animals?

Tell us your favorite story about your furry friend in the comments below!