What Makes An ESA Different From A Service Animal?

  • 04/02/2021
emotional-support-animal.jpgDogs are well-known as man’s best friend, and that’s especially true if you have certain mental or physical conditions. While our pets can be our most steadfast supporters, there are cases in which that status is actually made official. For some people, that means having an ESA, or emotional support animal. For others, a service animal is crucial for a good quality of life. But what makes them different? A service animal might also function as an ESA, but it usually doesn’t go the other way around. Service animals are more specialised and better-trained, while ESAs are usually hand-picked by the owner at a young age, and trained as they grow up.

What are emotional support dogs used for?

Even though the name might sound vague, you can’t simply designate any dog as an “emotional support animal”. ESAs are typically prescribed by a mental health practitioner; in order to qualify for an ESA, you would have to be diagnosed with a condition such as ADD, autism, mood or learning disorders, anxiety disorders, cognitive disorders, severe depression, or PTSD. In a nutshell, someone who needs an ESA works with their therapist or psychologist to select, train, and approve their dog.

These animals are more than just dogs that are naturally soothing; they’re actually trained to sense when their owner is in distress, and act as an emotional anchor. Medication doesn’t quite do the job for a lot of people, but an ESA can help them live comparatively normal lives.

What are service animals used for?

While ESAs are trained by their owners and grow up alongside them, service dogs receive their training before they’re paired with an owner. Their functions are usually highly specialised as well, and an agency helps pair the dogs with their owners. Service dogs could be the animals that assist someone with impaired sight or hearing, or that help pull a wheelchair. They might be trained to alert its owner to specific allergens, or even to detect low blood sugar due to diabetes. Some service dogs know that if their owner reaches a certain condition, they have to bring them a certain medication, or a phone.

Even though service animals are brought up and trained before they meet their owner, once they do meet, the bond that they form lasts for life. Their training has to be carefully maintained so it’s important not to spoil them, but most service dogs are just as close to their owners as any other pet.

How do ESAs get certified?

Technically, they don’t; there’s no organisation or authority that can certify an ESA, but it’s possible to get a letter that will prove the animal’s legitimacy as an ESA, and not just a pet that the new tenant is trying to sneak into their apartment. The first step is for a therapist or psychologist to recommend that their patient should get a dog for emotional support, and then it’s up to the patient to find and train one. This letter should have the official letterhead of the mental health practitioner, and it should state the diagnosis of the owner, and the reason why they need an ESA.

How do service dogs get certified?

Unlike with ESAs, service dogs get certified before they’re matched with an owner. Because the animals are so specialised, the certifications will be different depending on what they’ve been trained to do. Thanks to this requirement, the owners of service dogs don’t have to worry about getting certification for their animals.

Where are emotional support dogs allowed?

Legally speaking, the only situations in which your ESA can’t be refused are air travel and housing. The letter of approval for your ESA is required for both of these, and your dog will definitely need to be well-trained; an out-of-control dog probably won’t be allowed on a plane, with or without the letter.

Fortunately, you don’t necessarily need a letter from your mental health practitioner to enter every establishment. A lot of businesses will allow dogs in even if they aren’t service dogs; just make sure that you have the letter to show to whoever might ask, and keep the dog on a leash at all times.

Where are service dogs allowed?

Since some service dogs are the only way for their owners to move around or function, the law states that service animals must be allowed into any place where its owner would also be allowed. The main exception to this is when the presence of the animal would interfere with the safety policies of an establishment, like certain areas of a hospital where total sterility is required.

How will people know that your dog isn’t just a regular pet?

It’s recommended that service dogs wear special vests when they’re out in public, and there are two main reasons for this. First, this is how any establishment can tell that you’re entering with your service dog, and not just a pet. If your service dog isn’t wearing a vest, it might be mistakenly denied entry. Second, members of the public will (hopefully) know not to distract the dog from its job with petting or treats.

An ESA won’t necessarily be crucial to every move you make, but it’s still not a bad idea to put it in a vest when you’re out and about. This will help people recognise you’re your dog is “working”, and probably isn’t available to play with. Since some businesses might be hesitant to let your ESA enter with you, it would be a good idea to carry the letter from your mental health practitioner whenever you leave the house.

Regardless of how the law recognises these animals, ESAs and service dogs can make a huge difference in someone’s quality of life. Whether it’s working as a seeing eye dog, or giving someone the motivation to leave their house for the first time in months, these dogs make sure to give their owners the best lives possible.


The National Service Animal Registry has been helping animals help people since 1995. They provide information and services related to emotional support animals and service dogs.

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