What's The Difference Between Service Dogs And Emotional Support Animals?

  • 19/12/2019

Dogs are known to be man's best friend, and for centuries, humans have relied on them as guides, aides, and helpers. Dogs are integral in helping and providing support to people in the form of service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs).

While emotional support animals and service dogs both serve humans, they are often confused with one another. Even though both provide essential companionship to their humans, they are categorised differently and perform different tasks. So, what is the difference? Read on to find out more.

What is a Service Dog?

Service dogs are specially trained to perform tasks or do work to support people with disabilities. For example, they can provide hearing functions for those with hearing impairments, seeing functions for the blind, or retrieve objects for those with limited mobility. They also have roles as medical alert dogs, as well as improving life for autistic children and helping people with limited dexterity.

For a person to obtain a service dog, they need to be diagnosed with a disability, and then consider what function they want a service dog to perform in order to assist them. Service dog agencies can then help them find a suitable animal.

Typical breeds for service dogs are German shepherds, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and Labrador/golden retriever mixes.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Rather than being trained to perform specific tasks that meet a particular need, emotional support animals provide companionship. They offer essential therapeutic benefits to those with medically diagnosed conditions including physical, mental, and intellectual disabilities.

To be eligible for an emotional support animal, a person must be diagnosed with a disability, and be in possession of a letter that states that an ESA would be beneficial to them.

Key Differences

  • Certification: Because these support animals ultimately offer different services, they are also certified differently. Only specifically-trained dogs can be service dogs, while categorisation of emotional support animals is much more lenient.
  • Function: One of the key differences between ESAs and service dogs is that service dogs are trained to performed specific tasks to meet the needs of their owner, while ESAs are more general companions. Service dogs can still provide the same levels of comfort and companionship of ESAs, but they have also been trained in particular behaviours that support dogs have not.
  • Protection: Due to the fact that service dogs can provide essential help in physical tasks, they are often granted more protection legally than ESAs. For that reason, you can take a service dog pretty much anywhere. Depending on where in the world you live, you're likely to find that service dogs cannot legally be denied access to most places. On the other hand, emotional support dogs don't tend to share the same legal protection.

How to Differentiate Your Support Dog 

Whether you have a dog as an emotional support animal, or a trained service dog, you should make sure it's not confused with other dogs. If you don't, other members of the public may not recognise that it is providing assistance to you. You can do this by registering your service dog, which provides you with a number of benefits including ID tags and harnesses and vests. This isn't a requirement, but it will help people understand that your animal is providing a service and you're less likely to be stopped from entering anywhere.


Both service dogs and emotional support animals provide essential support, help, and companionship to many people around the world. If you have a disability, whether it's emotional or physical, you could benefit from the support of an animal. Knowing the differences between emotional support animals and service dogs can help you locate and receive the correct support and information.

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