Service Dog, Therapy Dog, and ESA: What’s the Difference?

Cute service dog and blurred girl in wheelchair view through door_edited

On April 11, we celebrated therapy dogs and the wonderful work they do. Not too long after, we were asked what the difference was between a therapy dog, a service dog, and an emotional support animal (ESA). There are different regulations on how a dog can become licensed for these positions, and there are different rules as far as being allowed in apartment complexes or airlines.

There are national organizations for each job. The American Kennel Club has a list of recognized therapy dog organizations, and the National Service Animal Registry (NSAR) supports service dogs and emotional support animals.

Service dogs are trained  to assist a person who has a disability. Their work includes being a seeing-eye dog for the blind, alert the deaf with paw taps, protecting someone with seizure, and much more.  

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 protects service dogs for public accommodations. Businesses are allowed to ask if the dog is a service dog and what task they’re trained to perform, but they cannot ask for identification, what the owner’s disability is, or for the dog to perform the task.  

Service dogs can be removed from a premise if either the owner loses control of the dog or if the dog poses a direct threat to the public. Allergies are not included for the later. With restaurants, they are not required to provide care to the dog or provide a bathroom space, but they cannot treat the owner unfairly, e.g. isolating them from other customers.

As far as airlines, owners with service dogs should not be charged or hindered from flying with their owner under the Air Carrier Access Act. Owners do need to explain what the dog is trained to do for them, and they should carry the service dog’s ID card/vest/leash. Read more about flying with service dogs here.

Service Dog German Shepherd

An emotional support animal is not limited to dogs and is prescribed by a person’s licensed mental health professional.  ESAs help treat the patient by bringing comfort and minimizing any negative symptoms from the person’s mental or physical disability.

Emotional support animals and service dogs are similar in legal rights. Flying with an emotional support animal is also protected under ACAA. Both roles are also protected for housing rights under the Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988. This means a landlord or property manager has to make reasonable accommodations for your ESA. However, be wary of the apartment’s rules on breed, weight, and species. Learn more about ESA housing rights here.

There is a growing concern people falsely register their pets as an ESA; while they do not require any task training, the animal is supposed to be manageable in public and not cause a nuisance in or around the home setting.


Therapy dogs volunteer with their owners at schools, hospitals, and nursing homes to improve the lives of others. There are a couple of different roles they can fulfill, which you can read more about here.

Unlike service dogs and emotional support animals, therapy dogs do not have as many legal rights, and one reason behind that is because the program is volunteer service. Therapy dogs go to these institutions voluntarily and upon invitation. The dogs are trained and registered as well as handled by a professional, whether that is the owner of the dog or a designated handler within the institution.

A salute to guide dogs everywhere for International Guide Dog Day on April 25!

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