Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Dogs: What’s the Difference?

These pups provide companionship, safety, and comfort.

service dog

Both service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs) provide important support to people, including to those with disabilities. But when it comes to the rights these dogs have, it’s important to understand the nuances. 

Here’s what we’ll cover:

What do service dogs do? 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” 

Examples of those tasks include pulling a wheelchair, reminding a person to take medication, retrieving a dropped item, alerting a person to a sound, and more. 

For example, a guide dog or seeing eye dog is a type of service dog that has been trained to perform tasks like guiding people with severe visual impairments. 

A seizure response dog is a type of service dog that has been trained to help a person with a seizure disorder, such as by alerting the person to an oncoming seizure or alerting someone to help when their owner experiences a seizure. 

What do emotional support animals (ESAs) do? 

The ADA explains that while ESAs “are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA.” 

An ESA might provide companionship or help with a person’s loneliness, depression, or anxiety. 

Unlike service dogs, ESAs typically don’t have specialized training to perform tasks to help people with disabilities. ESAs usually provide comfort through their presence, and they also offer valuable companionship to individuals with mood disorders, autism, and more. 

The 5 differences between service dogs and emotional support dogs

In addition to the types of work that they perform, there are five other key differences between service dogs and emotional support dogs. 

Service dogEmotional support dog
Selection processRigorous training and selection processNo formal screening process
TrainingYears-long training based on specific tasksTypically receive standard obedience training
Required qualificationsNo formal national certificationA diagnosis letter can be provided, but is not required
Access to public spacesProtected under the ADA, allowed into public spacesTypically allowed only where pets are usually permitted
Air travelPermitted in cabin with their ownerAt the discretion of airline

The selection process

Because service dogs perform specialized tasks and undergo rigorous training, they are carefully selected for their temperaments. Potential service dogs are carefully screened, and even when dogs are partially through the training process, they may be taken out of training if it’s found that they aren’t suitable for the job. Working as a service dog requires a combination of qualities like intelligence, focus, confidence, and even physical strength, so a training program might evaluate many puppies before finding a dog that’s right for the job. 

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are more like an everyday companion animal. ESAs don’t need to complete the intense training that service dogs perform, and they don’t have to fulfill specific tasks. As a result, there’s no screening process for ESAs, and many dogs who are pets are professionally-designated as emotional support animals if their owners have a need for an ESA. 


Service dog training programs are rigorous and thorough. There are no training requirements for emotional support dogs.

Service animals in training need to not only learn how to support their owners, but also must learn to navigate the world while performing tasks without getting distracted, like staying focused enough to alert an owner to a seizure, or safely guiding a blind owner through the street. 

A service dog often starts a training program as a puppy. The duration of the training depends on the tasks to be learned, but it can take years. Once the dog has completed most of its training, it also starts to train with its owner or handler. 

There are no specific training requirements for emotional support dogs. Basic obedience training is ideal, especially if the dog will be out in public. Training the dog to ride in the car or other public transportation will also be helpful, and will allow the dog to accompany the owner more often.

Required qualifications

There are no national requirements or certifications for service dog or emotional support animal training. 

That means that both professional trainers and even the dog owners themselves may train a service dog. However, it’s important that a service dog be well-behaved when out in the community, and the dog also needs to be able to perform its tasks well and reliably. 

Emotional support animals also don’t need to meet specific training requirements. To qualify a dog as an ESA, an owner usually only needs a diagnosis letter from their doctor or a licensed mental health professional. That letter should confirm that the owner has a condition that would benefit from an ESA. 

Some online platforms offer certification for service dogs and ESAs. Owners can register their animals with the websites and receive an official-looking certificate. It’s important to understand that no actual certification is required for service dogs or ESAs, and this paperwork is technically unnecessary. . 

Access to public spaces and housing

Service dogs are protected under the ADA, and are allowed to go into public spaces like stores, libraries, and restaurants. That public accommodation gives service dogs the ability to go into areas where pet dogs are usually prohibited. ESAs have less rights and access to public spaces.

ESAs have fewer rights than service dogs. These dogs don’t have free access to public places, and businesses that don’t allow pets are legally allowed to turn away ESAs. When it comes to housing, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, and requires “reasonable accommodations” for ESAs. This means that an ESA dog may be permitted to live with its owner in an apartment or other settings that traditionally doesn’t allow pets. 

Traveling rights

When it comes to air travel, service dogs and ESAs have different rights. 

Under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act, airlines must let service dogs ride in the cabin with their handlers. An airline may require a handler to submit service animal forms up to 48 hours before the flight, confirming that the dog is a service animal. 

The act, which was revised in 2021, differentiates between service dogs and emotional support animals. While airlines must accommodate service dogs in the cabin, the airlines aren’t required to do the same for ESAs. Individual airlines can still choose to allow ESAs in the cabins, but they may require ESAs to follow their general pet policy. 

Planning for your service dog or ESA

If you’re planning to add a service dog or ESA to your life, it’s important to consider not only elements like training, but also how you will prepare to care for your dog. Pet insurance can give you peace of mind and help you to cover your pet’s veterinary bills, and insurance is a great idea for your service dog or ESA. 

Keep in mind that working dogs, or “commercial pets” cannot be covered by Lemonade Pet Insurance. Working dogs include dogs used for guarding, herding, racing, sledding, breeding, and law enforcement. 

However, both emotional support dogs and service dogs could qualify for Lemonade Pet. Keep in mind that if your service dog is not yet in your possession, such as if the dog is currently in training outside of your home, they won’t be eligible for coverage until they are in your possession. 

Service dogs and ESAs can make powerful differences in our lives. Planning for your dog’s veterinary care needs and getting pet insurance can help ensure that you’re prepared, even when the unexpected happens.

Paige Cerulli

Paige Cerulli is a lifelong animal lover and a certified equine massage therapist. She works as a copywriter and content writer, and her work has appeared on American Veterinarian, Northeast Equestrian Life Magazine, Business Insider, and more. Paige lives in Western Massachusetts where she shares her life with three cats, three horses, a flock of ducks, and several foster animals.


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