Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Animals: Understanding the Difference
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
Many people use the terms “service dogs” and “emotional support animals” interchangeably, however, there are big differences in the kinds of help they provide to their handlers, their training and their access to public spaces.
A service dog is trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The dog is trained to perform tasks that their handler is unable to perform on his own, and vary depending on the requirements of that individual. Some skills may involve retrieving dropped items, pushing drawers, pulling doors open, turning lights on, and cabinets closed, bracing to offer balance, interrupting panic attacks or informing the handler about insulin levels. In addition to performing tasks, the service dog must be trained in temperament as well; he must be able to behave in all kinds of situations, be quiet, and be attentive to the owner. Under the law, these service animals have complete public access rights, which means they're allowed to go anywhere their handlers go — even to places where pets are not allowed.
Emotional support animals, typically dogs and cats, offer a valuable service to their disabled handlers, but not in the same way as a service animal. They provide comfort through their presence but aren't required to perform physical tasks, and must always be under the control of the handler. They are considered companion animals and help ease loneliness, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and phobias. In order for an animal to be considered an official emotional support animal, the handler must be determined to be emotionally or psychologically disabled by a licensed mental health professional (therapist) or a medical doctor.
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