Editor’s note: For the purposes of clarity, the phrase, “assistance animals,” is used to describe service dogs/animals (SAs or SDs), emotional support animals (ESAs), and therapy animals, as it reflects the terminology used for SAs and ESAs under the Fair Housing Act (FHA); though the FHA does not mention therapy dogs/animals (TD), most state legislature includes TDs and even Police Dogs.

In most countries around the world, “Assistance Dog/Animal,” is used solely for service and guide dogs, and in most cases, ESAs are not mentioned or recognized within the laws. Please refer to your country’s laws for the most accurate terminology.

There are three main types of assistance animals utilized for medical and/or therapeutic benefits in the United States: service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals. There are different laws and/or general rules that apply to each type of assistance animal, and this article and accompanying chart are designed as a short guide to explain the difference. 

A chart showing the differences between service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals.

In the U.S., a service animal is a dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks that mitigate their handler’s disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects a handler’s right to be accompanied by their service animal in any areas where the general public may go- including: restaurants, grocery and retail stores, doctors offices, hospitals, public transportation, schools, workplaces, and many other places of public gathering. Service animals perform a wide variety of tasks for a vast array of disabilities, which sets them apart from emotional support animals. Service dogs and miniature service horses can be trained for guide work, mobility assistance, hearing assistance, diabetic alert, allergen detection, and more!

Britt Williams (@HerSecondSight), and her Golden Retriever guide dog, walking in an outdoor mall area

Service animals may also be trained for psychiatric disabilities, and differ from emotional support animals due to their specialized task training. Referred to as, “psychiatric service dogs,” or, “PSDs”, they can be trained to interrupt behaviors and nightmares, alert a handler to take their medication, clear rooms for a person with PTSD, and much more.

Handlers of service animals are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to travel with their dogs by plane, but may need to fill out an attestation form if requested by the airline. They are also protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and are exempt from “no pets” policies and other restrictions in housing that falls under the FHA. Service animals are not required to wear vests, I.D., or any other kind of identifying gear, and they may be trained by the owner themselves (though it is highly recommended to work with a professional trainer or reputable service dog program). They may also be any breed, though the most common breeds are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles and German Shepherds. It is important to select a breed that suits your needs, lifestyle, and training/handling ability, rather than on looks or feelings alone. Utilizing the help of an applied behaviorist can be crucial to selecting the right service dog for you.

Alex Sun’s service dog, Hubble, a black Curly Coated Retriever, laying in the floorspace of an airline seat

In the U.S., all service dog and ESA: “registries,” “certifications,” “paperwork,” and/or “I.D.’s” obtained online are typically scams, and hold zero legal merit for housing, public access, or air travel purposes. The Department of Justice (DOJ) does not recognize documentation obtained online as proof that the animal is trained or as proof that there is a disability-related need for the animal. In Washington, and in over 20 other states throughout the country, it is a crime to misrepresent one’s animal as a trained service animal. It is important to follow the laws on service animals and not bring untrained animals into non pet-friendly places; all too often, they can distract trained service animals who may miss an alert their handler relies on to stay safe.

In the U.S., all service dog and ESA: “registries”, “certifications”, and/or “I.D.’s” obtained online are scams, and hold zero legal merit for housing, public access, or air travel purposes.

An emotional support animal (ESA) is any animal that provides emotional/psychiatric support to it’s disabled owner/handler through companionship and comfort.  They are commonly dogs, cats, ferrets, snakes, etc. but may be a variety of species. A person with an ESA may go the same places a person with pets may go, but are NOT legally protected or allowed to bring their animal into grocery stores, restaurants, doctors offices, or other non-pet friendly places- unless local laws specifically state otherwise. Currently, King County is the only place in WA that grants the same permissions as service dog handlers to handlers of service animals in training and emotional support animals, and may allow for public access as long as the animal mitigates the handler’s disability, is under control at all times, and housebroken (there are certain restrictions on what species are allowed public access).

Additionally, ESA owners are protected under the FHA, and are exempt from “no pets” policies and other restrictions in housing that falls under the FHA. Under the FHA, service animals, service animals in training, and ESAs are all considered ‘Assistance Animals’. While most laws do not require ESAs to have formal training, it is wise to ensure they are house-trained, under control at all times and have basic obedience skills, for both the safety of the animal and to reduce the chance of injury or property damage. Earlier this year, The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced their Final Rule on Flying with a Service Animal. The Air Carrier Access Act no longer protects owners/handlers with ESAs, and airlines may require persons with ESAs to fly their animals via cargo and/or pay a fee.

Cassie Haddix’s ESA

The term, “therapy dog”, is commonly misused to describe ESAs, as they both provide a therapeutic benefit to a person. However, the two are very different- as the owner of an ESA must be disabled per the ADA’s legal definition, and the owner of a therapy animal does not. 

A therapy animal is an animal that is specially trained to provide comfort and bring joy to groups of people and individuals, typically in hospital, school, and aging & long-term care settings. Therapy animals are also frequently used to comfort persons after natural disasters, violence-related incidents, schools where staff and children have been affected by trauma, and other events where many people have been impacted. Their owners/handlers need not be disabled themselves, and their handlers must typically get permission to enter the places they visit. Often, therapy animals undergo specialized training with a program to ensure their stability in group environments, and where stress and emotions may be running high. The temperament and training of dogs selected for therapy work is similar to that of a service dog, and many service animal teams also volunteer their time as therapy teams. 

Lindsey Hawkins’ Therapy Dog, Zeus, laying with a child who is reading a book. He has been a therapy dog for 10 years this November, and is one of the ‘reading dogs’ for their local elementary schools.

Due to the exponential utilization of all types of assistance animals over the last decade, it is more important than ever to help educate the public with correct information to dispel myths, alleviate access issues, and keep all parties safe. If you believe an assistance animal is right for you, but are unsure of what type you may need, please stay tuned for further articles.

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