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Emotional Support vs. Service Dog – What’s Right for You?

Did you know that there are over half a million service dogs (and possibly even more emotional support animals) in the United States?

From providing companionship (ESA) to helping individuals manage their mental and physical health (Service Dog) ,these dogs are undoubtedly incredible assets to millions of lives. But if you’re unfamiliar with emotional support animals (ESAs) and service dogs, then you might not know which is right for you.

In this article, we will discuss the differences between service dogs and emotional support dogs, the benefits and limitations of having them, and factors to consider when choosing the right type of assistance animal for your needs.

What Are Service Dogs?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as a dog trained to do work or perform tasks to benefit an individual with a disability. This means that a service dog is not considered a pet but a working animal essential to the individual’s daily life.

Service dogs are trained to perform a wide variety of tasks that are specific to the individual’s needs: Some disabilities that might require specific training for certain tasks include visual impairments, hearing impairments, mobility impairments, seizure disorders, celiac disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Benefit Do Service Dogs Provide?

Service dogs are highly trained animals that can provide a wide range of benefits for individuals with disabilities — most importantly, the ability to live their everyday lives without assistance:

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  • Assistance with daily tasks: Service dogs can be trained to perform various tasks that help individuals with disabilities perform daily activities. For example, they can help individuals with mobility issues by retrieving items, opening and closing doors, and assisting with balance. They can also alert individuals with hearing impairments to sounds such as doorbells, alarms, and approaching vehicles.
  • Increased independence: By assisting with daily tasks, service dogs can help individuals with disabilities achieve greater independence. This can help improve their quality of life and increase their confidence and self-esteem.
  • Improved safety: Service dogs can provide security and safety for individuals with disabilities by alerting individuals with seizure disorders to an oncoming seizure, which can help prevent injury. They can also assist individuals with vision impairments by guiding them around obstacles and providing a sense of direction.
  • Emotional support: Many people with disabilities experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression, and service dogs can help alleviate these feelings by providing companionship and unconditional love.
  • Increased social interaction: Service dogs can also help individuals with disabilities increase their social interaction with others. 

Despite the many benefits of having a service dog, there are also some limitations to consider. Service dogs require significant training and care, and the cost of training a service dog is high.

But the ADA provides legal protections for service dogs and their owners: Under the ADA, service dogs are allowed to accompany their owners in all areas where the public can go, such as stores, restaurants, and public transportation. The ADA also prohibits businesses from charging extra fees or imposing additional restrictions on individuals with service dogs.

What Are Emotional Support Dogs?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are animals — usually dogs — that provide emotional support and comfort to individuals with mental or emotional disabilities, such as anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder.

Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs are not specially trained to perform specific tasks — but instead, provide comfort and support through their presence. Emotional support dogs can be any breed, size, or age and are not required to have specialized training.

Even so, emotional support dogs have certain limitations: They’re not recognized under the ADA as working animals, meaning they are not granted the same legal protections as service animals.

Psychiatric Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal

Many use “psychiatric service dogs” and “emotional support animals” interchangeably, but they’re pretty different. The confusion may stem from both dogs assisting people with mental health conditions, but the level of training and legal rights associated with each type of service dog vary.

A psychiatric service dog performs specific tasks to assist their owner with a mental health condition protected under the ADA. This might include preventing their owner from self-harm, aiding in dissociative episodes, or retrieving medication. On the other hand, an ESA provides companionship to alleviate symptoms of emotional disorders but is not specifically trained to assist people to perform specific tasks.

What Benefit Do Emotional Support Animals Provide?

For many people with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the calming presence of an ESA can provide security and comfort. Simply petting or cuddling with an animal can release oxytocin, a hormone that can help reduce stress and anxiety.

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About the Author


Tom Massey

Tom Massey has owned and operated Snowy Pines Labradors for over a decade. They have become the leaders in English Labradors in the US. He and his team serve customers all over the US and Europe. They house their "dog family" in a state of the art facility on a large farm in the Ozark Mountains. With an obsession for genetics and temperament they raise and train dogs known across the globe for health and personality. Tom serves the pet industry in many forms campaigning for ethical breeding, training, and pet ownership.


Calm Tempered, AKC Purebred, and Certified Genetics.