ESA vs Service Dogs: What are The Differences?

Humans have turned to dogs as aides, guides, and helpers throughout history to alert, hunt, attack, and comfort. Our furry friends have fulfilled their duties over the years. Today, dogs have aid those with emotional and physical needs.  

Many people are familiar with the important role dogs play as either service dogs or emotional support animals. Many even use these terms interchangeably, although several differences make these types of animals very different. 

It is important to know these differences, so you know which type of animal would best benefit you and what legal protections exist.  

Here, we will break down the differences and roles of both types of dogs. 

What is an ESA? 

An emotional support animal is a  companion animal providing therapeutic benefits to someone with a medically diagnosed condition or disability. They do not need formal training, but the owner must have medical documentation. Registration isn’t required, but can be helpful. A mental health professional is required for a medical diagnosis.  

They are common therapeutic solutions for people with mental health conditions, like: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic attacks
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 

A licensed mental health professional offers prescription letters which allows for some legal protections, such as permission to live in non-pet friendly housing. Currently, about forty qualifying disorders would count for ESA designation.  

These animals do not have to fulfill a specific role or function; their main purpose is to serve as a source of comfort. Since no training is required, many dogs are naturally suited to this role. Finding a dog with temperament and personality that you find comforting is the best way to start looking. 

What is a Service Dog? 

On the other hand, there are service animals. These trained dogs are often what comes to mind when people picture service or therapy animals. They receive training to help perform functions or jobs that the owner cannot perform due to intellectual, physical, or emotional disabilities. They may provide support as most dogs naturally do, but training duties go deeper than providing comfort.  

Service dogs help with hearing for the deaf, seeing functions for the blind, or help owners with dexterity limitations. Service dogs can provide medical alerts, help autistic children, or serve as a block for someone experiencing a seizure.

Service dogs often help people with disabilities gain a sense of independence and function in their daily lives. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are allowed in most public locations, including schools, theme parks, grocery stores, and more. Often these dogs wear vests or harnesses to signify their role. Business owners must provide reasonable accommodation to service animals, including things like aisle seating to leave adequate space.  

People must be diagnosed with a physical, mental, or emotional animal and illustrate the function a service dog would assist with. From there, an agency will help match a dog and the demonstrated needs. Dogs often train for 2 to 4 months before beginning their service. Some train for more than a year.

The Main Differences Between ESA and Service Dogs 

Both ESA and service dogs play important roles in their owners’ lives, but those roles are very different and have unique legal protections.  

Let’s dive into the main differences between both vital roles: 


While the terms are easy to interchange, the animals fulfill different functions and are not the same: 

  • A service dog has special training for specific jobs and functions. This might mean operating as their owner’s eyes or helping if the owner has a seizure. 
  • An ESA is more of a companion and source of support with no special training. While a service dog undergoes two to four months of training, an ESA simply needs the right temperament. 

Legal Protection 

  • A Service Dog’s job lasts a lifetime. The service dog is trained to fulfill its role for the entire life of the owner. That’s why the ADA protects these animals indefinitely. This protection extends to public places where regular dogs would not be permitted.  
  • An ESA has some ADA protections, but not the same level as a service dog. Their legal protection extends to air travel under the Air Carrier Access Act and housing but not much farther.  


Certifications serve as big differences between these two types of animals: 

A service dog agency provides the specialty training needed to help prepare the dog for specific disabilities. Whereas for an ESA. a dog can get certified with the prescription of a mental health practitioner. The professional diagnoses the disability and writes a letter stating the need and benefit of the animal. 

Both certifications are necessary to employ legal protections and document the animal’s purpose. In some cities, a service animal might also need to be registered with the city.  

Type of Animal 

People think of a dog when they think of emotional support. However, a licensed medical health professional can certify any animal that they consider a valid provider of support. However, not all therapists will write letters for exotic animals.

The same cannot be said for service animals because only dogs and miniature horses can be service animals. Many of these dogs tend to be Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, a mix of the two, or German Shepherds. Other dog breeds are eligible for the training, but these breeds tend to be the best.  


The value of the unconditional love and support of an animal is hard to describe or quantify. Whether your dog is a service animal or ESA, the comfort they provide goes far towards improving their owners’ quality of life.  

Knowing the differences helps you decide which type of animal you need and how they can help. For many people, registered ESA is all that’s needed to deal with mental illnesses that impede on their quality of life. These registered animals provide invaluable comfort and make the world a better place. 

To learn about registering your animal and receiving an ESA letter, contact a real professional at ESA Registration.