What’s the difference between an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) and a Service Dog?

It’s common for emotional support animals and service dogs to get confused with each other. Most people assume that their qualities overlap, but in reality they are two distinct animals. 

An ESA, better known as an emotional support animal, is an animal that provides therapeutic support to its owner. A service dog, on the other hand, is a dog that has been trained to perform special tasks for individuals who have disabilities. 

Note that it’s illegal to misrepresent your emotional support dog as a service animal, so it’s important to understand the difference. 

Attempting to pass your emotional service dog off as a service dog, even if unintentionally, can have harmful consequences. While there is the issue of legality, there is also the issue of presentation. If someone is trying to claim that their emotional support dog is in fact a service dog to be allowed in a certain establishment, this can affect any surrounding people and the reputation of service dogs in general. 

Service dogs receive specific training, which emotional support dogs are not required to have. If your dog misbehaves while trying to pass as a service dog, this makes it harder for individuals with actual service dogs to easily be allowed to go where they need to. 

What Role Does an Emotional Support Dog Play? 

As mentioned above, an emotional support dog (or any other animal an individual might choose) provides therapeutic support to its owner. They do this through companionship and affection. The reasons for needing an emotional support dog are varied. However many request an emotional support animal for the following conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

Those with mental and emotional conditions are most likely to seek the comfort of an emotional support dog. 

While these conditions can also qualify an individual for a service dog, the difference is individuals who require an emotional support animal don’t need assistance in terms of tasks or guidance. The dependence on an emotional support animal is based on emotional needs, while a service animal is needed to help the owner complete tasks. 

Unlike a service dog, emotional support animals aren’t responsible for specific tasks or duties. As a result, they don’t need to be formally trained. If an emotional support dog does receive training, the dog’s owner would be responsible. This training isn’t required, but it is preferred by some owners. 

While there is no formal training involved, a formal letter from a therapist is required for the dog to be officially considered an emotional support animal. 

Unlike a service dog, it may be difficult for the public to determine if your dog is an emotional support dog or a regular pet. Some people might even comment on your animal because they don’t understand why you need it. In these cases, it’s beneficial to consider having your emotional support animal wear a vest or a collar that indicates its purpose. This can save confusion and numerous explanations from strangers and business owners, which will save you time and energy. 

What Role Does a Service Dog Play?

A service dog, on the other hand, has a much more structured role than an emotional support dog. A service dog is trained to perform specific tasks to help their owner. Individuals who require a service dog usually need assistance because of illness, some of which include:

  • Asthma
  • Blindness
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy 

You can use a service dog for a medical condition that requires assistance. 

The most common types of service animals are seeing eye dogs. In this case, the dog would need specialized training to properly assist their blind owner. This requires very specific tasks and training. 

This training can come from the owner or from an official trainer. Keep in mind that no matter the type of training, a service dog will have to go through the necessary steps to be deemed an official service dog. 

For this to happen, your service dog would need to have an official service animal certification

Because of the requirements for a service animal, only dogs and mini horses can be considered. On the other hand, there is no limit to what qualifies as an emotional support animal. 


Now, let’s compare the two a bit closer to fully understand their similarities and differences. First, here is some more information on service dogs.

Service dogs:

  • They are trained specifically to perform tasks for their owner
  • Can be trained by their owner or formally trained
    Can travel on airplanes with their owners (they may still need proof of service animal certification or written permission from a therapist)
  • There is no size limit for service dogs
  • Have access to all public areas
  • Formal registration is required for a dog to officially be a service animal
  • A service animal is not considered a pet, so landlords are not allowed to charge a pet fee or deposit
  • Service animals can be identified by a vest or tag
  • They are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 

Emotional support dogs:

  • Their main purpose is to provide emotional support to their owner through affection and companionship
  • Can be trained by their owners, but this isn’t a requirement
  • Emotional support dogs can come in all shapes, breeds, and sizes
  • You are allowed to take your emotional support animal on an airplane, provided you notify the airline in advance and can provide an accommodation form signed off by a therapist
  • Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs do not have access to all public areas
  • While an emotional support animal isn’t required to wear identifying clothes or a harness, it’s recommended to save time and avoid explaining to the public that your animal is providing you with emotional support


Choosing between an emotional support and service animal depends on the individual’s needs. Both serve to make life easier for their owners, but they each have specific factors that differentiate them. By knowing the difference, you guarantee that you’re certified to use the correct type of aid.