Skip to content
Service dog by pool

Service Dog vs ESA: What's the Difference?

Lately there has been a lot of conversations going on in the blogosphere around ESAs (Emotional Support Animals) versus Service Dogs. And contrary to what a lot of us dog owners think the two are classified very differently and therefore are afforded different rights. This was something I learned recently when one of my sister's dogs became her ESA. Read on to find out what the difference is between these two very important category of dogs as well as some interesting facts about them.*


Service dog helping swimmer

What is a Service Dog?

According to the ADA service animals are defined as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” This definition means that a person’s dog must have undergone specific training to assist said person with specific disabilities. In addition to helping people with physical disabilities a service dog may be trained to help a person with depression and remind them to take their medication. Or someone with epilepsy may have a dog trained to anticipate a seizure and help the person stay safe during the seizure.

Do Service Dogs have to be Professionally Trained?

The ADA states that service dogs don’t have to be trained by a professional to be considered a service dog. However, the dog must have been trained by someone to do a specific task before being taken into public places like restaurants and stores. Some State or local laws cover animals that are still in training and there may be other laws and restrictions in your area. The best bet is to check your state and local laws for service dogs in training.

Are Service Dogs Required to be Certified or Registered as a Service Animal?

According to the ADA service dogs are not required to register as a service animal or have any proof that they have been certified, trained or licensed. In fact, there is no mandatory registration of service animals and cities and other government agencies cannot force an individual to register or provide proof of certification of his or her service dog. However, service dogs are subject to the same licensing and vaccination rules that are required of all dogs in your particular city or town.

Can You Ask if a Dog is a Service Animal?

The ADA states that staff at business establishments may ask only two questions in situations where it is not obvious that a dog is a service animal to determine whether it is a service animal: “1)is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and 2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?”

Staff are not permitted to require or demand documentation that the dog is a service animal or require that the dog demonstrate its task, or ask about the person’s disability. Additionally, service dogs are not required to wear any special identification such as a vest, ID tag, or special harness. However, if a service dog is out of control of the handler and they do not nate effective action to control the dog staff may request that the dog be removed.


Man with his ESA dog


What is an ESA?

According to the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP), dogs may be deemed an emotional support animal (ESA) by a medical professional if they provide a therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The dog may or may not be trained to perform specific tasks for the handler. Unlike service dogs ESA dogs are not permitted into public places like restaurants, grocery stores, etc.

What do ESA Dogs do?

ESA dogs can provide a variety of roles including improving one or multiple symptoms of the handler’s disability based on a medical professional’s opinion and prescription. This can include helping calm people with anxiety, stress, and even depression.

How do Dogs Become ESAs?

In order for a dog to be considered an ESA the person seeking a special designation for their dog must see a licensed medical professional for treatment of a verifiable disability. In other words a medical professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or physician must write a note stating that the person’s dog is needed to help with that verifiable disability. Dogs that are designated as ESAs do not need any special training and are not required to perform specific tasks.

Where are ESAs Allowed (and not Allowed) in Public?

Unlike service dogs, ESAs have a lot more restrictions in terms of what kinds of public spaces they are allowed in. Most of us are familiar with the fact that service dogs are permitted in all public spaces with their handlers. With ESAs businesses are not required to allow an ESA in their establishments. For instance, if you have an ESA dog and want to eat in a restaurant said restaurant has the right to refuse entry to your ESA as it is not a protected public space by law. Other places that are not required to allow the entry of an ESA dog includes, but is not limited to, hotels, retail stores, and the workplace.

Although most establishments do not allow ESAs through their doors there are certain instances when the law protects the entry rights of ESAs. According to the Fair Housing Act ESAs are permitted into apartments and rented housing when the dog or animal provides some sort of assistance related to the person’s disability. Additionally, the owner of the building or house cannot charge extra for a person to have his or her ESA with them. Interestingly, even college dorms have to abide this law. In fact, there have been more than a few instances when colleges haven’t allowed ESAs and they have been financially penalized for not complying with the Fair Housing Act.

In addition to the Fair Housing Act, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) permits people to travel with their ESAs free of extra charge. But the person the ESA is traveling with is required to have the proper documentation from a licensed medical professional attesting to the ESAs necessity. Without a recent letter from a licensed medical professional airlines can deny an ESA’s access to the cabin of the airplane.

Service Dogs and ESAs are very different and as such are afforded different rights under US Federal law. This article has only scratched the surface of the main differences between the two classifications. For more and up to date information we recommend checking your federal, state, and local laws as they pertain to service dogs and ESAs.


*I (the author) am by no means an expert in the topic and do not offer the following facts in the article as legal advice. For accurate information regarding your particular situation please contact a professional.

Older Post
Newer Post

Shopping Cart