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Emotional Support Animal or Service Dog: Which Do You Qualify?


Emotional support animals and service dogs are two ways to improve the well-being of their owner. People with disabilities can legally obtain a service dog or an emotional support animal to relieve the symptoms of a disability. Their similar functions cause people to be confused about the choice between these two canine helpers. Actually, service dogs and emotional support animals are used for different forms of therapy and have different rights based on different laws. In this article, we will guide you through the differences between emotional support animals and service dogs and find out which one is best for you.

Emotional support animals

1. What is an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animals, as one common type of assistance animals, can be any animal that provides the owner with mental comfort and reduces the anxiety or other symptoms of psychiatric disabilities. Also, emotional support animals can be additionally trained to perform simple physical tasks for the owner, such as licking your hands and lying on your chest or lap by following certain commands or cues. This is not a necessary course but a practical skill to reduce your stress or panic. Research indicates that animal companionship can greatly distract attention from negative emotions and encourage people to overcome mental disorders. Children who live with an animal always have a high sense of responsibility and a lower risk of autism.

2. Qualifications

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Acts) does not impose restrictions on breed, weight, and training on the emotional support animal. Therefore, theoretically, any species may become qualified as an ESA as soon as it poses no threat to other people and actually solves the owner’s problems. The common breeds of ESA include dogs, cats, bunnies, pot-bellied pigs, birds, lizards and others.

However, to get a qualified emotional support animal, you should first know what emotional challenges or impairments you have. This is necessary for a therapist to write a proof or ESA letter that is mostly used when traveling in the cabin of an airplane or when moving to a “No Pets” apartment. Here are some mental disorders that deserve an emotional support helper:

 • Anxiety

 • Autism 

 •  Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHA) 

 • Bipolar Disorder 

 • Depression 

 • Dyslexia 

 • Motion sickness 

 • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

 • Separation Anxiety 

 • Social Phobia 

 • Stress Problems 

3. Emotional Support Animals (ESA) have two legal protections:

Namely the legal rights to accommodation and travel with their owner. Learn about the laws that protect the rights of ESA and people with disables below.

 • Law #1: The Fair Housing Act (FHA)    

The Fair Housing Act states that landlords and property owners cannot refuse the rental housing request from people with disabilities. In addition, landlords must provide reasonable accommodation to tenants and their emotional support animal. The “No Pets” rules or pet regulations (including size restrictions, breeds, weights or species) are not applicable to emotional support animals. Additionally, landlords are prohibited from inquiring about the details of your disability and charging extra fees or rents due to your ESA.

However, they can request proof that the animal is indeed an ESA, such as a letter from a therapist or an ESA certificate. Emotional support animals which cause a fundamental change in the premises and pose a direct threat to other tenants, could be excluded by the landlords for the safety of other tenants. It is recommended that to you train your pet in obedience so that it is well-behaved and well-mannered before you apply for a “No Pets” home.

 • Law #2:  The Air Carrier Access Act  

The ACAA allows emotional support animals to fly in the aircraft cabin with their handler who has emotional or psychological disabilities. The animal is not required to pay extra pet fees.

However, most airlines and destinations have their own pet policies regarding Emotional Support Animals. For example

 • Many airlines only allow passengers to bring dogs and cats into the cabin as ESAs. Carefully read the airline’s pet policy before booking a ticket.

 • Some countries do not accept ESAs travelling in the cabin. Find out about the local regulations of your destination when traveling abroad.

 • You should inform the staff of your airline about the ESA at least 48 hours before departure.

Service dogs

1. What is a service dog? 

Service dogs, the most common type of service animals, are specially trained to perform essential tasks for people with physical or mental disabilities. Depending on the needs of different people, service dogs can assist various groups of individuals, such as the blind, deaf, diabetic, autistic and those with epilepsy. Most service dogs are intelligent and sensitive in order to identify the difficulties and prevent the potential risk of danger, whether you are staying at home or going outside. In most cases, people praise that service dogs improve their quality of life and provide them with a high degree of security and independence.

The usual methods of obtaining a qualified service dog are:

 • To buy a trained service helper from the agencies, 

 • Send your potential service dog to the local schools, 

 • Hire a trainer to discipline your domestic pup, 

 • Train your dog by yourself. 

Besides training, the following additional requirements apply to the qualification of your service dog.

2. Qualifications

There is no restriction on the breed of service dogs, but they must have at least one year of rigid training. The specified training period should depend on the type of service dog. Normally, psychiatric service dogs are not required to accomplish heavy tasks like the service dogs for physical disabilities, which is why their training is relatively shorter and simpler than other kinds of service dogs. 

To legally qualify a service dog, the dog handler must meet a condition other than dog training, which includes at least one disability that restricts daily activities, but which can be alleviated with the help of service dogs. Here is a list of disabilities that would benefit from the assistance of a service dog.

 • Autism  

 • Bone and skeletal problems (such as osteoporosis, scoliosis, etc.) 

 • Cancer 

 • Diabetes  

 •  Epilepsy 

 •  Mobility difficulties  (including paralysis) 

 •  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

 •  Vision impairment (such as blindness) 

 •  Hearing impairment (such as hearing loss) 

 •  Sleep disorders (such as narcolepsy)  


3. The law protects the rights of service dogs

The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the law protecting people with disabilities from unfair discrimination. It covers the rights of service dogs and emotional support animals as well as how to use those animals.

Service dogs have the privilege to accompany the handler in a wide range of public settings, including homes, aircraft cabins, schools, hospitals, libraries, and all “No Pets” individual businesses. Handlers can refuse to answer questions about their disabilities while providing access to public places for their service dog.

The biggest difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs is that the provision for visiting public areas does not cover emotional support animals, except travelling in an aircraft cabin and living in a “No Pets” home.



A service dog acts as a crucial helper when the handler suffers from attacks due to his disability, as well as a predictor who alerts people to oncoming dangers. Therefore, a qualified service dog should always be fully trained to protect the handler. Emotional support animals are suitable for people who can do physical activities without an animal helper. However, the companionship of ESAs can help them to improve their mental health.