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What IS a Service Animal?

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

A golden retriever is vested and leashed, looking up at the handler while a puppy looks over at the older dog

A frequently misunderstood topic is what is a service dog. Especially when you throw in Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and psychiatric service dogs, the terms can get confusing. So this is a brief post explaining the difference between service dogs, psychiatric service dogs, ESAs, and therapy dogs. Under the law, there can be large differences.

First, let’s get therapy dogs (and other animals) out of the way. A therapy dog is highly-trained to help others. These are the dogs that go into schools, hospitals, or nursing homes. They are certified by therapy animal organizations after passing various tests and can often visit these places in groups of more than one dog. There can also be a number of other species that act as therapy animals, from rabbits to cats to pigs and more. Legally, therapy animals are pets and are only allowed access to nonpet-spaces with prior authorization and agreement.

ESAs, on the other hand, don’t require training, but they do require a psychiatric disability. They aren’t trained in any specific way, but they offer emotional support and comfort to their disabled handler. They can be just about any species, as well. ESAs, however, do not get any public access rights (except for airplanes, currently). That means that someone with an ESA can’t simply bring them to the grocery store. ESAs do get rights to live with their disabled handler, even if the person’s housing normally doesn’t allow animals.

In the US, service animals can only be dogs or miniature horses. Service dogs are the ones that are allowed public access with very few restrictions as well as being allowed to live with their disabled partner, even if their housing doesn’t normally allow animals. However, service dogs are highly-trained to help their one, individual partner. They often have hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of training and are considered medical equipment. This means that service dogs are allowed access with their specific partners just about anywhere, just as someone in a wheelchair is allowed to go just about anywhere with their wheelchair.

Now, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are often confused with ESAs because they also require a psychiatric disability. However, PSDs are service dogs in every other way. They have lots of training and are legally protected and allowed to go into public places. The main difference from other service dogs is that, currently, the US treats PSDs the same as ESAs when it comes to flying. In every other way, a PSD is a service dog and an ESA is not the same as a PSD.

A quick summary of the differences:

  • Therapy animals help others and are trained

  • Emotional support animals help one disabled individual and are not trained

  • Service dogs (including PSDs) help one disabled individual and are highly-trained

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