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Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Dogs — Understanding the Difference

1 year, 1 month ago

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Posted on May 22, 2023, 1 p.m.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service dog is defined as a dog that provides assistance to an individual with a disability. While many may be familiar with seeing-eye or guide dogs, it’s important to realize that there are a variety of different types of service dogs out there that are trained to help people in various situations. Many may not realize, however, that an emotional support animal differs greatly from a service dog. From those that are trained to work with individuals who experience a disability to the role of an emotional support dog, here’s what you should know regarding the difference between the two.

Service dogs and their many roles

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.3 billion people (or 16% of the global population) experience significant disability. While there are a variety of different types of service dogs out there (from those who can detect high/low blood sugar in diabetics to those that aid people with hearing impairments), guide dogs, also known as seeing-eye dogs, are perhaps some of the most well-known service animals out there. A guide dog’s job is to help its owner navigate through a variety of everyday situations, whether it be crossing the road or guiding them through a crowd of people, thus playing a major role in a person’s mobility and independence. That said, it’s important to realize that someone doesn’t have to be completely blind in order to have a guide dog — in fact, the International Guide Dog Federation notes that while eligibility requirements vary between each organization, a guide dog could benefit someone who may be totally or partially blind or vision impaired (among additional requirements). 

Mobility assistance dogs are another type of service dog that helps those with disabilities perform everyday tasks, from opening doors to turning on lights. The United Disabilities Services Foundation (UDS) notes that mobility support dogs are typically paired with individuals who experience disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, or cerebral palsy. Some mobility assistance dogs, UDS explains, are specifically trained to brace individuals with balance issues, while others may specialize in helping wheelchair users, and may even have a special harness (which allows them to assist their owner by pulling their chair). 

Recognizing a service dog

The United Disabilities Services Foundation (UDS) further goes on to mention the importance of certain characteristics that a service dog must have in order to do their job well. For example, it’s mentioned that the breeds most commonly used as service dogs possess a desire to work, a calm demeanor, intelligence, and a friendly/loving disposition. Great Danes, for instance, are just one notable breed on the list. Known for their friendly, gentle, and people-oriented temperament, Great Danes are ideal for older families, seniors, and apartment living. While many service dogs are immediately recognizable due to a harness or jacket, it’s important to not pet a service dog when they’re at work. “[Many people don’t know] not to pet guide dogs while they are in a harness, but they are working and it could distract them from their job,” says Guide Dogs of America's media and community liaison, Lorri Bernson.

Emotional support animals (ESAs)

The American Kennel Club (AKC) highlights the differences between a service dog and an emotional support dog, noting perhaps the biggest difference — that emotional support dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA. While they may be trained for their specific owner, it’s further explained that ESA dogs are not trained for the tasks/duties that help an individual with a disability. That said, AKC goes on to point out that, unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs are considered companion animals, and can provide great support to those with psychological disorders, helping to ease anxiety and panic attacks to depression and loneliness. Unlike service dog owners, ESA owners “have only limited legal rights and those typically require a letter of diagnosis from the owner's doctor or psychiatrist.”  Furthermore, AKC highlights that ESAs don’t have unlimited access to public spaces, and notes that as of January 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate them.

Service dogs and emotional support dogs can play major roles in enhancing the lives of their owners. While service dogs can aid someone who experiences a disability, emotional support dogs support those with psychological disorders and are not considered service animals, thus highlighting a notable difference between the two. However, that is not to say that some emotional support dogs have not been trained to assist with certain conditions/situations such as calming an extreme panic attack. 

This article was written for WHN by Bri Burton, who is an avid blogger and health advocate. 

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement.

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