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Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals: How They Are Different and What You Should Know

By: Adam Grafa

You might have noticed them, often accompanying someone with a physical disability, sometimes wearing a red vest to signify their unique stature, and frequently in places you don’t expect, like on an airplane, at a restaurant, or in the grocery store.

Of course, we’re talking about service dogs, and most people recognize them, but if you were asked to distinguish a service dog from an emotional support dog or a therapy dog, would you be able to? Though all are intended to help with psychological issues, their differences can be confusing, but necessary to understand, especially if you’re thinking about getting one.

Service Dogs

According to the ADA, by their most general definition, service dogs are working animals trained to perform specific daily tasks that someone with a disability cannot, whether the disability is physical or mental. Psychiatric Service dogs are specifically trained to assist someone suffering from a psychological issue so significant that it affects their ability to perform daily tasks. For example, a Psychiatric Service dog might be trained to help an individual who suffers episodes of disorientation by keeping them from walking into the street. Or, they might be enlisted to help veterans suffering from PTSD by waking them from nightmares. The training to perform a specific task designed to mitigate a psychological disability is the key differentiator between Psychiatric Service dogs and Emotional Support animals.

Emotional Support Animals

Because they don’t need to perform any specific tasks and don’t need any specialized training, an emotional support animal can be almost any type of animal, and their duties most closely resemble that of a traditional companion animal (aka pet). They are dedicated to one person, their owner, and fulfill their roles simply by providing companionship and emotional support. Like service animals, they are allowed under the Air Carrier Access Act to travel with their owners on an airplane. They are also allowed under the Fair Housing Act to live with their owners, even if their residence does not allow pets, but cannot go with them into public establishments.

Therapy Animals

Similar to service animals, a therapy animal must be comfortable in a variety of environments, and like an emotional support animal, they provide comfort and emotional support, but that is where the similarities end. Where both service dogs and emotional support animals are dedicated to helping one person, therapy animals provide emotional support and comfort to many through animal-assisted therapy sessions and other structured visits. They do not have any of the legal protections that the other two have.

How Can I Get a Service Animal?

Service dogs and emotional support animals require a letter from a mental health professional, so your first step is to talk to a therapist. Think of them kind of like you would a prescription medication. If you’re seeing a therapist for the first time, they may be hesitant to write the letter until knowing you better. Even then, many therapists are less familiar with prescribing an emotional support animal or service dog so they may partner with a therapist who has experience or specializes in them.

If you’re interested in animal assisted therapy, seek out a therapist who specializes in that method. Searching the internet will probably be the fastest way to locate one in your area.

Ultimately, integrating an animal into your therapy can, for the right person, be very beneficial. Remember that, while you will rely on it to help you through difficult times, your service or emotional support animal will depend on you to take care of it. So, just as you would if you were considering a regular pet for companionship, think honestly about your willingness and ability to care for that furry creature who is trying to care for you.

We Hope This Helps!

If you feel like you need the support of a mental health professional, remember that you’re not alone! If you have any questions, please contact us, we’re here to help!

Resources

https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html
https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/service-animals-including-emotional-support-animals
https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/assistance_animals