Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Dog: 5 Key Differences

Written by Katelynn Sobus
Published: May 5, 2023
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When you’re first learning about service dogs vs. emotional support dogs, it’s easy to get confused. They both help people with disabilities, so the difference between them may seem murky.

Service dogs are trained to perform tasks to help a disabled person, and they’re protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Emotional support dogs help ease one or more symptoms of a disability, but they aren’t trained to perform specific tasks and aren’t protected under the ADA.

These are the main differences between service and emotional support dogs. Let’s dive deeper to get a better picture of how they’re alike and how they vary.

Types of Service Dogs



are trained to perform tasks to help disabled people.


Emotional Support Dogs vs Service Dogs

Service dogs are dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks to help people with disabilities. Examples include seeing eye dogs, psychiatric service dogs, and seizure alert dogs–just to name a few!

Emotional support dogs are dogs that help alleviate one or more symptoms of a disability with their presence, but aren’t trained to perform specific tasks.

For example, a service dog for an anxiety disorder might warn of an upcoming panic attack, fetch medications, and block strangers from approaching and making the attack worse.

An emotional support dog for an anxiety disorder might make the person with anxiety feel calmer by providing company and comfort.

Neither service or emotional support dogs have an official registry, nor do they need to be registered. The owner must license their dog and follow the law when it comes to up-to-date vaccinations. An example is the rabies vaccine, which is required by law in most states.

Landlords cannot deny housing to people with emotional support or service dogs or charge pet fees. This applies even in buildings where there are no pets allowed. In cases where there is a pet limit, the dog doesn’t count toward it as they aren’t considered pets by law.

1. Service Dogs have Trained Tasks

The main difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs is that service dogs receive training to perform tasks. These range widely, especially since service dogs can help with such a variety of disabilities.

Emotional support animals can be very well-trained, but they don’t perform specific tasks to help with a disability. Moreso, they just help the person by being present.

2. Service Dogs Generally have More Training

While emotional support dogs can have formal training, most do not. They’re more likely to know about the same as your average family pet.

The difference between them and a family pet, of course, is that they aid disabled people in their day-to-day lives–even without training.

Service dogs, on the other hand, almost always undergo extensive training. Many service dogs receive formal training, but this isn’t required. A person can train their own service dog, but it takes work and training knowledge. 

Many people choose to learn how to train their dogs themselves because trained service dogs can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

service dog for physical disability

Service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and have more protections under law than emotional support dogs.

©Africa Studio/

3. Service Dogs are Covered Under the ADA

The next big difference is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers service dogs, but not emotional support dogs. The ADA was signed into law in 1990 and ensures civil rights for disabled people.

What this means is that service dogs have more protections by law. They cannot be denied entry into the public and people can only ask very specific questions about them. We’ll go into more detail on this below.

4. You Cannot be Asked for Documentation for a Service Dog

Retailers and landlords cannot ask for documentation for a service dog. They also cannot ask for details about the person’s disability, documentation for the service dog, or for the dog to perform tasks (though they can ask which tasks the dog performs).

The exception to the above occurs when flying on planes with a service dog.

Emotional support dogs are a bit different. While landlords still cannot ask about your disability, they can ask for a letter from a mental health professional that states you have a disability that your dog provides support for.

Types of Service Dogs

Service dogs are always allowed in public, while emotional support dogs can be denied entry into public spaces.


5. Service Dogs are Allowed in Public

Service dogs are allowed in all public spaces and cannot be denied by law. As we discussed above, retailers may not ask about a person’s disability, documentation, or for the dog to perform tasks to prove they’re a service animal.

They can ask the following questions:

  1. Do you need your service dog’s help for a disability?
  2. What tasks have they been trained to perform?

These questions should only be asked if the person’s disability or the dog’s job aren’t already obvious. For instance, a dog clearly leading a blind person should not be questioned.

Emotional support dogs can be denied entry to public spaces, but not to housing. It’s up to individual retailers whether or not to allow emotional support dogs into their establishments.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©

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About the Author

Katelynn Sobus is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on pets including dogs, cats, and exotics. She has been writing about pet care for over five years. Katelynn currently lives in Michigan with her seven senior rescue cats.

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