Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Dogs: What’s the Difference?

Most people are familiar with Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and service animals. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably⸺but they are not the same thing. Although both ESAs and professionally trained service animals can provide emotional support and comfort, there are important differences between the two. As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. In addition to the provisions about service dogs, the Department’s ADA regulations have a separate provision about miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, however, we will exclusively be talking about service dogs, as Northwest Battle Buddies only provides professionally trained service dogs to Veterans. 

What’s the difference between an ESA and a professionally trained service dog? 

The term Emotional Support Animal can refer to any companion animal (not limited to cats and dogs) that provides comfort and emotional assistance for someone living with anxiety, depression, chronic illness, or any other condition that might benefit from the consistent presence of an animal. Sometimes, a doctor or therapist may prescribe an assistance animal as part of a treatment plan, but there is no specific training required for an animal to be considered an ESA. 


A professionally trained service dog, on the other hand, is a dog that has been specifically trained to perform a task that directly relates to its handler’s disability. Because of this, an ESA is still considered a pet, while a service animal is regarded as a working dog (a piece of equipment). For example, a service dog can be trained to alert others if its owner is having a seizure, provide guidance to someone visually impaired, or help a child with autism to interrupt a repetitive behavior. In the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a service dog may be trained to detect subtle changes in its owner’s chemical composition. The service dog then intervenes to help the owner shift from fight-or-flight mode into a more calm and adaptive state. 


Service dog at rest by owners feet.


What legal protections are provided to ESAs vs. professionally trained service dogs? 

Professionally trained service dogs enjoy robust protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. This means that service animals must be permitted in public places such as grocery stores, airports, schools, and many other places where they might not typically be allowed. A service dog is entitled to go anywhere its owner needs to, too. 


In most cases, the law does not provide the same protections for Emotional Support Animals. So although they may be part of a treatment plan and give a genuine therapeutic benefit to their owner, Emotional Support Animals can legally be barred from entering many public places. There are some gray areas where protections for service animals may also extend to Emotional Support Animals, such as housing and employment. In these cases, ESAs may be considered a “reasonable accommodation” for someone with a disability. So, for example, a person with a documented need for an Emotional Support Animal may be allowed to have their pet in an apartment that does not usually allow pets. 


Service dogs and Veterans in training


How does NWBB train animals to help Veterans with PTSD?

Northwest Battle Buddies’ professionally trained service dogs receive approximately 360 hours of training, where they learn specific interventions to treat the complex symptoms of PTSD. These dogs are trained to sense changes in their owner’s chemical composition (such as increased adrenaline during a panic attack) and then intervene and assist by nudging, licking, and getting onto the handler's lap to interrupt these moments and bring the handler back into the moment of “now.” These “change-of-state” practices offer grounding distraction and help the Veteran shift out of a reactive and maladaptive state.


Veterans working with an NWBB service dog will train one-on-one for an additional 135 hours. Together with their service animal, Veterans develop the skills to navigate life with freedom and independence. Apply for a professionally-trained service dog with Northwest Battle Buddies today. Through this intensive, individualized training, NWBB service dogs are equipped with the skills to help change the lives of Veterans. 

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