Service, Therapy, and Emotional Support Animals--Differences and Etiquette

Do you want know the difference between service, therapy, and emotional support animals? Do you not know how to behave around working animals? Read on to learn more!

Norman loves his job as a therapy dog. He went through lots of training to get certified!

Q: What are the differences between service/therapy/emotional support animals?

A: There are three main categories of animals that help humans mentally and/or physically: Service, therapy, and emotional support animals are all unique and can do different things for the humans around them. Some people may have more than one helper animal, and that's normal.

Service animals help those with disabilities with a myriad of different tasks, depending on the disability/ies their human has. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies that service animals must be individually trained to "take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability". They don't have to be professionally trained, and the ADA maintains that people have the right to train their animals themselves. Here are some examples of services a service animal could provide: A dog could be trained to alert a human with diabetes when their blood sugar is low; to remind someone to take their medication; to detect the onset of a seizure and make sure their human stays safe during the seizure; or to check out a new location and make sure it's safe for their human who has PTSD (and many, many other services). Some people choose to have their service animal wear a specific vest or harness to indicate that they are a service animal, but this is not required by the ADA  it is up to the individual to make that decision for themselves.

Service animals include guide animals, who specifically guide those who are blind or visually impaired. They help their humans navigate the world around them, and the canines who perform this job are also known colloquially in the U.S.A. as "seeing eye dogs". There are also hearing or signal animals who help those with deafness or hearing loss by alerting them when a sound such as a knock on a door occurs.

Oshara is a therapy dog who works well with children.

Therapy animals often work in hospice, retirement homes, hospitals, nursing homes, disaster areas, schools, and other facilities to provide comfort and affection to people. Sometimes therapy dogs are brought in to colleges and universities to ease the anxieties and stresses students have during finals week. They don't have to be trained, but they absolutely can be. Some organizations offer training certifications if your animal companion goes through their training program. Not all animals are suited to be therapy animals, as therapy animals typically must be calm, affectionate, obedient, and comfortable with strangers to perform their job efficiently. This isn't to say a more rambunctious animal couldn't be trained to perform this job, just that they may require a little bit more training.

Animal-assisted therapy is proven to reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in people with quite a variety of health problems: people receiving cancer treatment, people with dementia, people with post-traumatic stress disorder, people with cardiovascular disease, people with anxiety, and many more.

Emotional support animals provide humans with therapeutic companionship. Sometimes they are also called comfort animals. They do not have to be specially trained to do so, so they are not considered service animals under ADA. This is not said to diminish the support they provide to their humans, of course, it is merely a clarifying statement. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals do not have access to essentially all public areas, but there are two legal protections that emotional support animals have: they can fly with a person who has an emotional or psychological disability, and they qualify for no-pet housing. Landlords and airlines can request a letter from a licensed medical professional as proof that you need an emotional support animal.

Being an ESA doesn't mean you don't get to steal your human's stuff, as Snow demonstrates here.

Some people falsely claim their pet to be an emotional support animal to keep their animal in pet-free housing, which is harmful to those who legitimately require emotional support animals, as it builds a stigma that these are not legitimate working animals or that any pet is automatically an emotional support animal, which is false.

Emotional support animals also differ from animals who provide "grounding" for humans with psychiatric disorders, which are qualified as service animals. This might seem like a small difference, but it's a valid distinction, as service animals have to be trained to provide said grounding, or to detect the onset of a panic attack, or other mental health services. This doesn't make them any more important than emotional support animals, they are just somewhat different.

Snow is an excellent ESA for her human.

Q: Are dogs the only ones allowed to be service/therapy/emotional support animals?

A: Generally, service animals and guide animals are dogs (though they can be any breed of dog. Even places with breed-discriminatory legislation must make exceptions for service animals of all breeds). The ADA defines service animal as a dog specifically, but that doesn't mean other animals are incapable of providing services. Sometimes specifically trained miniature horses, pigs, or monkeys can also be considered service animals, depending on circumstance.

Any animal can be a therapy or emotional support animal, though the most common are still dogs. Cats, reptiles, birds, and rabbits are other common examples of support animals.

Snow helps her human by providing therapeutic companionship.

Q: Can I pet a service/therapy/emotional support animal?

A: While an animal is working, it is safest for you, the person who the animal is assisting, and the animal if you leave the animal alone. Distracting the working animal by petting, feeding, or talking to them can be dangerous and distract the animal from doing their job. The animal needs to concentrate for the safety of their handler. If you know the person, be sure to ask before you pet their animal, and ask where it's okay to pet their animal as well. If the handler says no, please be courteous and understand that they have a reason for saying so and that they do not owe anyone the privilege of petting their working animal, who is performing a very important task for them.

Norman's humans say he has a gift to give, and they're right! He is an accomplished therapy dog.

Q: What else should I know about how to treat working animals?

A: This is by no means comprehensive list, but the following are worthwhile for you to consider:
  • Remember to talk to the person, not to the animal.
  • A handler and their service animal are known as a "working team" when out and about together.
  • Don't give the animal commands unless the handler asks you to. Also don't praise the animal for doing their job  that is up to the handler to do if they wish. They might save their praise for specific situations.
  • Service animals have the right of way.
  • Assist the handler if the handler asks for assistance  don't assume that they are incapable of dealing with a situation. You can offer help, but do so respectfully, as you would with anyone.
  • When walking with a service animal and their handler, make sure to ask them where it's okay to walk, because you don't want to confuse the service animal by getting in the way.
  • If a guide animal is guiding, don't attempt to grab the animal or the person; ask them if they would like additional assistance if you are unsure of a situation.
  • Respect the handler's rules about their service animal  don't feed their animal table scraps or random snacks without the handler's permission. Service animals need to be in good health so they can perform their job effectively. Also, feeding them human food can encourage behaviors like begging, which is not generally acceptable for a working dog to do, as they are then distracted and not doing their job.
  • Similarly, allow working animals to rest undisturbed  do not tease them or bother them; show them respect. Just because they are lying down next to their handler does not mean they are not working.
Oshara loves being around humans and is excellent at her job.
  • Always ask before approaching a service animal.
  • Make sure that if you have other animals in your household, they are not challenging or intimidating your working animal, as this can impede the animal's ability to work. They must be supervised when meeting and should meet on neutral ground.
  • Don't ask personal questions about the person's health  health is a private matter, and the following sorts of questions can make people uncomfortable or irritated, and extend beyond those who happen to have a service animal:
    • "What's wrong with you/what happened to you?" is incredibly rude. Not every person will be bothered by this question, but it is considered very offensive to some.
    • "Does your animal know any tricks? Can you show me?" Remember, this is a working animal who is currently trying to keep their human safe.
    • "What's your pet's name?" Many handlers don't like giving out their animal's name because the animal may become distracted every time it hears its name. Some people may be bothered by this question, some may not be. It is best to not ask this question unless you know the person well.
    • Generally, do not interact with the service animal unless the handler gives explicit permission.
Note: If you're curious about whether or not a service, therapy, or emotional support animal is for you, feel free to ask your doctor or therapist or other medical professional about it! There is stigma surrounding disability in our world, but you don't have to let that stop you from seeking the help that you have every right to have access to. It's okay to ask for help. You are allowed to take up space.

Snow taking a well-deserved rest.

  • Alt, Kimberly. “Legitimate Emotional Support Animal Registration.”, 29 Sept. 2020,

  • Alt, Kimberly. “Service Dog vs Therapy Dog vs Emotional Support Dogs.” Canine Journal, Cover Story Media, 10 July 2017,

  • “Etiquette Guide For Service and Guide Dogs.” Guide Dog Foundation, Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc.,

  • “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.” U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section, ADA, 20 July 2015,

  • Magnuson, Laura. “Manners Unleashed: Etiquette Regarding Service Dogs.” Pacer Center, 2008,

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Pet Therapy: Animals as Healers.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 15 Sept. 2020,

  • “Service Dog Etiquette.” International Association of Canine Professionals, 2019,

Photo credit: Cindy Kieffer (Norman); Becky Krisko (Oshara); 
Written by Skye Isabella Rose Iwanski


  1. Well I definitely liked your post. Topic is well presented, thanks a lot.

    1. Thank you very much! We're glad you liked it.


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