top of page

ESA versus Service Dogs

ESA, Therapy, and Service Dogs: Understanding the Difference

    If you have flown anywhere recently, chances are you’ve seen people traveling with Emotional Support Animals (ESA for short). They seem to be everywhere, and yet there is a great deal of confusion and controversy about the role they serve. Sometimes people will mistakenly refer to them as Therapy or Service Dogs, but those are very different things. Here is an explanation of these to help you understand the difference and the requirements.

Emotional Support Animals (ESA)

    Emotional Support Animals provide comfort to an individual with a mental health condition. ESAs have special permission to fly within the USA or between the US and most countries (pending airline approval). Travelers with ESAs generally have to show a recent letter from a doctor or therapist stating that the Emotional Support Animal is necessary for their patient’s well-being.
    Each airline has its own policies regarding Emotional Support Animals, and they are becoming quite strict. Most carriers require notification and documents submitted in advance. Now, because of an increase in poorly behaved ESAs, passengers may also need to provide information on the animal’s basic training, health, and hygiene; including a letter from a certified trainer that has formally “assessed” the dog.

    Some airlines recommend Emotional Support Animals wear a harness indicating they are ESAs. The harness is to clarify that they are not traveling as pets or Service Dogs. Regardless of identification, being an Emotional Support Animal does not allow access to restaurants, public buildings, or stores that don’t typically allow pets.

    There is no required training for an ESA. They will need a note from the doctor, however, we recommend Beginner and Intermediate Obedience classes, and passing the Canine Good Citizen test.

UPDATE: In late 2020, the Department of Transportation revised the Air Carrier Access Act. The Act previously required US airlines to grant Emotional Support Animals the same rights as trained Service Animals. The updated Air Carrier Access Act allows airlines to treat ESAs as pets. Carriers can now charge a fee, enforce size limits, and require in-cabin pets to stay in an under-seat carrier.


Therapy Dogs

    Unlike Emotional Support Animals who assist only one person, Therapy Dogs give comfort to others by volunteering at nursing homes, hospitals, schools, libraries, etc. There is no standardized training program for Therapy Dogs; however, most facilities require testing and certification by an accredited organization. Therapy Dogs do not have special rights related to travel or housing. They are also not allowed to enter restaurants or stores that are usually off-limits to pets.

    Therapy dog class is recommended but not required. Anyone can test for Therapy through an accredited organization such as those Dogsmartz works with - Pet Partners or Alliance Therapy Dogs. Dogs should know the following commands consistently: sit, down, stay, come, and walking on a leash nicely. The dog should be free from aggression towards people, dogs, and handling.


Service Dogs

    Service Dogs receive specialized training to assist a person with a disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), it is unlawful to ask what function a Service Dog performs. Unlike Emotional Support Animals or Therapy Dogs, they are allowed full access to places that aren’t ordinarily open to pets. Needless to say, it is also wrong to claim your pet is a Service Dog, even if they are your ESA or a Therapy Dog. Please visit the ADA website for details.


Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA

    This is extensive training that can take up to two years. It is recommended that the dog can pass the “Public Service Dog”  test but it is not required.

    Dogsmartz does not offer Service Dog training, however, we can assist with obedience; which is the early work in service dog training. We recommend carefully searching for a service dog trainer. Before considering training your own dog as a service dog, consider contacting some of the larger organizations;

    Large service dog providers have minimal fees for their highly trained dogs but may require fundraising efforts on the recipient’s part and there may be a waiting period.

    Please screen the training facilities well. There are many training facilities that charge high prices with poor quality of training. Interview them, google them, do your research.


Good articles to read:

Speak Up To Fight Service Dog Fraud - DogTime

How to Find a Reputable Service Dog Training Program - PetGuide

Fake service dogs, real problems (


It is critical to know that service dogs should be the most well-behaved dogs and there are significant liabilities that exist when taking your dog in public. Not every dog can be a service dog. It takes a certain personality to be a service dog. Dogs that do not possess the right traits are often highly stressed when going into public. These dogs are not suited for service dog work.  Discuss this with a reputable service dog trainer to determine if your dog will be suited for this or if obtaining an already trained service dog is the best choice.

Dogsmartz does not offer service dog training.

bottom of page