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The Difference Between Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Animals

Many times, the terms service, therapy and emotional support are mistakenly used interchangeably to describe an animal accompanying a person with a disability. While animals falling into each of these categories can be invaluable additions to the lives of their owners, their training and characteristics are notably different and as such they have varying responsibilities and rights.

Service Animals
Undergoing rigorous and highly specific training, service animals are taught to provide special, sometimes life-saving services to persons with disabilities. Dogs are most commonly used for this type of work, with certain breeds, such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, being popular for their temperament, versatility, size and intelligence. Due to the nature of their roles, service dogs are granted certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, like being allowed to accompany their owners into establishments inside which pets are not generally allowed. Service dogs can be trained to provide countless services to their owner depending on his or her needs, from alerting their owners to the sounds of smoke alarms or ringing phones to pulling their wheelchairs or leading them through a crowd.

Therapy Animals
Therapy animals also receive extensive training but their role in a person’s life is a little different than that of a service dog. These animals provide psychological and physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers, visiting hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other such institutions. These animals are trained to socialize and interact with those around them during their time on duty, participating in various activities while maintaining a calm demeanor. While dogs are also common in animal-assisted therapy, horses and dolphins, amongst many others, have been known to take on the challenge. Professional handlers may not be in charge of an animal’s training, however their training must meet certain criteria as specified for the organization for which they will work.

Emotional Support Animals
While emotional support animals are not required to undergo special training, their presence in a person’s life can be tremendously beneficial. By providing comfort, support and a calming presence, this type of animal can help relieve anxiety and reduce stress. Emotional support animals do not fall under the same category as service or therapy animals, however they are afforded certain rights. The Fair Housing Act allows ESAs to bypass “no pet” policies in housing complexes while the Air Carrier Access Act permits these animals to travel alongside their companions in an aircraft, as long as they possess the proper documentation.

Service, therapy and emotional support animals offer guidance and assistance to their owners or handlers in unique yet indispensable ways. For a person with a disability, these types of animals can make a world of difference.