• Patrick Cox

Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals, Oh My? How Can You Tell the Difference?

Updated: May 7, 2019

Last week, we celebrated National Therapy Dog Day and posted an infograph on tips to becoming a service dog (SD), therapy dog (TD) or emotional support animal (ESA) and we meet McKenna Williams, service dog owner/trainer and educational specialist on service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals. She wanted to provide additional information to help others better understand the difference and what they can do to get their dog started on the right path based on the services they seek to provide. We asked her to guest blog this week and she did not disappoint.


Hello Topline K9 Solutions friends and fellow followers!

I wanted to throw together the US laws and information surrounding Service Animals to illuminate the differences between Service Animals, Therapy Animals, and Emotional Support Animals. I will use the common community accepted abbreviations in the rest of this correspondence. The abbreviations being:

  • Service Dogs - SDs;

  • Service Dog in Training - SDiTs;

  • Therapy Dogs - TDs; and

  • Emotional Support Animals - ESAs.

Key Difference Between the 3 Types of Animals and the Level of Training Required

The Law

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The ADA is what protects SD teams out in public from discrimination. SDs are defined there as "a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability." So this is saying that the handler must be disabled AND the dog must be trained to do at least one task/work AND that task/work must be related to the handler's disability. For example, I am considered disabled by my anxiety/panic disorder (among other things) but am not considered disabled by my asthma. If my SD were to perform a task that would help with my anxiety, that would qualify towards her being an SD. If my SD were to perform a task related to my asthma, that would be just a cool trick and not a "task" in the eyes of the law. Businesses can only ask two questions of someone bringing a dog into a store:

  1. Is that a service dog required for a disability?

  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Remember that "comfort" or "emotional support" are NOT considered valid tasks under the ADA as those are something an animal does by just being present. Note the wording how the business cannot ask anything about the person's disability or for any "paperwork", certificates, ID cards, or doctor's notes. An animal can be denied entry if it is not a task trained service animal, and can be removed regardless if it is posing a threat to the health/safety of others (aggressive, urinating/defecating, etc) or if it is out of control with no effective action taken by the handler to regain control (a bark is fine if the handler corrects it or is part of a task/alert, excessive barking is not and can be grounds for removal). The business is then still obligated to provide their services to the handler but without the presence of the animal.

A fantastic link to reference is found here: ADA FAQ link

While there is NO LEGITIMATE REGISTRATION some handlers may choose to create business-like cards or pamphlets stating ADA law and providing the ADA contact information. I have attached the cards and information I use below.

Fair Housing Act (FHA): The FHA is what rules over housing laws and lumps ESAs, SDiTs, and SDs together under the umbrella term "Assistance Animals". All are protected equally, so long as the rental property contains 4 or more units not including the one the landlord resides in if they reside on the property as well. If the landlord has fewer than 4 units to rent out, the FHA is not applicable to them. Before bringing the animal on the rental property, you must request a reasonable accommodation, which starts a dialogue between the landlord and the handler. If the need for the animal is not obvious, the landlord can request a note from a medical professional (includes doctors, specialists, therapists, counselors, psychiatrists; anyone in the medical field who is treating the person and knows their disability/disabilities) explaining that the person has a disability (for psychiatric disabilities, it needs mentioned to be in the DSM-V) and that the animal is either part of the treatment plan or helps mitigate their disability. The best outcome is that the request for accommodation is approved and the handler lives on the property with their animal, not paying a pet fee/deposit or additional pet rent per month or the animal counting towards a pet limit. (Clarification: If the apartment has a two pet limit, an assistance animal would not count towards that limit so you could have an assistance animal (or more than one) along with two pets, without exceeding the limitations.) The worst outcome from the perspective of the handler is that the accommodation request is denied due to proof of "undue hardship" to the landlord. This is usually when the animal living on the property would greatly increase their insurance costs.

The text of the FHA can be found here: FHA Text

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA): The Air Carrier Access Act is a bit of a struggle, if I'm honest. The biggest issues that it has are that it allows room for breed discrimination (see: Delta Airlines' bully breed restriction) and that it lumps psychiatric service dogs in the same boat as ESAs. Also, all of the airlines seem to come up with their own forms and requirements.

The text of the law is listed here: ACAA Text

State Laws: For SDs who are still in training (also referred to as SDiTs), state laws will say whether or not they have public access rights. For example, Florida laws give SDiTs the same rights as SDs, Texas laws only give access rights to SDiTs when with "approved trainers" (that wording has been a point of contention but, having personally had a conversation with a trainer involved in the writing of the laws, it is intended to mean program trainers only), and North Carolina laws give access rights to SDiTs who are marked as "IN TRAINING" and are actively in the process of training. A great starting point for seeing the service dog laws for your state is this link here: Table of State Laws.

Things to Consider

  • Registries/certifications are a scam! We've all seen those online ads for registries saying "Register now to be able to take your pet with you everywhere!" all of those are a waste of money. Registries, IDs, and certificates are not needed for service animals and cannot be asked for by businesses. You may be wondering what's the big deal if someone chooses to waste their money on an ID like these because their money, their choice right? Well, yes but not exactly. Their using the ID to gain access is where the problem lies. If someone with an ID shows it to a business to gain entry or a landlord to gain housing, it sets the expectation for the business or the landlord to expect these and that they are valid things to ask for. So if I were to enter that business or try to rent that apartment without an ID, I could get denied access for not having my "papers", which the stress of confrontation could cause a seizure for me, as that's part of my disability. (Therapy animals, however, can have a registration/certification process, depending on the organization they partner with.)

  • What about state registries? State registries are fine and well, but optional. They should, for the same reasons as IDs above, not be mentioned or shown for access. When it comes to laws, which ever law grants the handler more rights is the one that is followed. For example, some states don't recognize psychiatric SDs but the ADA does. In this case, the ADA would protect handlers with PSDs but the state would not. Another example is some states also accept cats as possible service animals. Within their state, their service cat is recognized as a service animal but, if they were to travel outside their state to one who doesn't recognize service cats, they would have no protection from federal laws.

  • What should be done to combat the "epidemic" of fake service animals? EDUCATION. The biggest reason that pets are allowed into non-pet-friendly places is that stores are uneducated on their rights, but also many stores don't allow their employees to ask both questions (usually they can ask if it's a service animal, but beyond that, they are not allowed to ask anything else) for fear of being sued. Another level of education that's missing is often police officers. I've seen many a handler call the police due to discrimination issues and then have to educate the officers when they show up. It's not on the handlers to educate but we often have to if we want to go anywhere. Long story short, everyone needs more education and it needs to happen in schools, and not just when a kid in the school gets a service animal to prompt need to educate.

  • Speaking of, what about schools? For grade school, the animal should be added to the child's IEP or 504 plan and maybe host an educational session with the teachers depending on what the dog does, what action the teachers/staff might need to take, and what scheduling differences may need to be made. (Often student handlers will ask to leave class 5 minutes early so that they can reach their next class without worrying about the safety of their dog in crowded hallways.) Colleges are dependent on whether they're federally funded or privately funded (some private universities still receive federal funding, so it's not quite the split between private and public schools). If they receive even a dime of federal funding, the ADA applies and they are able to bring their SD to classes only having answered the two questions as stated above. To get other accommodations, it would need discussion with the disability services of that university. If the college/university receives no federal funding, they're an awkward grey area within the laws, such that they are a private entity and on private property, so they can set their own rules, granting or denying entry on whatever grounds they choose. To bring an SD or ESA to live on-campus, the FHA applies regardless of federal funding.

  • How should we, the general public, act around service dog teams? A lot of teams are often bombarded with questions while out in public just trying to do daily tasks like getting groceries and such. While a lot of us do love to educate, often times we are just trying to get through our chores as quickly as we can, hoping we don’t have a medical emergency or a flare up of our disabilities. Here are some things you can do that handlers really appreciate: give us space (especially in tight quarters), don’t stare or distract our dogs (that includes eye contact, kissy noises, petting, etc.) as distracting a working dog is a crime in most states, keep your pets on a short leash near you as we pass, and educate your children about working dogs, as well as teaching them to always ask (and respect the handler’s answer) before petting any dog. Our dogs give us the ability to be independent like those without disabilities, so please don’t ask us about our medical history or comment that you’d love to take your dog everywhere (what we hear is “We’d love to be disabled, too!” or some variation on that.). Other than that, educate yourselves and your kids, don’t “register/certify” your pet with a scam website, and be respectful!

Thank you for taking your time to read this and feel free to reach out to me for more information or links at delilahtheservicedoggo@gmail.com and I'll do my best to answer your questions or at least point you in the right direction!

"McKenna Williams is recently married to her wonderful husband, Cameron, and together they are owner-training her service dog, Delilah. McKenna works to educate businesses, new handlers, and others about service dog laws to help protect her and her pup as well as other teams and businesses. She is currently employed as a civil engineer and is also working to expand her crafting business where she makes jewelry and dog gear."

You can visit McKenna's Instagram Page, Kenna's Concepts to check out her products.

Is your dog a good candidate for pet therapy? Trainer Rae McCorkle of Hearts for Paws LLC, offers Pet Therapy classes so you can get started on this exciting journey! Her next class will be held on June 4 thru July 2 at 6:30-7:30 pm. To learn more contact her at (919) 553-2730.


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