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The Difference Between A Service Dog And An Emotional Support Animal?

The Difference Between A Service Dog And An Emotional Support Animal?

The Difference Between A Service Dog And An Emotional Support Animal?

Have you ever wondered whether a service dog is the same as an emotional support animal? The role they play in relation to their owners’ disability differentiates them, and occasionally the rules and regulations that surround them.
Dogs have had a multitude of roles ever since man domesticated them. We all know how a canine’s unmatched relationship with a human came to be, from the early days of hunting together to becoming our loyal and furry best friend.

However, in recent years, dogs have taken on even more important roles in society. And it’s not surprising, considering just how beneficial having a dog can be. Numerous studies prove that pet ownership correlates to a lesser propensity to developing depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Dogs make us laugh, help us get outside, get some exercise, give us unconditional love, and provide companionship. It’s no wonder that more and more people are using canines for therapeutic purposes.

Companionship is a minuscule percentage of what some dogs can offer to people. Aside from being trusted companions and guards, dogs of various breeds are trained as service, therapeutic or emotional support animals. That being said, those two titles are often used interchangeably, so it’s important to understand the differences especially because each has their own rights under the law.

What is a Service Dog?

A service dog is a canine trained to do specific tasks for people with disabilities. The term “disability” is used very broadly and can refer to physical, mental, and psychiatric impairments.

Service dogs are trained intensively at a high cost (sometimes more than $25,000) and have their trainers invest a lot of time and energy into ensuring they are trained to perform their tasks. A human life depends on them after all. The most widely known service dog type are guide dogs for the blind.

A service dog’s work or tasks must be directly related to the person’s disability. For instance, a service dog for someone with epilepsy may be trained to sense when their handler is about to have a seizure and alert them or even help protect them from injury during the seizure, or a service dog for someone who is deaf may be trained to alert them to the sound of a smoke alarm.

Other common tasks service dogs perform:

  • Picking up things for people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues
  • Helping blind or visually impaired people navigate
  • Providing support and balance for people with mobility issues
  • Calming a person during an anxiety attack or flashbacks from PTSD
  • Detecting low blood sugar levels for people with diabetes

Service dogs go through an intense and specific training process that may take two years. They must be able to perform their tasks in any environment, no matter how distracting or chaotic it may be.

Service dogs are usually bred and raised specifically for such purposes. However, it’s not uncommon for people to train their own dogs to be service animals.

In Canada each province has its own regulations but essentially the laws allow registered service dogs to go wherever their handler goes. This includes public places such as restaurants, grocery stores, movie theatres, schools, and hospitals.

What is a Therapy Dog??

Therapy dogs are the dogs that go into places like nursing homes, hospitals, or courtrooms to help children testify. They are usually family dogs who volunteer their cuddliness versus performing specific tasks they’ve been trained for. A therapy dog is relaxed, clam, friendly, easy-going pup who offers comfort with their presence. By petting, talking to, or just being with the therapy dog, a human feels better. They are tested for temperament to ensure suitability, but other than that, they don’t go through any formal training.

Therapy dogs don’t have any legal rights in Canada but are permitted to go into places that may not usually allow dogs such as hospitals and nursing homes to spread cheer and love.

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal is a pet trained to afford emotional support benefits to their owner through companionship and affection. They improve the mental health of their owners and can be any type of pet. They are not trained to perform specific tasks like service dogs are. However, the animal must behave in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the health or safety of others. Emotional support animals provide companionship, relieve anxiety, ease loneliness, and increase feelings of self-worth and calm.

In Canada, ESA’s can travel with their owners for free but they do not have the same rights as registered service dogs – meaning the laws do not allow them the opportunity to accompany their owner everywhere. This is largely because there’s no guarantee they’ve been trained to behave themselves in public, and that they are not in a role that prevents their owner from being in physical danger.

ESA’s have been in the news quite a bit over the last few years as, despite not being formally trained, they do offer important and valuable benefits to their owners. Those owners have been advocating for more protection under the law for their ESA pets. There are no federal laws in Canada that protect ESA’s and the laws around ESA’s for workplaces, housing and accessing businesses varies from province to province.

See Also

A Human Rights Tribunal recently ruled in favor a B.C. woman to keep her three ESA cats despite the strata’s objections in her building. You can refer to your provincial human rights code for more information for what rights it may afford to your ESA.

Which Type Do You Need?

Now that you know the difference between a service dog, a therapy dog and an emotional support animal, and you think you may need one, what do you do next?

The answer to that question depends on what you’re need the animal to do for you. If you have a disability and are looking for a dog to provide you support in daily activities and helping you lead a more independent life, a service dog is likely what you are looking for. Waitlists for service dogs can be long, and costs high but they are well worth the investment. Reach out to a local service dog organization and they will help you navigate the process.

If you have a mental illness and think an emotional support animal would be beneficial for you, the first step is to consult with a mental health professional. You need an expert to assess the need and to provide you with the necessary documentation to present your animal as an ESA. A few online scams will try to sell you an emotional support animal letter without evaluation, so be sure you’re getting your letter from a legitimate source. The last thing you need is to get in trouble for misrepresenting an ESA and be faced with hefty fines.

If you have a calm pet who loves giving love, and you want to volunteer your time with them to people in places like nursing homes and hospitals, your pet may me a perfect candidate for a therapy dog. Your local St. John’s Ambulance can give you more information on assessments and testing for therapy pets.

If you still have questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you. Please email us at

Updated: March 05, 2023
Originally Published: November 18, 2022

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