PEOPLE Explains: What Is the Difference Between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals?

Emotional support animals do not have the same protection and training as a service animal; find out why

Service DogsCredit: America’s VetDogs and Guide Dog Foundation/Rebecca Eden
Photo: America’s VetDogs and Guide Dog Foundation/Rebecca Eden

A January 2018 incident involving an emotional support peacock that was barred from a United Airlines flight out of Newark, got many people wondering what separated an emotional support animal from a service animal.

To help clear up this fogginess surrounding our furry friends, especially when it comes to travel, we talked to the Director of Training at both the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs, Brad Hibbard. The first of these non-profit organizations provides trained guide dogs free-of-charge to the visually impaired, while the latter provides free service dogs to veterans, which are trained to meet each veteran’s individual needs.

With years of experience training service dogs, Hibbard is familiar with what separates them from emotional support animals (ESAs) and how the rise of ESAs has affected his graduates.

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What is an emotional support animal?

“For an emotional support animal, we are basically looking at an animal that is purely a companion,” Hibbard told PEOPLE. “It’s no different than a pet. It hasn’t received any kind of training. It’s just that the person who has the animal, has a medical letter from a doctor or a mental health professional that they are working with that says they need this animal for a mental or emotional condition they have, like anxiety or depression.”

How are emotional support animals different from a service animal?

Service animals, or assistance animals, are specified by the Americans with Disabilities Act as animals that have been trained to perform a task for their owner and are also dogs. Hibbard explains that there is an exception for some miniature horses, that are starting to be trained as guides for the blind, but aside from that all assistance animals must be dogs.

Assistance animals come in many varieties (guide dog, PTSD support dog, seizure detection dog, hearing dog) so the tasks they are trained to learn can vary. For example, it could be a cue from a handler to go retrieve medication or it could be a response to the surrounding environment, like a hearing dog waking their owner when their alarm clock or smoke detector goes off.

“So an emotional support animal has no training. There might be something the person has done. There could be obedience training and work with someone to ensure the animal has good behavior, and can travel on a plane, but they have not been trained to do a task. Just their presence might be something that can help someone with that mental or emotional condition,” Hibbard explains.

How does one get an emotional support animal?

To have a pet or any animal deemed an emotional support animal, the owner needs to obtain a letter from a doctor or mental health professional stating the animal’s presence is required to help with a mental or emotional condition.

Unfortunately, as Hibbard explains, “there is a big cottage industry out there, where you can go online, where some don’t even have conditions, and they just say ‘Here, pay us however much money and we will send you something that says a doctor has signed off on it.’ ”

This can translate to individuals paying for an emotional support animal letter for their pet without a doctor ever meeting the owner or the animal.

Service Dogs
Credit: America’s VetDogs and Guide Dog Foundation/Rebecca Eden
America’s VetDogs and Guide Dog Foundation/Rebecca Eden

How does a person obtain a service animal?

The animal, in this case most likely a dog, has to be trained to perform tasks personalized to the owner in need. These animals are often trained through schools that are certified by Assistance Dogs International and the International Guide Dog Federation. They are trained by professionals to handle a variety of environments (including malls, restaurants, crowded areas, planes and more) and to be able to serve their owners in all of these circumstances.

“We work with our dogs and clients so they know how to work through those environments,” Hibbard said of part of the training program Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs put their canines and clients through. “But with emotional support animals, it’s up to the owner to use their own judgement if their animal is going to be okay in those environments.”

Are emotional support animals protected by law the same way assistance animals are?

That’s a “yes and no” question according to Hibbard. Both emotional support animals and assistance animals are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Act. The Air Carrier Access Act allows both assistance animals and emotional support animals to travel on planes with their owners. For emotional support animals, this requires the note from the doctor that states the animal’s presence is necessary due to an emotional or mental condition.

Under the Fair Housing Act, property owners can not discriminate against those that have aids. This covers both assistance animals and emotional support animals.

Where ESAs are not covered is under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is the legislation that states that the animal needs to be a dog (or in some cases a miniature horse) that is trained to perform a task for their owner for the animal to be allowed public access. Only assistance animals meet these guidelines.

Can an emotional support animal be denied entry into a business?

Yes, because ESAs are not protected by the ADA they can be denied public access, which includes everything from restaurants to offices.

Can an assistance animal be denied entry into a business?

No, under the ADA it is against the law to deny an owner and their assistance animal entry to your business.

“Under the ADA, business owners are only allowed to ask two questions: ‘Is that a service dog that assists you?’ And ‘What task is it trained to help you with?’ ” Hibbard said. “There is no necessity to tell them what your condition is. Those are the two questions that are legit for a business to ask. If a person answers those, that’s it, the conversation is over and they are protected under ADA.”

Service DogsCredit: America’s VetDogs and Guide Dog Foundation/Rebecca Eden
America’s VetDogs and Guide Dog Foundation/Rebecca Eden

What is the difference between an emotional support animal and PTSD support dog?

In his work with America’s VetDogs, Hibbard says he has run into some who are confused by the difference between an emotional support animal and a service dog that is trained to assist someone with PTSD. As stated before, it comes down to the task. Unlike emotional support animals, PTSD dogs are trained to learn certain tasks to suit their person’s needs. PTSD support service dogs often learn how to recognize when their owner is having a nightmare and how to wake them up in addition to fetching medication, getting help from another person in the home and calming their owner when they feel a panic attack or traumatic flashback is coming on.

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How has the rise in emotional support animals affected assistance animals?

“For our service dog users, if those ESA animals aren’t well-behaved, it can cause them a lot of problems,” Hibbard said.

One of the recent issues has been with airline travel policies. Delta Airlines recently announced it is changing its pet policy in light of a rising number of complaints about ill-behaved animals. Under the new rules, those with assistance animals will have to provide documentation for their service animal at least 48 hours before their flight, a big change for a group of people who are used to boarding planes with their service animals without any issue.

“There are issues there for our graduates and graduates from other assistance dog programs. You’re making things onerous for them. They have to upload documents for Delta for their trip 48 hours prior and provide all this paper work that they have to keep with them,” Hibbard explains. “If they are in a situation where a flight gets cancelled, now they have to work with the airline to figure that out.”

This a huge, confusing inconvenience for Hibbard’s graduates, many of whom have had multiple service dogs in their lifetime and are experienced travelers. He and other representatives from service dog associations are working with Delta and other airlines to find something more balanced that allows the airlines to keep unruly, untrained animals in check, while allowing service animal graduates the ease of travel they are used to.

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