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Understanding the Difference Between Pet, Therapy, Emotional Support, and Service Animals



So you’re an animal lover – welcome to the club! I know, I know – the title of this article is daunting. All of these words are enough to make your mind spin and swarm with confusion. Service? Emotional Support? What on earth’s the difference?


These days, this jumbled up jar of labels has become muddled and blurred – and often used incorrectly or to get ahead in society. In an effort to further bolster our stance as Authentic Rebels, it’s time to set the record straight, once and for all.


What are the laws? What purposes do they serve?


It’s important to note that although pets can come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds, for the sake of simplicity, we will be referring to dogs specifically in this article.


Defining the Differences

Pet Dogs


Let’s start with the obvious choice – house pets! These are the cuddly, cute, fun-loving, couch potato pups that want nothing more than to simply be in your presence, go for a walk, or play fetch in the backyard.


Although our animals can bring us comfort and joy, pet dogs do not serve a particular purpose, nor are they trained to complete specific tasks.


Don’t get it twisted – pet dogs can certainly be trained (in fact, they should be)! Having a polite dog that doesn't pull on a leash, bolt out the front door, or jump on guests is incredibly handy and will not only reinforce and strengthen your bond with them, but it will also supercharge both your (and your dog’s) quality of life.


Emotional Support Animals


Otherwise known as ESAs, the sole purpose of these dogs is to provide comfort to those suffering from a variety of mental and physical health conditions.


Emotional Support Animals do not require any specific training and are not recognized as service animals in any way. Any pet dog (or many other species) can be considered an ESA, so long as you jump through the hoops to get the proper paperwork.


In order to have an ESA, you will have to visit with your medical health care professional, such as your general practitioner, psychologist, or psychiatrist.


Strictly speaking, not all animals that folks with disabilities rely on are officially classified as "service animals" under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an "emotional support animal" is any critter that gives emotional support and helps ease one or more symptoms of a person's disability. These furry friends provide companionship, fight loneliness, and can be a great support for those dealing with depression, anxiety, or certain fears.


If you fit this description, the doctor can draft a letter stating that you are entitled to an ESA.


The letter must be re-done once per year, although this is a small price to pay for the company of our comforting furry friends.


Having a current letter provides you with two benefits:


  1. You may travel by plane with your pet without incurring extra fees

  2. You may avoid pet fees and breed restrictions while leasing a house/apartment


For housing, your landlord cannot approve you entry but deny your dog. If they are hell-bent on not having animals at all, you unfortunately still find another place to live.


An ESA is NOT entitled to enter public places, such as indoor seating at restaurants, movie theaters, bars, shopping malls, etc.


Therapy Animals


A therapy animal refers to an animal that undergoes training to play a crucial role in a physical or emotional treatment plan. This can take many forms, including a well-behaved pup traveling from room to room at the hospital to lift spirits, or comforting children on school grounds after a traumatic event, such as a shooting.


These animals are usually trained and owned by private individuals or companies who then bring them to hospitals or medical facilities.


When an organization requires a therapy animal, they conduct thorough research to find one that suits their specific needs. Ultimately, a decision is reached in collaboration with the animal's owner.


It's fascinating to note that a single therapy animal can travel to multiple locations and serve numerous communities based on demand.


It's also important to clarify that therapy animals do not possess any special legal rights or protections that differ from those of a pet. However, before being utilized for medicinal or therapeutic purposes, therapy animals undergo training and registration.


This step is taken not to meet legal requirements, but rather for liability purposes. Hospitals seek assurance that the animal is safe around patients, and the animal's handler gains some protection against potential civil lawsuits from clients.


While therapy dogs, cats, and horses are among the most common examples of therapy animals, it's interesting to discover that unexpected creatures like snakes and other reptiles have also been employed in therapy settings.


The care required for these animals demands concentration and focus, serving as a distraction from emotional or physical difficulties.


Once more, because these animals are not legally protected, you cannot bring your therapy animal to public spaces that would otherwise not allow them – unless you are there for a purpose or job. They also do not have housing rights on a legal level, although some landlords may bend the rules with proper proof or documentation, similarly to an ESA.


Service Animals


Service animals stand out from the crowd due to them existing to fulfill a very specific purpose – traditionally, they are trained and capable of providing valuable assistance to individuals living with disabilities.


In the United States, service animals are granted legal protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is enforced by the Department of Justice (DOJ).


The ADA specifically mandates that the tasks performed by the animal must directly relate to the person's disability. Detailed information regarding the laws and regulations governing service animals under the ADA can be found on their official website.


The definition itself, as well as the law, makes it abundantly clear that a service animal is not considered a pet – rather, it undergoes rigorous training to fulfill a specific job.


Each service animal is trained to provide physical or cognitive support tailored to their individual owners. While there may be an affectionate bond between a person and their service animal, it's important to note that these animals are not specifically trained to offer emotional support.


Out of the four animal/pet types discussed here, service animals enjoy the highest level of legal protection, and federal law demands that businesses and companies permit service animals to accompany their owners, except under very specific circumstances.


According to the law, service animals are owned solely by persons with disabilities or their trainer(s).


If the animal is owned by someone without a disability, it falls into a different category and is not protected under the ADA.


Some familiar examples of service animals include:


  • Dogs guiding individuals who are blind

  • Animals alerting persons with mental illnesses to take medications

  • Animals warning their owners of impending seizures


Under US federal law, only dogs – and occasionally miniature horses – are officially recognized as service animals. Nevertheless, the ADA permits state and local laws to adopt a broader definition of qualifying animals for service animal status. This allowance has resulted in some rather surprising animals being trained as service animals, including parrots, pigs, and even capuchin monkeys.


Does Breed Matter?


Ultimately, breed is not a defining factor for whether your pup is a pet dog, service animal, or anything in between.


When deciphering where your canine companion lands on the spectrum, you will have to go by the purpose they fulfill and the level of training that they have acquired.


However, breed can play an important role in how your pooch performs and fulfills different tasks.


To a certain degree, different breeds do tend to each have their own ingrained personality traits, energy level, and food/toy drive. Although this will vary from dog to dog, there are many guidelines you can follow to ensure you wind up with the right dog for you. (Yes, even if you’re just looking for a pet dog!)


For example, a Border Collie is extremely high energy and intelligent – they traditionally love to train, can complete complex tasks, and have the capability to run for hours on end. On the other side of the spectrum, a Pug tends to be a bit lazier and just wants scratches at the *perfect* spot right behind their ear.


Again, this is a vast generalization – but I think you get the idea.


Always, always, always do your research to find the right fit for you and your needs. Just because they’re cute doesn’t mean it’s right!


Final Thoughts


Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the distinctions between pet dogs, emotional support animals, therapy dogs, and service animals is of utmost importance in fostering a compassionate and inclusive society.


Having the ability to recognize these differences empowers us to make informed decisions when choosing a companion animal that best suits our needs and lifestyle – all while promoting responsible pet ownership. It also ensures that those who genuinely require the support of therapy dogs or service animals receive the necessary accommodations and respect they deserve.


And the sprinkles on top? Understanding this also gives a clear comprehension of these roles and designations helps dispel misconceptions and prevents the misrepresentation of animals in various contexts. Embracing these nuances also fosters empathy and sensitivity towards individuals who rely on emotional support or service animals to navigate daily life, fostering a more inclusive and understanding society for all.


By acknowledging and respecting the unique roles each type of animal plays in the lives of their owners, we can cultivate a more harmonious and supportive environment that benefits both humans and their animal companions.




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