What’s the difference between an emotional support dog and a pet?

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 08: Service dog Galaxie at bipartisan press conference for Congressional support on H.R. 5232, The Working Dog Commemorative Coin Act, at Rayburn Building on March 08, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for America's VetDogs)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 08: Service dog Galaxie at bipartisan press conference for Congressional support on H.R. 5232, The Working Dog Commemorative Coin Act, at Rayburn Building on March 08, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for America's VetDogs) /

Service animals and emotional support animals (ESA) are often mixed up. Truthfully, an emotional support dog falls between service animals and pets. They may not get specialized training like service dogs, but they have recognition that sets them apart from just being regular pets in your household.

Here’s everything you need to know about the pups humans lean on for emotional support and the benefits of having your dog designated as an emotional support animal.

What Does an Emotional Support Dog Do?

Emotional support and service animals are not the same. An ESA can be any creature, but service animals are only limited to dogs and miniature horses, as long as they’re trained to perform a specific task. Service dogs are specifically taught to provide a certain service to their owners, such as helping people with visual impairments navigate the world or alert those hard of hearing to certain sounds. On the other hand, emotional support dogs often help their owners through several different means.

Emotional support dogs focus more on their owners’ emotional well-being than helping them with something more physical, like mobility issues. Because they provide constant companionship that gently urges you out of your comfort zone in a healthy way, dogs are a great addition to any life that needs a little more structure and something to cling to. They can help their owner feel at ease in unfamiliar situations and encourage them to meet new people.

All pets can help you feel less stressed, which can greatly benefit anyone healing physically or emotionally. Above all, you must remember that your emotional support dog is still a dog. They want to spend time with the person they love most in the world — you! Take them for walks, play with them and shower them with attention. Make sure to take care of their health so you can spend more time with them in years to come.

How Do Emotional Support Dogs Differ From Pets?

Emotional support dogs and pets aren’t all that different. ESAs tend to have more protections than regular pets do, thanks to notes from medical professionals stating that an owner needs their dog with them. However, neither ESAs nor traditional pets are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

1. They Have Some Protections

While not to the same extent as a service dog, an emotional support dog can be with their owners in some places they usually couldn’t be. For example, rental housing that typically doesn’t allow pets are required to consider tenants who have emotional support animals and can’t turn them away because they have one. Someone with a pet that’s not an ESA could be denied housing, even if that pet provides some form of emotional support.

2. They Must Be Acknowledged

You must have a note from a medical professional to reap the benefits of having an ESA. This note can’t automatically get your dog into certain places, but it can help differentiate them from a regular pet. If your dog provides emotional support, getting them recognized by a health care professional as something you need with you can make a huge difference.

Where Are Emotional Support Dogs Allowed?

Unlike service animals, ESAs are not always allowed in public buildings. Emotional support dogs can be turned away at the door, as businesses are not legally required to accommodate them. Ask ahead of time if you’re unsure where your dog is allowed. For example, you may find bringing your dog to your therapy appointment more beneficial so you have something comforting nearby that reminds you to breathe.

You might feel better knowing you won’t be separated from your emotional support dog in your home. Landlords must make reasonable accommodations for any pets that provide emotional support or another service to their owners, meaning that a pet fee might be waived in some circumstances.

You shouldn’t be denied access to having your pet with you in a rented establishment if they are registered as an emotional support dog. However, the request for housing you make should be reasonable, such as waiving a fee you can’t afford or making a one-time accommodation for a rental that doesn’t accept pets.

The Difference Between an Emotional Support Dog and a Pet

The truth is that there’s not much of a difference between an emotional support dog and a pet. ESAs aren’t often awarded the same protections that service animals have, but they can still be acknowledged when looking for housing.

As long as your dog helps you feel secure, safe and self-assured, it doesn’t matter what they are. If housing restrictions stand in the way of finding a place to live and you rely on your pup to aid you with your emotions, consider getting them recognized as an emotional support dog. Having that designation is well worth it.

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