Service, emotional support, therapy: what's the difference?

We all love our pets, and many of us could say that our pets support us — happy wags when we come home from work, evening cuddles on the couch, morning kisses in bed.

Pets make life better. But there are some animals that are trained to do a lot more than be the sunshine in your day.

From leading the blind to assisting someone having a seizure, animals, particularly dogs, can be trained to perform day-to-day and life-saving tasks for those with disabilities. These animals are defined as “service animals” under the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed in public areas, including restaurants and groceries.

You may have noticed an increase in the number of animals in public places, perhaps at airports or on trails in national parks. Or there’s chance you’ve heard about emotional support animals in the news, everything from cats and dogs to exotics like pigs and peacocks. Regardless, there is a lot of interest and confusion about what constitutes a service animal and what, exactly, the rules are for these and other support animals.

Defining a ‘service animal’

There are three main federal laws that define service animals and their place in various situations: the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA; the Air Carrier Access Act, or ACAA; and the Fair Housing Act, the FHA.

The ADA has the strictest definition of a service animal, and for the sake of this article “service animal” will be the ADA definition.

According to the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog (or miniature horse) that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” These tasks include, but are not limited to: guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure.

Animals who remind a person to take medication or calm a person during an anxiety attack also qualify as service animals. However dogs “whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

Service dogs do not require any official training, certification or registration and can be trained by their handlers, according to the ADA. They also don’t need to be clearly marked (meaning, they don’t need to wear a vest, though many do).

The ACAA has a broader definition that includes any animal “shown by documentation to be necessary for the emotional wellbeing of a passenger.” Both ADA-approved service animals and documented emotional support animals are allowed to fly in the cabin with their owners for free.

The FHA uses a definition of service animal that’s as broad as the ACAA’s, requiring landlords to make “reasonable accommodation” for service and emotional support animals regardless of size, weight or “no pet” policies, also without additional fees. Like the ACAA the FHA does not require documentation for ADA-approved service animals, but does for emotional support animals.

Emotional support animals on the rise

There is no official national registry for service or emotional support animals, though there seems to be an uptick of them around the nation, or at least in the news. Local veterinarians have noted an increase, too.

In recent years Dr. Joe Wienman, a veterinarian at Jackson Animal Hospital, said the clinic is “actively filling out forms for a lot of travel emotional support animals.”

“Maybe there’s a lot more mental illness and people need them,” he said, “or it’s just a lot more popular” to have an emotional support animal, particularly for travel.

An owner without an ADA-approved service animal must get a letter of recommendation from a health care provider stating the person would benefit from an emotional support travel companion. That letter then travels to a vet, who fills out airline-specific forms needed to get the animal onto the plane and into the cabin.

“We just sign a paper that says the dog is medically OK — has all its shots — and that it doesn’t show any aggression,” Wienman said.

Pet owners must also go through health care providers if they’re trying to meet housing requirements for an emotional support pet. Deidre Ashley, executive director and licensed clinical social worker at Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, said the center has been experiencing a “high demand” from renters looking for emotional support animal letters to resolve housing.

“We do have some individuals looking for a letter for an emotional support animal,” she said, and “in some cases — for people that we know — we will work with them on this.

“We do not write letters for people not engaged in our services due to the high demand for letters for housing issues,” she said.

Stacy Stoker, housing manager for the Jackson/Teton County Affordable Housing Department, confirmed the high demand on her end. About one 1 of every 10 applicants for housing units, she estimated, claimed an emotional support animal. She has yet to see a request for a service animal.

Tightening the leash

An increase in the number of emotional support animal requests may be driven by how easy it is obtain “certifications” online.

A quick Google search for “online emotional support animal certificate” leads to dozens of websites where owners can answer a few vague questions about mental health for an online therapist, like, “During the past six months have [you] frequently felt worried about big or small events in your life?”

For around $100 you can get an emotional support animal letter in as little as 24 hours.

According to the ADA, public entities can ask only if someone’s animal is required because of a disability and what the animal has been trained to do. The way the FHA is written, Stoker said, housing providers can’t ask many questions about emotional support animals, which are not trained to perform any tasks.

However, they can take steps to make sure applicants’ housing forms are filled out by a legitimate health care provider who is or has been treating the applicant as a patient.

“It has to be someone who’s treating them,” Stoker said. “They can’t just call some online service and get something.”

After a slew of national (and some international) headline-making controversies — like the Los Angeles-bound peacock named Dexter who was banned from a United Airlines flight in 2018 or the emotional support dog that mauled a 5-year-old girl this spring — airlines are also starting to impose stricter rules on travel companions, such as age restrictions on pets, reducing the length of flights animals are allowed on and requiring advanced notice and more documentation.

Many states, including Wyoming, have tried to tighten the leash on the rules for service and emotional support animals as well.

In Wyoming, as of 2017, if an owner intentionally misrepresents an animal as a service or “assistance” animal (Wyoming’s term that includes emotional support duties), the owner is subject to a misdemeanor and may be fined up to $750. Misrepresentation could be in the form of phony emotional support animal letters as well as misleading “outfits.”

Many websites, including Amazon, sell service animal vests, capes and tags that give the impression that an animal is working. However, the ADA does not require that service animals have any type of wearable identification.

Bad support dog

While it’s becoming more common to see animals in places not set up for four-legged friends, bringing animals into environments they are not trained to handle isn’t just bad behavior — it can pose risks to the owner, pet and the public.

But, Wienman noted, “the vast majority of the time, there are no consequences” for those duping the system.

“The danger is that it devalues what a legitimate emotional support dog or service dog actually does for people, and it devalues the emotionally strained person who needs an animal companion,” he said.

Sherry Woodard works as an animal behavior consultant at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, the largest animal sanctuary in the country. She also helps select and train service dogs. With more dogs appearing in public as service animals, she thinks that more people are questioning if the canines are really serving that purpose.

“I see people who have legitimate disabilities who are being asked, ‘Where’s your plastic tag? Where’s your paperwork? That should be in a pocket on your vest,’” she said, “and I’m sorry, but that isn’t how the law reads. They don’t have to have that plastic tag. That is a scam online.”

She worries that if more people abuse the system, more laws will result, which could create barriers for those who need the animals and draw more attention to service animals when the animal should be focused on working.

But just because there are a lot of vest-wearing dogs out there, don’t think that every suited-up Fido is a fake.

“If you’re not obviously disabled, people may think that your dog is not legitimate,” Woodard said. “And a lot of people who do have PTSD are out there already having a really hard time just getting out of the house every day. Please don’t make it any harder for them.” 

Contact Julie Kukral at 732-7076 or

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(1) comment

Jessica Winter

Vest, tag, online letter, and card are just some additional paper/proof when other suspects your service dog/ESA. My suggestion is to set up an official org in each state to register service dogs or/and ESAs. Both qualified service dog and ESAs should be trained, but ESAs only requires basic training. Especially, ESA dogs who live in apartments should undergo some obedience training (for the safety of other tenants) and perform easy tasks to calm down the owner (e.g. Other emotional support animals such as cats and rabbits should limit their activity area, not leading chaos in public places. Airlines should set up rules to limit the types of ESAs, as some of them are easily out of control in public.

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