How are ESAs different from therapy pets or service dogs?

The difference between ESAs, service dogs, and therapy pets raises a lot of confusion and misconceptions. While the three roles may seem like slight variations, each has a specific purpose. 

Service Dogs

Service dogs perform tasks for the benefit of people with physical, sensory, or mental disabilities. They’re custom-trained to complete tasks that cater to their handlers’ specific disabilities and make their day-to-day activities easier. Service dogs form a team with their handlers to help them attain safety and independence.


The law views service dogs as medical equipment, not as pets. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of disabled people to be accompanied by their service dogs in many places where pets are not permitted, including businesses, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, and theaters.


Only dogs are recognized as service animals because of the tasks required in this role. Almost any dog breed is capable of becoming a service dog, but Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds are among the most common breeds because of their intelligence and sound temperaments.

Service dogs perform different tasks depending upon the needs of a person’s disability. The different types of service dogs are:

  • Guide dog: assists a person who is blind or visually impaired.

  • Hearing dog: alerts a person who is deaf or hearing impaired to sounds such as door bells, alarm clocks, and smoke alarms.

  • Mobility dog: retrieves items, pushes buttons, pulls wheelchairs, or opens doors for people with difficulties walking, moving, or balancing.

  • Medical alert dog: alerts a person to oncoming medical conditions, such as seizures for a person with epilepsy, panic attacks for a person with high anxiety, or low or high blood pressure for a person with diabetes. Medical dogs are trained to detect a change in body chemistry and respond by either retrieving assistance or remaining by the person’s side until help comes.

  • Psychiatric service dog: assists a person with a psychiatric disorder such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or chronic anxiety. Specific tasks include waking a person up from nightmares and keeping a person from harming him- or herself.


Therapy Pets

Therapy pets provide psychological and physiological support to people other than their handlers. They’re characterized by their gentle and obedient behavior and friendly personalities. They enjoy human contact and are content with being petted and hugged.

Therapy pets visit a variety of facilities and institutions, such as schools,

hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and libraries. There they interact with people and provide comfort and affection. This process helps relieve stress and anxiety for people (who may or may not have a form of disability) in otherwise uneasy or difficult situations.


Therapy pets must receive basic obedience training to be certified. Their handlers are typically their owners who consider them personal pets.


Therapy pets don’t have the same job or legal designation as service dogs, and aren’t allowed to accompany their handlers in public places where pets aren't permitted. Permission is required from the institution or facility owner for access.


Most therapy pets are dogs, but cats, rabbits, horses, pigs, guinea pigs, and birds can also be certified.