If you have a pet, you may agree that they can help you emotionally, but there’s a special designation of animal that takes help to the next level. These are service animals. And, while they are almost always dogs, they can also be miniature horses.

Service animals have gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent years with the proliferation of fake service animals and the rise of comfort animals. However, true service animals can greatly empower their owners to enjoy their lives to the fullest. So, what are service animals, and more importantly, what makes them different from other pets or emotional support animals?

What Is a Service Animal?

Service animals are well-trained animals who assist their owners in certain ways. These animals usually undergo rigorous training and designation programs in order to prove they have what it takes before being called a service animal. According to ADA.gov (the website for the Americans with Disabilities Act), service animals are dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. These regulations can also cover miniature horses when they pass an assessment that specifies the horse’s ability, size, and suitability. No matter what type of animal it is, the tasks that they’re trained to perform must directly relate to the disabilities of the handler.

Service animals are dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

Being a service animal allows the dog or miniature horse to go places that other animals wouldn’t be able to go otherwise. Specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that state and local government buildings, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public must allow service animals entry if they’re helping their handler. The exclusions to these rules are in situations where:

  • The animal isn’t under control
    • Under control is defined as leashed, harnessed, or tethered unless that restricts the animal from giving service
  • The animal isn’t house-trained

Fear or allergies are not valid reasons to deny entry to a service animal. Restaurants must also allow service animals in publicly available areas, even if it may conflict with local or state health codes. Handlers and service animals may not be isolated, treated unfavorably, or charged extra for the animal (even in instances where a hotel would charge a pet deposit fee). That said, staff aren’t required to give care or food to the service animal. Also, if the animal or handler cause damage, the business may charge for those damages, if they would normally do so. Business owners also may also ask two verifying questions:

  • Is the animal required because of a disability?
  • What has the service animal been trained to do?

Owners or staff may not ask for medical documentation, specifics of the disability, identification or training certification, or that the service animal prove they can perform the task.

What’s the Difference Between a Service Animal and Comfort Animal?

There are a few key differences between service animals and comfort animals, sometimes called emotional support, therapy, or companion animals. While service animals require individualized and specialized training in order to become qualified, emotional support animals do not. Additionally, while service animals do specific tasks to help their handlers, emotional support animals help their owners primarily by their mere presence soothing or calming the owner.

Service animals require individualized and specialized training in order to become qualified; emotional support animals do not.

Unlike service animals, comfort animals can be any type of animal that provides therapeutic support for their owner. Emotional support animals also aren’t allowed in all public spaces like service animals are, although they usually are allowed on planes and in no-pet housing. That said, a medical professional usually does need to determine that a pet provides a mental health benefit for it to qualify as an emotional support animal, and you may be asked to provide proof of designation or need.

To sum up the major difference between service animals and emotional support animals, service animals are highly-trained, highly-specified dogs or miniature horses for people with physical or mental disabilities that perform tasks related to their handler’s condition. Emotional support animals are untrained, but generally certified pets that provide comfort, relief, and other mental health benefits to their owners.

What Can a Service Animal Help With?

There are a number of conditions and tasks that service animals can assist their handlers with since the ADA’s definition of disability is fairly broad. These can be obvious, like a service dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure, or mental illnesses, like PSTD or depression.

Most disabilities that service animals can help with can be broken down into a few groups.

Most disabilities that service animals can help with can be broken down into a few groups. Those would be mobility issues, sensory issues, mental disabilities, or illnesses. Illnesses would include cancer, epilepsy, or diabetes, to name a few, while sensory issues would be exemplified by blindness or hearing loss. Mental disabilities could include post-traumatic stress disorder or autism, and mobility issues could be if you’re in a wheelchair. If you have a disability and are curious if a service animal could help with your situation, check with your primary care physician.

Where Can I Get a Service Animal?

There are two places you can get a service animal. You can get one from a professional training organization or charity. Many of these groups focus on one type of disability or condition, which makes narrowing down the groups easier. It’s worth noting that these groups can be nonprofit or for-profit, so research which type of group you’re talking to. Another option is to train the animal yourself or work with a professional trainer. The ADA doesn’t require dogs to be professionally trained, though they should be adequately trained. In fact, some states are beginning to crack down on fake service animals to combat this problem.

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Service animals can make life much easier for people with disabilities, but the training they receive is important to understand. They’re helpers and pets, and in many senses, they are always working. For this reason, we should respect them for the help they give. If you think you may need a service animal, talk to your primary care physician or reach out to one of the organizations linked to above!

Further Reading

American Kennel Club — [Service Dogs 101 – Everything You Need to Know](https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/service-dog-training-101/ “”)