As much as we would all love to bring our precious fur babies with us everywhere we go, there are rules and regulations about who qualifies for a service animal, emotional support animal, and therapy animal. And there are some very distinct differences between these three types of animals.

What is a Service Animal?

Service animals are almost always dogs, and in some very rare cases, they could even be miniature horses. The American Veterinary Medical Association tells us that service animals “assist an individual with a physical or psychological disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” 

Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks to assist someone in the day-to-day activities of life. Although these animals do not technically need to be licensed or certified, most are typically trained through a service animal agency. And sometimes, the agencies actually maintain ownership of the service animal.

service dog vest

Service animals can accompany their owner—or the person they are assisting—wherever the human goes. That is, as long as the animal can be reasonably accommodated. Although there is “no federal requirement regarding identification,” service animals will typically wear a harness with either an agency logo or even with words like “service animal” or “service dog.”

What Characteristics Make the Best Service Animal?

Dogs are widely recognized as the best type of service animal. The United Disability Services tells us that the key characteristics needed for a great service dog are: 

  • A desire to work
  • A calm demeanor
  • Intelligence
  • A friendly disposition
  • A loving disposition

Knowing that, it should be no surprise when the United Disability Services tell us that the following are the most commonly used dog breeds for service dogs:

  • Labradors (American and English)
  • Golden retrievers
  • German shepherds
  • Poodles
  • Boxers
  • Great Danes
  • Border collies
  • Bernese mountain dogs
  • Pomeranians
  • Portuguese water dogs

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal can be any species. “Their use is supported in writing by a qualified physician or mental health professional based upon a disability-related need.”  Emotional support animals don’t require specific training or official licenses or certifications. 

Emotional support animals “may accompany the handler in their home when they can reasonably be accommodated.” The AVMA tells us that emotional support animals are “recognized under the Fair Housing Act and Rehabilitation Act.” But they are “no longer recognized as service animals by the regulations under the Air Carrier Access Act and Department of Transportation Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation. Airlines may now apply the same rule as pets.”

therapy dog in the water

Basically, this means that you can no longer bring an emotional support animal onto an airplane. They are considered the same as pets and not the same as service animals. 

In fact, the American Kennel Club has expressed concerns about emotional support animals having the same privileges as service animals—specifically in reference to air travel. 

But if you live in an apartment building that doesn’t usually allow pets—and your primary care physician, psychiatrist, therapist, or psychologist prescribes an emotional support animal to you—they should be able to live with you.

Which Dog Breeds Make the Best Emotional Support Animals?

Reader’s Digest came up with a list of the top 11 breeds for emotional support dogs:

  • Cavalier King Charles spaniel
  • Labrador retriever
  • Corgi
  • Great Pyrenees
  • Standard poodle
  • Great Dane
  • Maltese
  • Havanese
  • Golden retriever
  • Yorkshire terrier
  • A mixed breed

A “mixed breed” dog can get you a mix of multiple great breed traits, all in one dog!

What Is a Therapy Animal?

Now that we know the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal, what is a therapy animal? Well, a therapy animal can be any animal species that participates “in a range of animal-assisted interventions (i.e., activities or therapy).” Usually, these animals will be “certified by an animal-assisted intervention organization after successful training, behavioral, and veterinary evaluation.” 

They are not federally required to have any specific identification. But therapy animals will typically wear some kind of bandana, ID tag, or harness identifying their role. 

Two veterinarians from VCA Hospitals explain that therapy animals are typically “animals that visit hospitals, retirement homes, hospice centers, nursing homes, and schools… The purpose of pet therapy is to help people cope with health or emotional problems and make them feel good.” 

The people in these institutes and care facilities can often be stressed. Pet therapy can help decrease their depression and anxiety, increase their self-esteem and calmness, and improve their overall psychological state. 

What Species Makes Best Therapy Animal?

As mentioned above, therapy animals can be any species. But, just like with service animals and emotional support animals, dogs are the number one type of therapy animal. says that “Dogs have an undeniable bond with humans. There’s a reason they are often deployed in the aftermath of natural or human-made disasters.” Second place for best therapy animal goes to horses. “Horses naturally observe and respond to nonverbal cues. That’s why they’re great at reflecting clients’ emotional and behavioral states.” This is referred to as equine-assisted therapy or hippotherapy.


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