Originally posted 10/10/2018, edited and re-published 02/07/2020.

The internet is rife with misinformation on just about every topic out there, and assistance animals are no exception. Before you jump into training your own service dog, it’s important to learn about the types of assistance animals and the laws surrounding them. 

Laws on Assistance Animals

In the US there are special protections for people with disabilities, and they extend to cover assistance animals as a reasonable accommodation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

Every federal law regarding assistance animals comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA sets the precedent for the standard of service dog training and protection of service dog handlers. However, each state has its own set of laws regarding assistance animals as well.

The Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that protects people from discrimination in housing. This includes race, gender, disability status, and more. The FHA allows people to house their assistance animals, even if their landlord doesn’t allow pets.  

Types of Assistance Animals

Dogs have been working for people since they became domesticated somewhere between 6,400 and 14,000 years ago. Hunting, herding, and drafting were the main work dogs did for us up until the mid-1700s; then, a hospital in Paris for people with visual impairments began training the world’s first guide dogs. Nowadays, assistance animals perform diverse tasks and work for a variety of people with disabilities.

Service Dogs (and Exceptions)

PC: Gem Sheps
Fox, a service dog in training.

Service dogs are the bigwigs: the task-trained, bomb-proof, super dogs of the assistance animal world. These are the dogs you see guiding the blind, assisting the hard of hearing, alerting to seizures, and working for the benefit of a person with disabilities.

  • Required training: at least 120 hours dedicated to obedience, manners, public access and task training. 
  • Required certification/registration: none — there is no legal certification or registration for service dogs in the U.S. A letter from a doctor is recommended.
  • Public access: anywhere the general public is permitted

According to the ADA, a service dog is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Service dogs have excellent training, which includes a heavy focus on obedience, manners, and tasks or work.  Obedience is the window to all other training. Once they learn the basics, they practice in a variety of environments — like grocery stores, restaurants, doctor’s offices, schools, and other establishments — for public access training.

On top of being a rock star in public, service dogs must perform tasks to aid their disabled handlers; common tasks include guiding, alerting, picking up objects, pulling wheelchairs, interrupting self harm, and more.

In some cases, animals other than dogs may be considered service animals. The most common exception is a miniature horse for guide work or mobility assistance. Only individually evaluated mini horses count as service animals, according to the ADA National Network.

Additionally, some states allow other species to act as service animals. For example, Montana considers any animal that performs a task to be a service animal, within reason. Federally, however, only dogs can be service animals. 

Emotional Support Animals 

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals don’t have many hoops to jump through to earn their status. An emotional support animal (ESA) simply requires a prescription letter from a doctor.

  • Required training: none, but basic obedience and manners are highly recommended
  • Required certification/registration: none — a doctor’s note is the only legally required documentation
  • Public access: limited to no-pets housing and airports (when travelling)

ESAs are for people with disabilities who benefit from the comfort and company of an animal at home, but do not need assistance in public spaces.

Emotional support is not a task under the ADA, so emotional support animals are not service animals. ESAs have no public access rights and only get exceptions in no-pets housing and airports with a doctor’s note. Because they don’t go in public, ESAs don’t have any training requirements.

There are no legal certifications or registration for ESAs, but there are an unfortunate number of scam sites — like NSARCO, CertaPet, and more — that target young people in no-pets housing and people with disabilities who don’t know their rights.

Therapy Animals

PC: CTV News

People often confuse therapy animals and service dogs due to widespread misinformation. Therapy animal teams go out and provide comfort for others during times of stress and crises.

  • Required training: basic obedience and manners
  • Required certification/registration: facilities may require therapy animals to be certified through an organization like Therapy Dogs International
  • Public access: therapy animal teams do not have public access rights unless invited to a facility

Therapy animals train in basic obedience and manners; they visit facilities like hospitals, schools, and libraries to provide comfort to patrons. Most facilities require that visiting therapy animals go through a training course or have a Canine Good Citizen certification. The most common species of therapy animals are dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and rabbits.

Therapy animals are typically part of a program, and can only enter spaces that aren’t pet-friendly when invited. Many hospitals and other facilities have volunteer programs specifically for animal-assisted therapy. However, since therapy animals are not service animals, they have no public access rights.


Assistance animals all provide different types of aid to people with disabilities. Know the difference so you can advocate for yourself and others.

Ready to start training your service dog prospect? Reach out today!
Got more questions about assistance animals? Drop us a comment below!

3 thoughts on “Understanding Assistance Animals”

  1. Pingback: Service Dog Certification: The Facts - Helper Dog Media

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