Service Dogs vs. ESD vs. Therapy Dog: What's the Difference?

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September 29, 2023
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Service Dogs vs. ESD vs. Therapy Dog

Faithful, loyal, loving, trustworthy, dependable – what more could you possibly ask for in a companion? Dogs are unlike most creatures out there due to their bright disposition and endearing personalities.  

Given their unique qualities, it’s become quite common for dogs to be the source of emotional support that some people seek.  

In this article, we will explain the difference between a service animal, an Emotional Support Dog (ESD), and a therapy animal. 

You’ll likely be surprised to see just how many nuances exist in this world!


The biggest distinguisher amongst the different categories of dog helpers comes down to the level of training the dog must undergo.  

Except for service dogs, there aren’t any formal training requirements for a dog to become an ESD or therapy dog. 

Most service dogs start their training as puppies because those are the most formative learning years and there’s lots for these animals to master.

Service Dogs

Dogs receiving the service dog identifier have undergone specialized training to master a particular set of tasks. The keyword here is “task.”

Types of Service Dogs

Service dogs aren’t trained to be an all-inclusive support in terms of the disabilities they help.   

Each type of service dog is trained to assist with unique physical and mental disabilities. This is why a service dog is sometimes referred to as an assistance dog. 

The nature of someone’s disability will direct what type of service dog he or she will get.  

For example, Alert Service Dogs notify a person of an impending medical condition that the service dog can sense. 

Special training is given to Psychiatric Service Dogs for the specific task of detecting the onset of certain mental health conditions. 

Response Service Dogs can do tasks needed to provide safety to people in a medical episode.  

The list goes on to include dogs trained to do certain tasks related to a variety of conditions.  

Legal Protection

Under the ADA, service animals are permitted to accompany people with disabilities wherever they might be in public.  

Service dogs have to be under control and leashed.  

Be mindful that state and local laws might differ from this federal law. Worth noting is that Minnesota follows this federal law. 

People with a service dog do not need to produce paperwork to verify the dog’s qualifications. There are only two questions that people with a service dog can legally be asked.

Emotional Support Dog (ESD)

ESDs are defined as a type of companion dog. A companion dog is the formal name for a pet. However, to be called an ESD, the owner must have a prescription from a licensed mental health practitioner in the form of an ESD letter. 

An ESD is not classified as a service dog so they do not get special permission to be in public with their owner.  An emotional support dog isn't task-oriented. Instead, the emotional support an ESD offers comes from their mere presence.  

This is not to diminish the power an ESD has to help heal trauma and other mental health issues. Their work is sometimes not visible to the naked eye because of the emotional basis of it.  

The state of Minnesota recognizes an ESD’s significance by making it illegal for a person with an ESD to be discriminated against in housing, employment, and public places.

Therapy Dog

What separates a therapy dog from an ESD is that while an ESD assists an individual, a therapy animal provides services to a group of people. 

A therapy dog is technically classified as a pet that has been trained, whether formally or informally, to give needed comfort, affection, and love.  

It’s becoming increasingly common for therapy dogs to assist with the overwhelming emotional needs found in some places like schools, hospitals, nursing homes, police stations, etc.

Conclusion - Service Dogs vs. ESD vs. Therapy Dog: What's the Difference?

Overall, the main difference in these types of dogs is the level of training they receive as well as their public access parameters.

Service dogs receive the most training and have the highest public access. From there, ESDs and therapy dogs are still trained to have certain behaviors but are not held to the same standard as service dogs.

At Minnesota Canine Consulting, we hold dogs in high regard for their innate ability to connect. Because of that, we pride ourselves in the relationships we form with the canines we work with!

Questions? We are happy to chat with you about emotional support dog training. Call today! 651-505-3585.


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