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Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs: What’s the difference?

There is always a lot of chatter surrounding assistance animals, and we can understand why! As a reputable provider in housing and travel accommodation letters, we know there can be confusion surrounding the definitions, requirements, and legal rights pertaining to Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs. If you have been wondering this yourself, we are here to help!

Table of Contents

Difference by Definition

What, exactly, is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs: What’s the difference?

Before anything else, it’s essential to understand the role of these animals. An Emotional Support Animal is a type of animal that helps manage mental health disability symptoms by providing comfort to its owner. Under federal regulations, ESAs mitigate symptoms by just being present. Through their general characteristics, Emotional Support Animals offer attention, affection, and companionship, which may relieve common manifestations of mental health struggles (such as anxiety and depression). ESAs are not required to be performance trained. They do not need to carry out any specific tasks. They are, as their title implies, support for states of emotion. A more comprehensive look at what an ESA is can be found here. Emotional Support Animals are an excellent, non-medication way to combat challenging mental health conditions. Without the care of their beloved furry friends, some folks may not be where they are today.

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Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs: What’s the difference?

What, exactly, is a Psychiatric Service Animal?

Unfortunately, a bunny or a cat cannot be classified as a Service Animal because the ADA limits service animals’ definition to dogs. Like an ESA, a Psychiatric Service Dog assists their owner with mental health disorders. In contrast, under federal law, a PSD must be trained to perform a distinct task related to their handler’s disability. That task must help to alleviate one or more mental health symptoms or effects. In other words, Psychiatric Service Dogs offer help beyond natural instinct and companionship. PSDs do work, for one handler, to accomplish preset goals. 

Examples of work or tasks that a PSD might perform are: 

  • noticing the signs of anxiety attacks 
  • comforting owners with their weight and warmth (known as deep pressure therapy) 
  • offering medication reminders 
  • checking rooms for safety 
  • assisting by turning on lights for reassurance 
  • and preventing self-harm through distraction or by seeking help 

There are endless tasks, both simple or complex, that your animal can be trained to do. A PSD is proficient in both recognizing and responding to their owner’s need for assistance.

Difference by Requirements

What do I need to do to own an ESA? 

With any animal ownership, there are financial and veterinarian responsibilities involved. Outside of that, however, there are two main requirements to own an ESA legally.

The first is that you be actively suffering from a mental health disability that interferes with one or more daily life functions. This requirement is clearly outlined under the ADA. There are many types of mental health disabilities, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADD, chronic stress, and PTSD. The daily functions affected by your disability are not explicitly defined by law, but they can be anything from eating and drinking to merely getting out of bed. 

The second requirement is to obtain a valid ESA letter. This letter needs to be written by a licensed healthcare professional, document the existence of your disability, and note your animal’s necessity in relation to it. If you don’t currently have an ESA letter, you can begin the process by taking the American Service Pets qualification quiz found here.

What do I need to do to own a PSD? 

The same two requirements apply for Psychiatric Service Dogs, and as we noted earlier, there are also training prerequisites to abide by. 

Training of your PSD involves general public access behavior (obedience training) as well as specific task training to mitigate an effect of your disability. According to the Department of Justice, your Psychiatric Service Dog is only required to conduct ONE specific action type or task. Even so, it’s not uncommon for owners to train their PSD to perform multiple duties as necessary.

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs: What’s the difference?

Utilizing a certified trainer is a wonderful option, but that can be expensive. Thankfully, both of these training requirements can be done and certified by you personally! If you choose to train on your own, we recommend taking a video of your animal demonstrating all applicable obedience and task commands. A video is not legally required but serves as proof of their ability to do so should any challenges arise. Training your dog to behave well and perform assistance duties is a requirement but also necessary for the purpose of their service to you.

If you need to fly with your dog, the Department of Transportation (DOT) allows airlines to ask that an attestation form be completed in order for your dog to board the cabin. This form states that your animal is up-to-date on health requirements, has had proper training, and that you (as the handler) are responsible for the animal at all times. You do not need a professional to sign off on this form.

Difference by Legal Access Rights

The most prevalent questions we hear involve which legal access rights are granted to Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs. This is undoubtedly an important topic. 

First, only two questions can be asked of Service Dog owners/handlers: 

  1. Is the dog a Service Animal required because of a disability? 
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? 

Individuals must not require that a Service Dog demonstrate its task or ask about the nature of the person’s disability. As it pertains to an ESA, details regarding your mental health disability are also not required to be disclosed.

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs: What’s the difference?


Both ESAs and PSDs are granted housing accommodations under the FHA. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) categorizes each as assistance animals and recognizes them as more than a pet. With these rights, landlords cannot deny your animal regardless of any “no-pet” policy. They also cannot charge pet fees and deposits nor discriminate solely based on the animal’s species, breed, or size.

Air Travel 

Recently, the laws for air travel have changed. The federal Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires commercial airlines to allow Service Animals to accompany passengers with a disability on flights. In January 2021, the DOT updated new travel requirements for Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.

The rule requires airlines to provide trained Psychiatric Service Dogs (and only dogs) the same treatment as any other Service Dog. Airlines cannot discriminate solely based on the dog breed, but they can deny an individual dog for displaying aggressive or inappropriate behavior. No other species of animal are required to be permitted onboard. Each airline has set protocols for traveling with a Service Dog (such as check-in times and form requirements), so we always recommend verifying directly with the carrier of your choice before booking a flight. 

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs: What’s the difference?

Under the new law, airlines may treat Emotional Support Animals like pets rather than service or assistance animals. This means that people who want to bring their Emotional Support Animals onboard may have to pay the extra fees. Your animal must also meet all of the normal pet restrictions, including possibly traveling in cargo. As with PSD travel, we always recommend checking specific carrier regulations before booking flights. 

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs: What’s the difference?

Public Places 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) controls the laws for the use of Service Dogs in public places. The ADA ensures people with disabilities can bring their Service Dog into public places such as restaurants, hospitals, hotels, retail stores, government buildings, and similar places of business. This means that task-trained Service Dogs must be allowed to enter, even if it requires modifying regular practices. The only exception would be if the dog’s presence “fundamentally alters the nature of a service or program provided to the public” (including posing a legitimate health or safety risk), but this would be a rare occurrence. Handlers are responsible for keeping their Service Dogs under control at all times. 

Since Emotional Support Animals are not required to be any particular species and are not required to be trained, they do not have the same legal public access rights as Service Animals (except in the workplace). However, these rights only pertain to the ADA, and some State or local governments have laws that allow Emotional Support Animals into other public places. You should contact your particular State and local government agencies to learn more about these laws!

How do I know whether I need an ESA or a PSA?

Emotional Support Animal vs Psychiatric Service Dog

Mental health issues are genuine and should not be taken lightly. They are sometimes accompanied by or related to physical health troubles and disabilities. Determining what type of assistance animal is best for you depends mostly on the function they will serve in your life. The role of an ESA is to help comfort and console you while keeping you company. A PSD’s job is more detail-oriented and requires your ability to conduct or obtain special dog training. You should consider what type of animal you desire and whether your mental disability creates the need for housing accommodations, travel accommodations, public access rights, or all three. 

Whichever assistance animal fits your needs, they both play a unique role in improving humans’ lives. Understanding the differences ensures that individuals with mental health disabilities and their beloved animals get fair and suitable treatment across the board. At American Service Pets, it is our pleasure to offer our customers products that fit either need.

ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!


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