Service Dog Registration Of America

Emotional Support Dog vs Psychiatric Service Dog: The Main Differences


Dogs are more than just man’s best friend. They provide a valuable level of freedom and safety for individuals diagnosed with a disorder or disability. While all service and support dogs may look the same, there are huge differences between emotional support dogs and psychiatric service animals.  

If you or your medical team are considering a support or service dog for you or a loved one, it is important to know what each animal can provide, and what your rights are with this animal. 

Use this guide to help you learn some of the major differences between emotional support dogs and psychiatric service dogs. While both of these animals can assist in times of crisis, their capabilities vary as well as their legal protections, training type, and more. 

What is an Emotional Support Dog? 

An emotional support animal (ESA) is any assistance animal that may be used by an individual suffering from an emotional disorder or non-physical disability to help them in their daily life. These animals don’t perform specific tasks on command, but rather provide owners who need emotional support: 

  • A sense of safety 
  • Love 
  • Comfort 
  • Stability

An emotional support animal can be prescribed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional for a specific individual.  

An example of an emotional support dog assisting a handler would be if the handler brought the pet on errands to help ease their social phobia. This task requires no training or task-completion for the animal and relies solely on their presence alone as support. 

Psychological disorders like anxiety and depression can qualify an individual to receive this type of animal. The distinction between an emotional support dog and a regular pet is simply access to certain public spaces. These pets are covered by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  

What does this mean? It means that these pets cannot be discriminated against on commercial airlines or housing. The owner of an emotional support dog is entitled to bring their pet with them in the airline’s main cabin, as well as live with their pet in their apartment or home. 

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog? 

A psychiatric service animal (PSA) is any assistance animal that may be trained and used by an individual suffering from a psychiatric disability to help them in their daily life. These service dogs receive intricate, individualized training tailored to the specific needs of their handler. One person’s PSA would not be able to effectively assist another person without further intense training. 

Psychiatric service dogs are less like emotional support animals and more like guide dogs. Many of the services that they provide are similar to those that a dog trained to assist individuals with hearing impairments or vision impairments may provide. 

While an emotional support animal’s well-behaved presence is their function, these dogs serve a vital and often life-saving function involving emergency training. Examples include: 

  • Blocking someone from walking into traffic amid a dissociative episode  
  • Bracing a handler who is dizzy due to medications 

By being able to intervene in situations of psychiatric episodes or medication-induced distress, they enable their owners to have more freedom despite their disability. 

What qualifies an individual to receive PSA? Here are some psychological disorders:  

  • PTSD 
  • Schizophrenia 
  • Autism 
  • Depression 
  • Dissociative disorders  
  • And more! 

While ESAs are covered only by the ACAA and the FHA, PSAs are covered additionally by the ADA, also known as the American’s with Disabilities Act. This means that these pets cannot be discriminated against on commercial airlines, housing, or public spaces.  

The owner of a Psychiatric Service Animal is entitled to bring their pet with them in the airline’s main cabin, live with them in their home, and bring them to appointments, public events, and errands like grocery shopping. 

The Major Differences Between Emotional Support Dogs and Psychiatric Service Dogs 

While both emotional support dogs and psychiatric service animals are assistance animals, they differ in just about every other way. Learn about some of the major differences below in our handy guide. 


The first major distinction between emotional support dogs and psychiatric service dogs is their species.  

An ESA can refer to any animal at all. Commonly, individuals will choose a cat or a dog as their emotional support animal, but they can technically choose other species as well. This is primarily because ESAs don’t require any training other than being well-behaved in public so they don’t pose a threat to anyone or anything around them. 

On the other hand, psychiatric service animals are relegated to dogs or miniature horses according to federal law. Other species are not qualified to serve as official service dogs since they require in-depth training to execute specific tasks. In terms of which dogs may be PSAs, any breed may be used under federal law. 


On the whole, an emotional support dog assists the handler merely by existing. They provide comfort, love, and support to help the handler overcome anxiety, depression, or other conditions. Examples of how they are trained to provide emotional support to handlers include: 

  • Accompanying the handler on errands or appointments that may cause significant anxiety or fear. 
  • Helping someone with social phobia feel comfortable leaving home. 
  • Providing love and affection during a panic attack or episode. 

A psychiatric service dog differs wholly from ESAs in terms of purpose. These animals are specially trained to assist someone with a disability by performing designated tasks. These tasks can range from helpful to life-saving. Examples of common tasks that a service dog may perform for their handler include: 

  • Waking the handler up when necessary if the medication causes them to sleep through alarms. 
  • Bracing and counterbalancing the handler if they experience dizziness or fatigue due to medication or condition. 
  • Turning on lights or performing room searches to avoid triggering surprises for a handler with PTSD. 
  • Blocking a handler from traffic or danger and leading them to safety while experiencing a dissociative episode or disorientation due to medication or condition. 
  • Interrupting self-mutilation, skin picking, or hair pulling in individuals with OCD or trichotillomania. 


Because of the differences in purposes of the two types of animals, training differs as well.  

  • Emotional support animals require zero training to be registered and certified. 
  • Psychiatric service dogs require intense training. This can last 1-2 years and is specific to the handler who they will be assisting.  

ESAs though, can be trained to provide emotional support and behave well in public or trained to perform tasks like coming when called and giving affection to the handler on command. While these may enhance the effectiveness of the emotional support dog for therapeutic purposes, they are not to the degree that would make them a service dog. 

All PSAs are trained differently because each person’s needs are so specific. One service dog may be trained to bring the handler medications while they are immobilized or vomiting, while another may be trained to alert a schizophrenic owner to genuine danger so that they can disregard false hallucinations of danger. If they were swapped, these dogs would not fulfill their new handler’s needs.  

Individuals with psychiatric disabilities may choose to train the service dog themselves. There is no requirement to use a professional dog and program. 


To own an emotional support animal, there are a few boxes that handlers have to check. The first requirement is a letter from a licensed medical doctor or mental health professional. This letter must be: 

  • Less than one year old 
  • Written on letterhead paper or a prescription pad 

It has to confirm that you have a diagnosed disorder or disability and that the animal would be an essential element of your treatment plan. The letter should also describe the type of animal, and the credentials of the doctor or licensed mental health professional that is authorizing the animal including: 

  • License number 
  • Type of license 
  • License issue date 
  • State or jurisdiction of the license 

This animal does not need to be registered to receive benefits or wear a collar or vest to show that it is an ESA, but many owners find that it helps.

For a psychiatric service dog, you must have a verifiable psychiatric impairment. A few disabilities that would qualify the handler to use a service dog are: 

  • Schizophrenia 
  • Anxiety 
  • Autism 
  • PTSD 
  • Bipolar disorder 
  • Epilepsy or a seizure-related condition 
  • Dissociative disorders 
  • Depression 

Like emotional support dogs, service dogs don’t need to wear a collar or vest to distinguish themselves from other regular pets. They are, though, required to uphold public health requirements like receiving vaccinations against diseases. 

Legal Protections 

Most of the benefits of ESAs and PSAs are gleaned in public spaces. This is why legal protections are so important to know about when thinking about getting a service or support animal.  

Legal protections refer to which locations your animal is allowed to access while working, and what questions people are allowed to ask you about your animal and your disability. Much of the general public, even store owners and employees, may not be acquainted with legal protections, which is why handlers need to be sure of their rights and which policies they are protected by. 

Two acts cover emotional support dogs:

  • The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) 
  • The Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The ACAA protects handlers from experiencing discrimination on commercial airlines. ESAs are, by this act, able to ride in the main cabin with their handler, free of charge. The stipulation is that the animal must be well behaved and not pose a threat to anyone else. The FHA means that handlers cannot be discriminated against in their housing for owning an ESA. 

Three acts cover psychiatric service dogs: 

  • The ACAA
  • The FHA
  • The ADA or Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The ADA extends protection beyond just aircraft and housing. It allows handlers to take their necessary service dog with them wherever they go, including stores and offices. Employees are furthermore not allowed to ask about your disability or the status of the animal. They can legally only ask two questions: 

  1. Is the dog a trained service animal that is required due to a disability? 
  2. What tasks is the dog trained to perform? 

Any other questions or limitations enacted by employees or store owners are illegal, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. 


If your disability causes you to lose some of your valuable freedom, a service dog can help you gain it back. 

Alternatively, anyone dealing with anxiety, depression, grief, phobias, or PTSD can find deep enrichment from an emotional support dog. Use this guide to help you find out which dog is right for your situation. While these two types of dogs may seem similar, their functions are very different and you need to be well aware of their differences. 

Learn about the major differences between ESAs and PSAs, including species, purpose, training, requirements for ownership, and legal protections. Our easy-to-read Service Dog Registration Of America guide has it all. After that, peruse our website to learn about registration, supplies, and information for soon-to-be service dog owners. Your dream dog is just a few clicks away!  

Consult with your doctor or mental health professional to learn more about how you can get set up with an ESA or a PSA today