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Emotional Support Dogs vs. Service Dogs
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People have relied on dogs for centuries to be aides and guides to help hunt, attack, alert, and comfort. More recently, dogs have played an official role in the lives of those who need emotional and physical assistance. There’s been increasing cases of service dogs or emotional support animals seen in public.

Because of the sheer volume of service dogs and ESAs, some organizations and lawmakers aren’t prepared to accommodate people who have them. There’s been controversy over what qualifies as an ESA, who qualifies to get one, and how effective they are to their owners. Part of that debate stems from specialized training for the dog or animal being unrequired.

With many complicated questions of access under scrutiny by pet owners, advocates, and lawmakers, there are thousands of poignant stories that act as testaments to the significant positive effect that service and support dogs have on people. And that’s why so many seek service dog certification. But not many people know the difference between service dogs and support dogs or what privileges they have.

Service Dogs

A service dog is trained specially to perform a function that its owner can’t perform on their own due to a physical, emotional, or intellectual disability. While they may also provide comfort and emotional support, they serve a purpose to assist those in need with their day-to-day functionality. For instance, they act as sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, fetch items for those with limited dexterity, and act as medical alerts. But service dogs only meet the federal definition by doing a job the owner can’t.

To obtain a service dog, a person must first have a disability diagnosis. They should also know which function they’d need a service dog to perform for them. They’ll then work with a service dog agency to find a dog to suit their needs and lifestyle. Often, success rates are high among golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Lab/golden mixes, and German shepherds. Smaller breeds are also useful as medical alert dogs. And most certification service dogs train for two to four months before service begins.

Emotional Support Dogs

An emotional support animal (ESA) is often a dog, but not always. Its purpose is to provide therapeutic benefits to someone with a medically diagnosed disability, rather than perform a function that the owner can’t perform. ESAs also aren’t required to have specialized training for their role. However, medical documentation is a requirement to receive the proper designation. ESAs also have less legal protection than service dogs, especially when it comes to public access.

To receive ESA status, the owner must obtain a diagnosis by a medical doctor or mental health professional. Typically, ESAs are most helpful with people suffering from depression, PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, insomnia, and roughly 33 other disorders. Even with less federal support, ESAs still receive housing and air travel benefits. However, private businesses may still restrict them at their discretion.

If you’ve received a diagnosis of a physical disability, consider the benefits of getting service dog certification to help make life with a disability more manageable for you.

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