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Have you ever wondered what a service dog really is? What they do and where they’re allowed? Perhaps you’ve been struggling with the difference between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals? We answer all of these questions and more below. Check out other posts on service dogs if you’d like to learn even more. Go ahead and click on the section most relevant to your search from the Table of Contents, or start at the beginning and jump in!


What is a service dog?

The U.S. Department of Justice revised the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2010 stating that service animals are defined as:

“dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability” 

The nature of these tasks vary as widely as the disabilities of the individuals they’re trained to assist. It is important to note that service dogs are not pets, they are working animals. Just a few examples of tasks include:

  • Guiding the visually impaired
  • Providing bracing or mobility support
  • Pulling a wheelchair

Many service dogs perform tasks for conditions that are not immediately obvious such as:

  • Reminding a handler with depression to take their medication
  • Alerting the handler when their blood sugar reaches high or low levels
  • Responding to ‘invisible’ medical conditions such as epilepsy and PTSD


Where are service dogs allowed?

The ADA states that service dogs must be allowed entry with their disabled handler anywhere other members of the public are allowed to go. Consequently, this includes restaurants, hospitals, businesses, shopping malls and hotels.

Furthermore, staff can not ask about your disability, require documentation (for the dog or medical records from the handler) or request the dog demonstrate their trained task(s).

If it’s not obvious whether a dog is a service animal for someone’s disability, staff can legally ask two questions:

Is the service animal required because of a disability?

What tasks has the dog been trained to perform?


Where are service dogs not allowed?

  • Environments that require as much sterility as possible such as hospital operating rooms, burn units and restaurant kitchens
  • Public swimming pools – they can, however, stay on the pool deck and go to other areas that normal public are allowed
  • Religious institutions that prohibit dogs.
  • Areas where allowing the service animal would fundamentally change the nature of a service or program. For example, spaces designated for those allergic to dog dander and zoo displays where dogs can agitate the captive animal.
  • Finally, if the dog is out of control, or not housebroken they can be removed


Where can you live with a service dog?

Under the Fair Housing Act, you can not be denied housing with a service dog (barring a few detailed exceptions) even in accommodation with a ‘no pet’ clause – since service dogs are not pets.   

Housing providers:

    • Can not restrict a service animal based on breed and size.
    • Can not request documentation if the disability is clear, such as blindness.
    • Can not deny housing if they’re unsure the person has a disability or need for an assistance animal.
    • Can not apply clauses or restrictions that would usually apply to other pet owners such as a ‘pet deposit’.
    • Can not request detailed medical records or proof that the dog has been certified.
    • Can request proof of disability requiring an assistance animal (doctor’s note will do) if it’s not apparent what the disability is, for example, epilepsy or PTSD.

They can ask two questions:

  • Is this a service animal that is required because of a disability?
  • What work, or tasks, has the animal been trained to perform?

If either answer is no, they are allowed to deny accommodation. If both answers are yes, the housing provider has to evaluate the disabled individual as any other potential tenant and make an exception to allow an animal if needed. As above, the service animal will generally be permitted anywhere the public is allowed access.


Service Dog vs Emotional Support Animal vs Therapy Dog

People often confuse service dogs with other support dogs such as emotional support animals and therapy dogs. To keep things clear and simple, we’ve laid out the key differences below.

Service dogs, generally are:

  • Classified as working animals, not pets.
  • Rigorously trained to perform tasks specific to their partner’s needs.
  • Permitted entry to any area that the general public can access, including hospitals, businesses, hotels, restaurants and public transport.
  • Trained to ignore and be neutral towards others around them, including people and dogs.
  • Allowed to live in “no pet” housing at no extra cost (excluding damages they may cause).


Emotional support animals, generally:

  • Are pets, and not limited to dogs.
  • Provide emotional support which may relieve disabilities, but they are not trained to do so.
  • Can be allowed in “no pet” accommodation and flights if a request is put in, provided there is documentation from a physician, psychiatrist or social worker verifying the need for an emotional support animal.
  • Unlike service dogs, ESAs are not allowed in all areas the public has access to.

It is important to note that there must be a connection between the disability and the need for an emotional support animal. You can not request a landlord change their no-pets clause because of companionship. Due to this, verification from a therapist or doctor is necessary. The disability itself is not judged, but instead how well you can prove that the animal helps relieve the symptoms of your disability. To learn more about emotional support animals, see our ESA post.


Therapy dogs, generally are:

  • Pets
  • Trained to interact with people other than their owners/handlers (opposite to service dogs).
  • Trained to behave safely around all sorts of people and situations.
  • Not given access to areas and accommodation usually prohibited to dogs – because their handler does not have a disability that needs assistance.
  • Able to be given access to areas such as nursing homes, hospitals and libraries if it is agreed to and arranged beforehand.


Hopefully, you’ve learned something new about what a service dog really is. Knowing your rights, as well as the rights of others is essential. If you’re contemplating getting one, ask yourself what you are truly after: Is it a service dog, emotional support dog or therapy dog?


We’ve included an infographic for those of you who prefer visuals:


service dog vs therapy dog vs emotional support dog



References and recommended reading:

  • Fair Housing – It’s Your Right. U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. Retrieved from
  • Revised ADA Requirements: Service Animals. U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Retrieved from

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