fbpx Therapy, Service, and Emotional Support Animals – What Are the Differences?
Authored by Nexus Family Healing on June 22, 2023

Animals are an intrinsic part of the human experience, providing joy and comfort to their owners, capable of lending support during hard times. But some animals are trained to perform specific tasks or services for different people, depending on their needs – some simply provide comfort and affection at home, while some boost morale in a therapy session, or help their owner safely cross the road and maneuver public areas. Some act as alarm systems for when their owner is experiencing a medical emergency or help to calm their owner during a crisis. 

These are all different actions that take place at different levels of certifications and training – so what’s the difference between it all? 

Therapy Animals

Meet Bowen, Nexus-PATH Family Healing’s therapy dog, owned and trained by Emily Jones, Operations Director at Nexus-PATH’s Luther Hall location. Jones got Bowen in October of 2022, and immediately began his training to become a therapy dog. After a variety of puppy classes, certifications, and therapy training, Bowen began his work as a therapy dog, not only for Nexus-PATH youth, but for Jones’ private practice as well. So, what does Bowen’s work look like? 

A lot of Bowen’s work is lending support, whether it’s comforting, calming, or comedic. He starts his day as the morning greeter to the youths, welcoming them with pets, scratches, and hugs, which gives the youth a safe outlet for physical affection and helps with tactile sensory input. Bowen’s calm and amicable nature helps boost morale for the youths (and staff members) and sets a tranquil mood for the day. In therapy sessions, Bowen is a head in their lap as they work through difficult emotions, giving physical comfort while also offering comedic relief and a calming presence, helping his client regulate themselves when regulating with another human might be too difficult. 

While a lot of Bowen’s work is supporting, he is not an emotional support or service animal, which is a common misconception about therapy animals. Therapy animals can be trained to provide some services and extended some privileges and access to public spaces (with the space owner’s permission), but the special privileges of being in public are reserved for service animals. Therapy animals are trained and evaluated and follow a set of rules and regulations for both the animal and the handler set by Pet Partners, a nationwide organization that promotes the health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted therapy, activities, and education. 

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESA) are animals who have a pre-existing relationship with an owner, certified by a health professional. The purpose of this certification is so that a person with mental illness who relies on their animal for therapeutic support can have their animal live with them regardless of a “no pets” policy (as per the Americans with Disabilities Act) – the person’s landlord must respect the animal’s support to their owner. The purpose of the ESA certification is not so people can take their animals with them to public spaces – those privileges are reserved for all service animals and some therapy animals. 

Service Animals

Lastly, service animals. Many may be familiar with seeing eye or guide dogs, but service animals are trained to perform a variety of specific activities of daily living tasks for people living with different needs and disabilities.  These services can range from assisting the visually impaired, to those who experience debilitating symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or chronic illnesses. Service animals are the only animals in these categories that are given the privilege of being in public spaces, like public transportation or stores. These are animals that when you see them out and about, they will be wearing a vest designating their position. Please remember they are working and should not be disturbed by another animal or person, as it could distract them from performing their task or worse, place them and/or their handler in danger. 

Animals can have a tremendous impact on humans, especially for people who are living with physical disabilities, mental illness, or PTSD. It is important to respect and understand the differences between the support and services these animals provide and help create safe environments for these animals and their handlers. 

Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 45 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.