Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

Hard at Work:  Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals

Hard at Work:  Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals

By Cheryl Burns

I have a coworker who never fails to bring a smile to my face. She has this remarkable gift — an amazing ability to make every person feel like they are special, important, and loved. The unsaid message seems to be: “You! It’s you! I was hoping I’d see you today! You are so great!” It is her natural tendency, but she’s also worked at it. After all, while she isn’t formally in that role when she joins her human at the office, Roxie is a trained therapy dog.

This month’s column focuses on some special animals: service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy animals. The groups are distinct and the terms have legal significance, but all are a testament to the beautiful connection between humans and animals.

Service Animals

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” These dogs — and the ADA only officially recognizes canine service animals, although some other laws like the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and some states (including Virginia) cover other species  — are trained to take a specific action to help their human. While seeing eye dogs are the most commonly known type, service dogs perform a variety of tasks from alerting a diabetic that his blood sugar is at a dangerous level, to warning an epileptic that a seizure is imminent, or reminding an individual to take her daily medicine.  The ADA does cover animals trained to respond in a specific manner to assist with a psychiatric disability, but it does not cover dogs that provide emotional support more generally.

Service animals (and their humans) have extensive legal rights under various state and federal regimes. Notably, the ADA gives service animals permission to be in most public facilities and private businesses, and covered entities cannot request special documentation showing that a dog is a trained service animal. Rather, as the Department of Justice explains:

In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.

Emotional Support Animals

As the American Veterinary Medical Association explains, emotional support animals are a newer category of animals that “provide therapeutic benefits that alleviate one or more identified symptoms or effects of an individual’s disability, or emotional support to a disabled individual who has a disability-related need for such support.” Animals other than dogs — including cats, horses, and even reptiles — can qualify as emotional support animals.

While not a separate category under the ADA, the designation carries legal weight under the Fair Housing Act, which means that housing providers may be required to provide reasonable accommodation for emotional support animals. Another law that includes emotional support animals is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). While the ACAA covers any animal individually trained or able to assist a passenger with a disability — including by providing emotional support — airlines can request advance notice and documentation for emotional support or psychiatric service animals. Although the ACAA covers a wide variety of animals, airlines can exclude some animals including certain species, animals that are too large to accommodate in the cabin, or those that pose a threat to other travelers. Anyone who plans to fly with a service animal should check with the specific airline for details.

Therapy Animals

According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (one of many groups associated with therapy animals), like emotional support animals, therapy animals “provide therapeutic and psychological benefits.” However, the key difference is that therapy animals “provide this service to many people beyond just their owners.” Many species can become trained therapy animals, and they offer support in numerous environments including schools and nursing homes. My pal Roxie even calms frazzled air travelers around holidays!

Final Notes

There is always a need for patient, loving people to help train service animals. It is hard work — and it means giving up animals after bonding with them for some time — but important and noble work.

If you see an animal wearing a vest or other garment that indicates he or she is a working service animal, respect the animal and its job. Do not pet a working animal and avoid distracting the animal in any way. While they are trained to ignore distractions, they are still animals and a minor distraction can cause serious results.

Pet owners know that animals provide us with so much, and many can sense when we are ill or sad. During a particularly difficult time, I would walk in the door, collapse onto the couch, and immediately be joined by one our cats, often inviting a hug despite not typically being a fan (they’re lap cats, but like it on their terms!). Most pets provide love, but animals go further: It isn’t only their pure hearts, it is also their job. And we can all help them do it.

Smoky Tiggs and Sweet Potato Bailey Burns kindly allow Cheryl Burns and her husband to live with them in Springfield — and they will happily provide love in exchange for cat treats.


Alliance of Therapy Dogs, “What’s the Difference Between Emotional Support Dogs, Service Dogs & Therapy Dogs” (Nov. 26, 2018) (

American Veterinary Medical Association, “Emotional Support Animals” (2019) (

U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, “Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA” (July 2015) (

U.S. Department of Transportation, “Service Animals (Including Emotional Support Animals)” (March 20, 2018) (

Virginia Fair Housing Office, “The Virginia Fair Housing Law and Assistance Animals” (April 2015) (

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