Service Animals

Service Animals and Assistance Animals:
Where, When, and How

service dog on leash held by man in wheelchair(adapted from ADA in Focus: Fall 2015)

The topic of service animals and other types of animals that help people with disabilities has become nearly too hot to handle in recent years. This is an area where multiple laws, which sometimes overlap, apply in various settings. Many of these laws have different requirements and even fundamental differences in how these animals are defined. At the same time, most laws recognize a similar balance between rights and responsibilities, and establish limitations based on valid health or safety concerns with animals in certain settings.


The language and terms that describe various types of working animals or animals that help people with disabilities are not consistently used or understood. When different people say “service animal,” “assistance animal,” “comfort animal,” “emotional support animal,” or “therapy animal,” they are not necessarily talking about the same thing.

Service Animals

This term is currently defined in two different ways under the ADA. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has one definition and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has another (read on!). Generally, service animals are trained to perform specific tasks (guiding, retrieving, alerting, etc.) and work for one particular individual with a disability, often for the life of the animal.

Emotional Support or Comfort Animals

These terms are generally used interchangeably. Emotional support animals may be socialized and obedience-trained, but they are not trained to perform any specific disability-related tasks. They provide benefit passively; their mere presence is comforting. They are also usually paired with one particular person, often for life.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are typically considered those which are trained to accompany handlers to places like nursing homes, hospitals, or schools to provide therapeutic benefits, such as comfort or socialization, to the general populations there. These are working animals, but they do not meet ADA definitions of “service animals” because they serve general populations rather than particular individuals.

Assistance Animals

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban (HUD) uses this term in relation to the Fair Housing Act (FHA), as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (for recipients of HUD funding). The term can include animals of various types that perform tasks or provide emotional support for individuals with disabilities.

Again, however, there is not universal agreement on the meaning and use of these terms. Let’s take a look at some of the laws that address animals that help people with disabilities.