Equality and Justice
For People With Disabilities

The Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Published on April 22, 2020

The Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Jenessa May

Have you ever wondered whether a service animal is the same as an emotional support animal? The role they play in relation to their owners’ disability differentiates them, as well as the law that protects them. Legally, service providers must allow service animals into the establishment, but emotional support animals can be denied. 

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (the AODA) was enacted to improve accessibility standards for those with physical and mental disabilities to all public service providers, private providers, and non-profit sectors. The act broadly defines disability as any degree of physical or mental disability through illness, birth, or injury. Under the AODA service providers must welcome service animals, but emotional support animals do not have the same legal right and the owner and animal can be denied entrance. 

What is the difference?

Service animals, most typically dogs, are specially trained to perform specific tasks for their human in relation to their human’s disability. A common use of a service animal are seeing-eye dogs that assist their visually impaired owners by performing specific tasks, allowing their owner to be more independent. Service animals can be trained by their owner, or they can be trained elsewhere before being introduced to their owner. Service dogs need to be registered in order to be legally recognized, but they do not have to physically wear a vest or harness for proof of their status. 

Emotional support animals are not trained to do specific tasks. Instead they provide comfort and security to a person with psychological or developmental disabilities. Any animal that provides comfort and security can be an emotional support animal whether it is a hamster, fish, or peacock, just to name a few. Emotional support animals can extensively expand their owner’s independence and ability to cope with their disability. Their role to comfort and offer a sense of security for their owner can allow the owner freedom within their disability, comparable to a seeing-eye service dog assisting their owner in tasks they are unable to do on their own. To have an emotional support animal in Canada the owner needs to ask a qualified mental health professional or doctor in their province to write a letter, who will then assess whether or not the owner will benefit from having an emotional support animal.

Why is there a difference?

There is no clear explanation under the AODA why service animals and their owners can lawfully enter establishments, but emotional support animals and their owners cannot. Part 2(a) of the AODA states that a disability can include “physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal”, but does not define other animals in relation to an emotional reliance. The Act doesn’t differentiate between emotional support animals and service animals, but under the Act one of two conditions must be present in order for the animal to be considered a service animal for a person living with a disability:

1.     The animal can be readily identified as one that is being used by the person for reasons relating to the person’s disability, as a result of visual indicators such as the vest or harness worn by the animal; or

2.     The person provides documentation from a list of regulated health professionals confirming that the person requires the animal for reasons relating to their disability

Simplified, it means that people with a disability who visibly depend on their animal in relation to their disability and/or have appropriate documentation should not have a difficult time gaining entrance into establishments and are protected by law. On the other hand, a person with an invisible disability such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, who actively relies on their animal to keep them calm or comforted is not offered the same protection under the AODA. Having a medical professional assess that an owner will benefit from an emotional support animal will not satisfy condition 2 because the condition only applies to service animals. 

Will the law change?

One argument for the difference in law is that service animals are specially trained to assist with their owner’s disability. For instance, guide dogs can help their owners cross the road, close doors, turn off lights or retrieve items – actions the owner may not be able to do independently. Compared to emotional support animals who may require no specific training, the owner relies on the animals’ presence to assist them in tasks they may not be able to do without the animal. For example, an emotional support animal can assist their owner who has anxiety by calming them down in certain public situations, or comforting them if they suffer an anxiety related panic attack. 

Another argument is that if emotional support animals were legally recognized and therefore allowed in public and private establishments, there would be no limit or established guidelines as to what kind of animals are allowed to enter. 

That being said, the AODA strives to improve accessibility standards for all disabilities, physical and mental, visible and invisible. Having the law different for service animals and emotional support animals based on their training and the functions they perform to assist their owners living with disabilities can have wide ranging effects for those who depend on emotional support animals. Because the use of emotional support animals is becoming more popular, one would hope that the AODA might one day be amended to include emotional support animals with a limited list of what animals can qualify (i.e.: no spiders, snakes, or other animals that could pose a danger in public establishments).

For more information about the AODA, you may visit: https://www.aoda.ca/the-act/

For information on how to register a service animal: https://www.servicedogscanada.org/certification/

For information on how to register an emotional support animal: https://therapetic.org/canada-register-emotional-support-animal/