By Mark Holley, ATI NY Connects Coordinator

August 25, 2023



Individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses find unwavering companionship through their devoted service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs). Beyond the fur and paws, these companions become lifelines, offering not only physical assistance but also a bridge to emotional well-being. While many people believe service dogs and emotional support animals are the same, there are many technical and legal differences between the two designated types of animals. 

History of Animals and Disability 

The first record of a service dog dates to Ancient Rome during the first century A.D., with similar depictions in Chinese scroll paintings from the Middle Ages. While evidence of using dogs as service animals spans centuries, the modern guide dog movement started in Germany after thousands of soldiers returned from World War I with blindness from their time in service. After learning from the European pioneers, Dorothy Harrison Eustis and Morris Frank founded the first American guide dog school in 1929. Since then, the use of service dogs has expanded, and they now assist people with many diverse needs. 

Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals

Training: Service dogs undergo rigorous training to learn specific tasks tailored to their handlers' unique needs. Whether guiding individuals with visual impairments or alerting the deaf to essential sounds, their skills are honed to perfection. Conversely, emotional support animals provide emotional comfort without specialized training. Any type of animal can be an emotional support animal.

Access Rights: Under the ADA's protective umbrella, service dogs are legally allowed to accompany their handlers in public places, such as restaurants, shops, and medical offices, as long as they do not pose a threat to other people or negatively impact the provision of a service. However, ESAs only have rights related to housing and travel privileges. ESAs have no legal right to enter any other public place. 

Proof of Need: Community members are allowed to question the presence of an assistance animal. For service animals, other people may ask if the animal is needed due to your disability and what task(s) the animal has been specially trained to do. For ESA accommodations in housing and travel, landlords and transportation companies can ask for a medical justification letter from a licensed physician or mental health professional and may have additional requirements.

Roles in Daily Life: Service dogs can provide a wide range of tasks to meet the individual needs of disabled and chronically ill individuals. Examples of tasks include navigation for physically disabled individuals, medical alerts in the cases of diabetic and epileptic patients, and mental health support for people with posttraumatic stress disorder and panic attacks. On the other hand, ESAs provide invaluable emotional solace, simply through their calming presence. Any animal, within typical pet species, can be considered an emotional support animal, but it has no specially trained skill.

Get Involved! 

It's essential to recognize the positive impact of these assistance animals on disabled and chronically ill community members. Individuals often rely on their service dogs and emotional support animals to navigate life's challenges and gain independence. Here’s some ways to learn more about this issue:

If you, or someone you know, has questions about service animals or emotional support animals, please contact Erin Vallely at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  She can help you learn about your rights, find resources, and get reasonable accommodations.