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Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals (And How to Handle Them)

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Marina Shlomov - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

If you have been out to any retail, dining, or other commercial dwellings in recent years, then you know about the influx in animals – primarily dogs – that accompany their owners. Its become such a common thing that most people don’t even bat an eye when a customer and a canine walk through the door. 

For years, service animals were trained to help individuals with disabilities make it through daily life safely. These trained dogs have been known to lead blind individuals through unknown areas, get help for certain medical conditions, and so forth. Then, we discovered that dogs can also bring a soothing, joyous therapy, too. Now, it seems the line – as well as the rules and regulations – are a bit skewed. 

Since service animals, assistance animals, and emotional support animals are so prevalent in our communities – and often appear with potential tenants – we thought going over the difference between them may offer some clarity.

Service Dogs

A service dog is a dog that is specially trained to help improve its owner’s quality of life by offering assistance with daily tasks. These animals are trained to fill in where needed. Of course, not only do they provide a service, but they, too, offer emotional support and help with healthy growth and confidence. 

To have a service dog, one must officially be diagnosed with a disability. The individual will then work with an agency to determine how the service dog will best be an addition to his or her lifestyle and overall sense of well-being. 

Service dogs are trained for several months before they are finally paired and provided to their new owner. While it is not required, many service dogs are often seen sporting a blue vest – which is an indication that they are assisting someone who is disabled. 

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals, also referred to as ESA, are primarily dogs (though there is no definitive distinction here) who offer therapeutic support. Their owner may have a professionally diagnosed physical disability or a mental disorder.  

To obtain an ESA classification for an animal, the owner must have a diagnosis by a medical doctor or mental health professional. This professional must submit a letter in writing stating that the benefits one can receive from an ESA will be provided from such an animal to help the disability. 

Assistance Animals

In a category, all their own are those animals that work to provide companionship but are also there to alert of a medical emergency or provide comfort (or other assistance) during certain instances. For example, in the case of an oncoming seizure, the assistance animal would alert someone to the condition. For someone having a panic attack, the animal could offer comfort. And, for the hearing impaired, the animal can alert when someone is at the door. 

Assistance animals don’t have any formal training or certification, but a written letter from a doctor or therapist explaining the benefits of the animal should be able to be provided. 

What this Means for You as a Landlord

Believe it or not, the Fair Housing Act has something to say about these service and emotional support animals. And, you are going to want to inform yourself. 

If you have a “no pets” policy on your property, a potential tenant with a service dog, emotional support, or assistance animal still has the legal right to bring the animal into your rental. Landlords are required to make “reasonable accommodation” to allow for the animal to reside on the property. 

This “reasonable accommodation” often refers to a tenant or potential tenant seeking to have an animal regardless of a “no pets” policy or waiving a pet fee. As a landlord, you need to make sure that this request comes with written proof from a medical or mental health professional, as well as confirmation that: 

  • Allowing the animal will not impose additional financial or administrative burdens on the landlord. 
  • The animal will not pose a threat to the health and safety of others. 
  • The animal will not cause significant physical damage to the property. 

As a landlord, it is important that you understand your rights – and the rights of your tenant/potential tenant. Animals that provide service or emotional support cannot be denied housing. And, if they are, claims can be filed. 

Keep in mind, if you find yourself in this situation, it is best to seek legal advice to ensure that you are following all local and federal laws concerning these supportive animals. 


Marina-Shlomov-Photo-ThumbnailMarina Shlomov, a managing partner at ALH|Podland Rental Homes Property Management is the author of many articles on Landlording, Property Management, and Real Estate Investing. A residential builder in the state of Georgia since 1999, Marina is an investor herself. Her property management company is intended “For Investors” and “By Investors” for a simple reason – she knows what investors’ goals are and she works hard to reach their goals. In her spare time, Marina likes to spend time with her family, friends, garden, read and travel. Check her out atwww.alhpodland.com. You can find Marina’s articles and comments at @rentalhomesatl on Twitter, on Facebook, Google+, Blogger. and YouTube, Bigger Pockets and REI CLub and LinkedIn.


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