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Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals: The Benefits (and Differences) of Wellness Pets

The Sleep Club Editors

Animals are wonderful. They move us, and bring a lovely benefit to our lives. Even if you don’t own them, we have a certain connection to the creatures that share the Earth with us. 

I love my dogs. They are amazing beings and I often wonder where I’d be without them. Sometimes, life feels kind of shitty and when I walk in the door, even if I’ve just gone outside to take out the trash, whenever I return to the house, they act as if it’s been years since they saw me and come running to me, full of love, full of delight, full of joy. I make their world complete, or so they think. If only they knew how complete they make mine.

And these aren’t even emotional support animals or ESAs. My girls are just my pets — old, furry, loving rescues I wonder at daily. The gift of these incredible beings is something I try very hard not to take for granted. I recognize the depth of their importance in my life and I do my very best to give back to them in every way possible. What is it, however, about animals that makes us, I don’t know, calm? At ease? Feeling safe?

That’s a good question, honestly, and let’s take a look at that, shall we?


The unspoken gift of the animal

There are actual, honest-to-goodness, scientific reasons we are soothed by animals. Those quietly loving companions act as a calming element in times of need in some pretty fantastic ways:

  • When we stroke, pet, and communicate with our animals, it raises our dopamine and serotonin levels. These are what are called “happy hormones” and they, in turn, lower our stress.
  • When you’re part of an animal’s life, you feel needed. They can’t talk, they don’t have opposable thumbs, and they can’t feed themselves, but they have an infinite wellspring of love for us and they need looking after. That give and take is quite a confidence boost and that means that we, well...
  • Get a serious bump in our self-esteem and general wellness from our pets. They make us happier, healthier, feel less lonely, and more engaged. They keep us very present minded because they are — remember my telling you that my dogs greet me as if I’ve been away for years even if I just walked outside to empty the trash? They are so here and now, it helps us look at the world with a more forgiving, accepting eye. For the most part.
  • Because of the confidence that dealing with animals gives us, it makes us better at building human relationships. Caring for a horse and succeeding at it, training our dog, litterbox training our cat, getting our bunny to come when we call — whatever your interaction is with your pet that makes you feel accomplished and connected, that trickles down to our human-to-human communications.

See? Real benefits from those cuddly creatures we call pets. These days, the need for ESAs and Service Animals has risen dramatically. While they serve very different functions, they seem to achieve the same results for each person albeit for different reasons.


The role of the Service Dog 

It is said that a Roman fresco from 1st Century AD depicts a blind man being led by a dog. There are also wood carvings and paintings showing dogs helping the blind and others with disabilities in Europe and China throughout the Middle Ages. “Man’s best friend” has long been working animals — on farms, in war, and pretty much anywhere. It is only natural, perhaps, that canines are the ones we humans turned to when looking for ways to support those in need when other humans couldn’t or, well, wouldn’t. Because of this history, their trainability and natural desire to please, dogs are the only species of animal legally recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as Service Animals. And, yes, we know there are cats, pigs, birds, and even ferrets that have shown an uncanny ability to care for their charges with the same efficiency as the stalwart dog. Unfortunately, they are not legally recognized as official service animals and legally aren’t accepted as such.


Let me explain.

True Service Animals go through a rigorous training program for about 1-2 years with a focus on providing assistance to those with disabilities. Every person who receives a Service Animal must show legitimate health reasons — mental, physical, emotional — for requiring one. Those who provide assistance to people who are dealing with physical issues are merely known as Service Dogs, for individuals on the spectrum, dealing with mental illness, PTSD, and more, they are known as Psychiatric Service Dogs or PSDs

The benefits of these amazing animals are tremendous. They may offer emotional support as part of their training, but that is not why they are there. A Service Dog is defined as "trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities." Thousands of puppies are put through the paces for these specific needs every year but only 30-50 percent make it. While these days they don’t have to wear a vest or specific collar, establishments are required to allow entry to these animal assistants because they are essential for the owner’s day-to-day life. They protect them, remind them, perform tasks for them, and in some instances, save their lives. 

The bond that grows between you and your service animal is undeniable but at the end of the day, these doggos are well-taught, focused gatekeepers of the health and welfare of their people. Does it bring solace and emotional relief knowing they are there? Absolutely. But they have a specific job to do, are trained for that job, and fulfill their purpose with precision. Honestly? If your service animal is doing what they’re supposed to do, no one will even notice they are there until they have to be of service to you.

Emotional Support Animals? Well… they’re a little different.


The immersive role of the Emotional Support Animal

Unlike Service Dogs, any animal can be trained to be an ESA. According to one article, here’s the difference: service animals do, emotional support animals simply are. Pretty cool, huh? Your ESA duck makes you feel better simply by being by your side, loving on you, cuddling with you. While they are definitely trained to be more available to your needs, are legitimately prescribed by a mental health professional, and registered as companions, these scaly, winged, hairy, and furry beings are doing what they do best: being devoted, amazing pets.

In 2014, there were 2,400 Emotional Support Animals out there. Today, there are over 200,000 in the United States alone and those are the ones registered. As you may know, these incredible companions bring the kind of support you cannot see nor really train for. 

True ESAs share a connection with you that brings you such solace in times of mental and emotional crisis, they act like a salve, a medicine — basically, a living, breathing tonic to get you through the rough spots. Their love buoys you and it is that care and shared adoration that makes them such amazing support. Truly legitimate emotional support animals are out there and while it does not take as long to train your pet to become one — several months instead of years as with service animals —  there is no limit to what type of animal can be your ESA and no end to the incredible gift their presence provides you. 


In praise of non-human bonding

The bond you have with your forever animal friend — whether as a service dog, a registered ESA, or a loving, always there for you pet — is precious and valuable. These beings are incredible gifts of proven stress relievers that regardless of their training never let us down, only ask for love and care in return, and even if we don’t feel like fawning all over them at any given time, they’ll know what to do and love all over us until we feel better.

What a gift it is to love someone so much that all you want to do is make their life worth living.

Night Sky Night Sky