Service Dogs vs Emotional Support Animals in Virginia

The difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal lies in the animal’s training and the owner’s needs.

Lately, you may see more and more dogs wearing vests that say, “Working dog, do not pet” or “Support Animal.” But what do those titles mean? Are “service” and “support” animals the same thing?

Further, should service dogs and emotional support animals enjoy the same rights?

In this article we’ll explore what Virginia law specifically says about the differences between service dogs and emotional support animals.

Note, however, that in this article we only cover Virginia-specific laws, which usually relate to how these animals are treated in public spaces. For federal laws regarding service animals, you should check out the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

Service Dogs

The main difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal is based on the level of the animal’s training and the severity of the owner’s needs. For example, Virginia law defines a service dog as a dog specifically trained to perform tasks that benefit a person with a disability.

These animals often come with specific requirements:

  • Service animals have special training to perform tasks for an owner that has a disability.
  • According to the ADA, service animals can only be dogs. There are very few exceptions to that rule, although in a few rare cases you can train a miniature horse and certify it as a service animal.
  • The time and energy spent to properly train a service dog is extensive. Because of this, a service dog can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000. Often, insurance covers a portion of the cost since the animal provides a necessary service for a disabled person.

Different Types of Service Dogs

Service dogs can be trained to assist people with different types of disabilities. Virginia law specifically protects three types of service dogs:

  • Hearing-ear or seeing-eye dogs that help people with hearing or sight impairment.
  • Seizure response dogs that predict seizures in the people they serve and assist after the onset of a seizure.
  • Sensory signal dogs that help people with autism. Most often, the dog intervenes when a person with autism can’t stop a cycle of repetitive movements.

Virginia law is less specific about psychiatric service dogs. For the most part, the law will consider them legitimate service dogs if they are specially trained to perform tasks for people who have a psychiatric disorder, such as PTSD.

A psychiatric service dog can provide many services to help people with disabilities brought on by psychiatric disorders. They can:

  • Guide a disoriented person to safety.
  • Provide room checks or turn on lights when PTSD causes panic.
  • Provide balance for vertigo brought on by panic or stress.
  • Interrupt and redirect obsessive behaviors related to OCD.

Simply stated, a service dog is trained to perform a task. They are not simply doing what a dog would normally do (jump in your lap, “kiss” you, lay on your feet) but can perform a specific task to assist a person with a disability.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are important tools for hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes. They provide comfort for people who are ill, lonely, or in pain. These dogs are trained to be calm when a person is agitated or anxious. They learn not to react to sudden movements or triggers that would make other dogs nervous.

Studies show that the calm energy that therapy dogs provide can even improve the health of patients in a hospital or nursing home.

The training that therapy dogs receive, however, does not include providing a service to compensate for a disability. These dogs simply provide emotional support for anyone who needs it, regardless of their disabilities or lack of them.

For this reason, therapy dogs are not considered service dogs.

Emotional Support Animals

There is no doubt that our pets can provide us with emotional support. Some people have such a bond with their animals that they seem more like friends than pets.

However, emotional support animals – even if they have a special vest and certificate – don’t have the same rights as service animals.

More and more people attempt to bring their pets into stores, restaurants, and even airplanes by insisting that they need the pet for emotional support. But if your pet doesn’t have specific training to help you with a disability, under Virginia law you don’t have the right to bring them with you.

Virginia Law

The Virginia Code has guidelines which regulate how businesses and other public spaces can treat service animals. These laws basically cover two central questions, which we outline below. However, remember that there are additional rules at a federal level, based on the ADA.

For example, while there is no law about it in Virginia, the ADA requires that rental properties and some other businesses provide reasonable accommodations for all types of support animals under the Fair Housing Act.

Where can you take your service or support animal?

The Virginia Code allows service animals to go anywhere people can go. For example, restaurants, hotel rooms, and stores must all accommodate your animal. The ADA provides for this access as a basic right for disabled persons. Support animals, however, are not given the same protections.

If you try to pass off your un-trained dog as a service dog by purchasing a vest from the internet, you can face serious consequences. Not only can you be kicked out of the place of business, but the city or county can charge you with a class 4 misdemeanor under Virginia law. That means a possible fine of up to $250, and a mark on your permanent criminal record.

Can a business ask me to leave because of my service or support animal?

A place of business can ask you whether or not your dog is a service animal, as well as as for clarification on what services it provides for you. However, they may not ask you for any identification or certification for your dog or proof of your disability.

This is because the Virginia Code requires that you to identify your animal properly to begin with. Specifically, you must identify your animal by:

  • Putting a guide dog in a harness
  • Marking a hearing-ear dog with a blaze-orange leash
  • Fitting a general service dog with some other form of identifying harness or vest

In addition, a place of business can’t charge an extra fee to accommodate your service dog. For example, a hotel can’t charge their regular pet fee for a disabled person’s service dog.

However, if your dog is acting improperly, a business still has the right to ask you to leave. This is especially true if your dog is acting in a way that damages property or threatens other customers.

For example, if your dog snaps or barks aggressively at others, or if it is not housebroken, the business can kick you out.


We love our pets. Our dogs are an important part of our lives, and more and more businesses are becoming pet-friendly. But before you attempt to bring your animal into a business, hotel, or onto your next flight, be sure you understand the laws about service animals and emotional support animals.

There is a difference between the two, and under Virginia law they don’t have the same rights and privileges. If you have any questions about your service or support animal, or feel you have been wronged because of your animal, contact an attorney immediately.

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