Assistance animals vs emotional support animals

Dogs, such as Monty [pictured], are the cure to a sad night at home, but trained assistance and service animals are a necessity for some people living with disability. [Source: Disability Support Guide]

What is the difference?

Key points:

  • People living with disability may require an assistance or service animal for a multitude of reasons
  • Generally, the term ‘assistance animal’ refers to ‘hearing ear dogs’ — auditory impairment support animals, ‘guide dogs’ — vision impairment support animals and mobility assistance animals
  • Psychiatric and medical-alert ‘service dogs’ can support people with an invisible condition such as epilepsy or post traumatic stress disorder


This edition of Disability Support Guide addresses fluffy friends, furry fellas and cuddly creatures. Is an emotional support animal [ESA] similar to a service dog? Are assistance animals and service animals the same thing? What’s the difference between an ESA and a pet?

It is important to understand that assistance and service animals are strictly trained and vetted for supporting a person with disability and are funded by the National Disability Insurance Scheme. In order to qualify for NDIS support and service animal funding, the person must be able to demonstrate the severity of their impairment during day-to-day life. 

Emotional support animals

ESAs are not legally recognised in Australia, which means a person is not eligible to receive NDIS funding for any domesticated legal pet. Although PTSD service animals — mostly dogs — are eligible for Government support in instances of emotional and mental distress, the animals are trained to wake people from nightmares or lead them from distressing situations.

Due to the potentially paralysing, intense and debilitating fear of a PTSD-associated attack, the mental distress is far greater than just feeling sad or nervous. People with psychosocial impairment, or cases of severe autism spectrum disorder which inhibits a person from being able to take care of themselves, may also be eligible for a mental health service animal.

ESAs may not be allowed in certain places, public transport or on planes, whereas assistance and service animals are generally permitted due to the recognised hardship or inability to thrive independent of support.

Emotional support animals are no different from pets in the eyes of the Government, which makes sense — who doesn’t feel emotionally supported by their pet?

Assistance dogs

Three breeds of dog are typically trained for assisting people with disability in Australia: labradors, golden retrievers or labrador-golden retriever crosses.

These dogs are trained for ruff-ly two years to be capable of assisting their client with tasks such as opening the door, barking when in danger, guiding owners who are hard of hearing or seeing, and alerting others in case of a medical emergency. 

Despite working incredibly hard for their client, it is important to avoid patting, calling or gesturing towards a service dog when it’s on the job, as it may be distracted and — if on a leash — potentially hurt the person they are trying to support.

Where to get an assistance animal

To find a fluffy guide which shows you the way, makes your day and assists with overcoming challenges related to an impairment, organisations such as Assistance Dogs Australia can provide a well-trained animal. Funding for ongoing food, veterinary or costs associated with caring for a service animal can be provided through the NDIS.

When applying for a providing assistive technology (AT) assessment through the NDIS, please refer to the assistance animals assessment template online.


Related content:

How assistance dogs can help people with disability

What is animal assisted therapy?

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