Service Dogs vs. Support Animals

A service dog helping his owner at a swimming pool

A service dog helping his owner at a swimming pool
I have it on good authority that August is officially National Dog Month, but that is a meaningless designation for my wife and me. That’s because EVERY month is National Dog Month in our household. Our gang of three has the run of the house, gets the best of vet care, eats premium prescription food, sleeps in or around our bed, wakes me up every morning at 2 a.m. to go outside and pee, then wakes me up again at 5 a.m. to eat their morning meal (dinner is 12 hours later with healthy snacks in between). We cater to their every whim. In other words, we “service” our pets. In return, they provide us with “emotional support”. And that brings me to the difference between service and support when it comes to animals, and why Publix grocery stores are caught in the middle of a controversy over the two designations.

Last week, USA Today reported that Publix now displays large signs at the front of its stores that remind shoppers that only service animals are allowed inside, not personal pets, and not even emotional support animals. Reporter Giuseppe Sabella interviewed a number of shoppers just outside of a Florida Publix store. One man said, “A lot of dogs aren’t friendly. You don’t want mean dogs in there because they might get a scent on somebody and bite them.” Another man told USA Today, “I like that there’s no pets allowed. Pet shed gets into things and that’s stuff I don’t want around my food. And when you put them into the cart, you’ve got that dog wiping its butt inside the shopping cart.”

Butt wiping aside, Publix is just exercising its right under state law. In Florida, as in most states, a public establishment may ask patrons if their pet is a service animal required because of a disability. They may also ask what specific work or tasks the animal has been trained to perform. Of course, an increasing number of restaurants, stores, and hotels don’t ask any questions because they welcome pets of all kinds. Airlines are another matter. If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “I’ll believe it when pigs fly,” you should know that, up until recently pigs DID fly. That was before the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that support animals are no longer considered service animals. 

This might be a good point to “paws” for a moment and review the differences between a support animal and a service animal.

In short, a service animal is one that has been specially trained to perform specific tasks and give aid to a person with a disability. According to NEW LIFE K9s, canines have been servicing people since ancient times, such as in the Roman city of Herculaneum, and further back in China. In modern times, the first service dogs were trained to work with blind people. The world’s first guide dog school opened in Germany in 1916, and 11 years later that training model made its way to America. By the 1970s, service animals were increasingly trained to support people with disabilities other than blindness. Then in 1990 service dogs were legally recognized when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress.   

Emotional Support Animals have been around a lot longer than formally trained service animals. According to, dogs have been on earth for tens of thousands of years, and the first archaeological evidence of a support animal is a 10,000-year-old grave containing the remains of a woman clutching her puppy. Meanwhile, tells us that emotional support dogs were first chronicled in ancient Greece when Aristotle wrote about a dog who, “helped to soothe his ailing master by providing companionship.” Today support animals are commonplace, providing a number of tangible benefits to the pet owner, ranging from lowering blood pressure for people living with chronic stress to having a calming effect on folks suffering from trauma.

Pets also played a big role in providing companionship during the COVID pandemic. In 2020, Mental Health Weekly reported on a survey which was conducted in Great Britain showing that 90% of people had at least one companion animal and described their pets as a “source of considerable support.”  

Clearly there are technical differences between a trained service animal and an emotional support animal. So, if you and your support companion want the same access to most stores and planes that is granted to legally recognized service animals, it would be advisable to carry a letter with you that is signed by a primary care doctor or qualified mental health professional, stating the reason as to why your pet must be with you at all times. However, be advised, most physicians will not prescribe snakes, pigs, rats or other unorthodox pets to accompany you, no matter how much support they may provide.

Speaking as a “service human” to three dogs I am content with my role so long as they provide emotional support to my wife and me. I just wish they’d learn to pee later than 2 a.m.


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