Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals – Important Differences

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Service dogMany people confuse the terms service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog, however there are a number of important differences between these three types of working dogs:

Service Dogs

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.  (Some state and local laws define service dogs more broadly than the ADA.)
  • There are different types of service dogs: guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs, mobility dogs, medical alert dogs, medical assistance dogs, and psychiatric service dogs.
  • Service dogs perform a variety of different tasks such as pulling a wheelchair; assisting a mobility-impaired person with balance, picking up things, or turning on lights; alerting a person to an impending seizure or diabetic emergency; reminding a person to take medications; or calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who is having an anxiety attack.  The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.
  • Service dogs can be any breed or size.  While larger dogs such as Labradors are commonly used as guide and mobility dogs, smaller dogs can also be service dogs.
  • Service dogs undergo extensive training to perform their jobs.  Although some service dogs are certified or registered, the ADA doesn’t require certification or registration, and there is no service dog certification organization recognized by the ADA.
  • Under the ADA, service dogs are allowed access to any place that is open to the public, however can be asked to leave if not under control.  A service dog must be accompanying a disabled person in order to be granted access – the ADA protects the rights of the disabled handler, not the dog.  (Remember, not all disabilities are apparent to others.)
  • Service dogs are not pets.  Do not pet, talk to, or distract a working service dog.
  • A service dog is expected to behave in accordance with strict standards, and its handler is expected to adhere to service dog handler etiquette.
  • Service dogs often (but not always) wear special harnesses or vests with patches identifying them as service, guide, or medical alert dogs.
  • The only types of animals recognized by the ADA as trained to do work/perform tasks for people with disabilities are dogs and miniature horses.

therapy dogTherapy Dogs

  • Therapy dogs visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and libraries to engage in “therapeutic contact” (petting or just spending time with people).
  • Therapy dogs must undergo training, and in some areas must pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test and therapy dog certification test.  The training is not as extensive as service dog training and often includes taking a basic manners/obedience class and exposing a dog to a variety of people and situations.
  • Therapy dogs and their handlers have no special access rights under the ADA.  They visit hospitals and other facilities with the permission of the facility.
  • Therapy dogs are pets who generally work with their owners on a volunteer basis.
  • People are encouraged to pet therapy dogs.  (That’s part of the dog’s job!)
  • Therapy dogs often wear vests or bandanas with patches identifying them as therapy dogs.
  • Almost any animal can be a therapy animal – dogs, cats, horses, birds, rats.

Emotional Support Animals

  • The sole purpose of an emotional support animal (ESA) is to provide comfort or emotional support to a person.
  • Emotional support animals are pets with no special training.
  • Emotional support dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA, however their handlers have certain rights under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act.
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