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What’s the Difference Between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Therapy Dogs?

Image via Belish/Shutterstock

By Victoria Schade

It takes more than a patch and vest to make a service dog.

Although it’s easy to assume that service dogs, emotional support animals and therapy dogs all provide the same type of aid for their caretakers, their training, responsibilities and access to public spaces differ greatly.

The confusion over what working assistance dogs do versus what “support pets” provide can have far-reaching consequences for the people who rely on the tasks their service dogs perform every day.

Here’s a breakdown of what each of these categories mean.

What Is a Service Dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Veronica Sanchez, a certified professional dog trainer and the owner of Cooperative Paws, an organization that offers service dog training for professional trainers, says, “In the service dog world, we refer to this as ‘task training.’” These tasks are essential functions that handlers are unable to perform on their own because of their impairment.

Service dog responsibilities depend on the needs of the handler. Certified professional trainer Michaela Greif from Paws & Affection, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs for children with a range of disabilities, says that some of the of skills include retrieving dropped items, pulling doors open, turning lights on, pushing drawers and cabinets closed, bracing to provide balance for an owner, interrupting panic attacks or alerting an owner to a change in insulin levels.

But the breadth of a service dog’s abilities goes well beyond the day-to-day support they provide their handlers. “The harder work is in creating a dog that can flourish under all types of circumstances, because a service dog needs to be quiet, attentive to the handler, accepting of a multitude of environments and unfazed by every imaginable situation,” Greif says.

Training Service Dogs

Training a service dog takes commitment. For example, Paws & Affection dogs go through over two years of training, starting at just eight weeks of age. The training starts off with basic pet dog manners, and builds to include thorough socialization, impulse control and the specialized skills needed to support their handler.

The formal training process culminates with the Canine Good Citizen Test and Public Access test, which Greif says evaluates the ability of the dog to be an appropriate, unobtrusive helpmate in public. Then, dog and handler are matched and train together to become a working team.

The scope of work that goes into preparing a service dog for the responsibility of assisting their handler and acting appropriately in public goes well beyond what typically happens in pet dog training.

People with disabilities have the legal right to take their service dog to any place where the general public is allowed, from movie theaters to hospitals, even if pets are not usually permitted there. 

How Should You React to Service Dogs in Public?

Although it’s tempting to reach out to pet a service dog, it’s critical to resist the urge. Remember, service dogs in public are on the job. Greif cautions, “It is wonderful that so many people are enthusiastic about seeing such dogs in public, and it is most appropriate to direct your interest toward the human on the other end of the leash, rather than assuming it is okay to pet or speak to a service dog.”

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) also provide a service for their caretakers, but not in the same way as a service dog. Sanchez states that while ESAs are defined in the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act, they provide comfort through their presence and are not trained to perform specific tasks like service dogs.

Dogs whose sole function is to provide therapeutic support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, so their access to public spaces is limited. ESAs are currently allowed in no-pets housing and in the cabin of an airplane, but otherwise, they are not permitted in places where pets are not allowed.

Any domesticated animal is eligible, from mice to pigs. To qualify for emotional support animal status, handlers must have a letter from a licensed mental health professional recommending the need for the support animal. The animal must be under the handler’s control at all times and cannot cause a disturbance.

Sanchez says, “People confuse the term ESA with a service dog trained to help a person with a mental illness.” Service dogs assist people with a mental illness perform specific behaviors, like reminding a person to take medication, alerting a caregiver if help is needed, interrupting a panic attack, or waking up a person having a nightmare. An emotional support animal is not task-trained to perform those type of essential function behaviors. 

What Is a Therapy Dog?

A certified therapy dog is a canine volunteer who provides a calming, friendly presence in settings like hospitals, nursing homes, schools and disaster areas. There is no single certifying organization for therapy dogs, so the requirements for certification varies by the type of skills the dog will perform, whether that be sitting quietly while a child reads or accepting petting from senior citizens.

Therapy dogs need a pleasant temperament and should be friendly with strangers. Most therapy dogs have to pass an exam by the certifying body or complete the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test.

Although therapy dogs provide an important type of beneficial support, they are not afforded any special rights or access under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Therapy dogs are strictly pet dogs with a part-time volunteer job.

The Damage Done by “Pretend” Service Dogs

The proliferation of different types of “assistance dogs” has led to people trying to pass off pet dogs as specialized service dogs. Dogs not trained to tolerate the stressors present in public spaces can result in inappropriate behaviors like barking and biting.

Greif states, “Fake service dogs make members of the public confused, skeptical and less accepting of true service dogs, and can stigmatize individuals with disabilities for whom greater independence is hard-won.”

Sanchez adds, “People who pretend their pet is a service dog have damaged the reputation of service dogs as a whole and minimized the tremendous amount of effort that goes into a service dog's training. Additionally, this behavior has caused members of the public and businesses to question people with disabilities who need service dogs, most especially people whose disabilities are not visually obvious.” 

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