The Differences Between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs

The Differences Between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs

Jarret J

It is no secret that dogs (and all animals for that matter) can do amazing things. When someone thinks of a working dog, the image of a police dog or guide dog are usually the first examples that spring to mind. Different types of assistance animals are rising in popularity as a valid accommodation for those living with different disabilities. This, unfortunately, means there is a rise in misinformation for the “rules” that different types of working dogs need to follow. There are three main categories of assistance animals:

  • Service Dogs (SDs) - Perhaps the most commonly recognized category of assistance animals, service dogs can help mitigate their handler’s disability through specialized task training. SDs can come in many different shapes and sizes depending on their job. There are different forms of service dogs (Psychiatric, Guide, Medical Alert - such as Diabetic and Seizure Alert, Hearing, Medical Response, etc.) and no one kind is any less legitimate than the other. SDs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and have full public access rights to accompany their handler anywhere the general public can go (i.e restaurants, theaters, public transportation, and non pet friendly hotels and housing to name a few). Many SD handlers choose to label their dog as such by using a vest or special wrap around the dog’s leash, though it is not mandatory to do so. It is a federal crime to mislabel your pet dog as a service dog in order to bring them into non pet friendly places, and can endanger the safety of legitimate service dog teams. There is no legal certification for service dogs. If you think you may qualify for and benefit from a service dog, start a conversation with your doctor about it! A service dog should never be your first option for treatment, but can be very beneficial for those living with disabilities.

Black poodle stands in stack position with a continental cut. She is wearing a gray and black service dog vest.

SD Nimbus (@flywithnimbus)

  • Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) - ESAs have recently experienced a sharp rise in popularity as a psychiatric treatment plan. Their role is to provide emotional support and comfort for their handler through their presence, rather than through the task training that service dogs endure. Since they are not task trained, ESAs do NOT have public access rights under the ADA. ESAs are different than psychiatric service dogs, but are no less legitimate or helpful! ESAs are allowed to accompany their owner in non-pet friendly housing and on airplanes through the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) with a referral from a mental health professional. There is no legal certification for ESAs, just like for SDs.

A girl holds her small beagle dog in her lap surrounded by green grass and trees. The girl is smiling at the camera while her dog looks off to the side.

ESA Juliette (@Juliettesadventures)

  • Therapy Dogs - Therapy dogs have been established to provide emotional support for many people. They are most commonly used in hospitals and in schools with the goal of easing the stress endured by people in those locations. Almost all therapy dogs must be certified through professional organizations which involves passing the Therapy Dog International (TDI) test. This ensures that the dogs visiting public facilities with their program will be well-mannered and well-trained dogs. Even after passing the TDI, therapy dogs have no form of public access rights and should not be performing therapy dog interactions outside of their program activities.
  • Three women of different ages sit smiling while petting a golden retriever dog

    Like I said at the beginning - dogs are AMAZING, but that is no surprise to anyone. ALL of these dogs can be incredibly beneficial and life changing to those in need. Talk to your medical provider if you think you could benefit from one of these amazing creatures and remember to take care of yourself! If you have any questions do not hesitate to reach out!

    Written by: Rylie M. [@service.dood.sage on Instagram]

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