Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs: What’s The Difference?

Known as man’s best friend, it’s no secret that we love our dogs like family. However, for some people dogs are much more than pets; they can be vital companions providing life enhancing support. 

In this article, you'll discover the unique roles of service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs. We'll explore what each type of dog does, their training and certification requirements, their public access rights, and whether any dog can fulfill these important roles. By understanding these differences, you'll gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible work these animals do and the legal frameworks that support them, as well as which option may be a good fit for you. Let’s dive in.

What are service dogs?

Service dogs are trained to do at least one specific task in relation to their handler’s mental or physical disability. For example, a dog may be trained to help guide someone who is visually impaired or detect the onset of medical conditions such as seizures.

Service Dog Training Requirements

Service dogs undergo extensive and specialized training tailored to the tasks they need to perform. This training often takes several months to years and includes both general obedience and specific task-oriented instruction. In order to keep service dogs accessible to everyone who may need them, there isn’t any law that states the training must be performed by a professional, allowing owners to train their dog on their own if needed.

Do service dogs need to be certified?

In the United States, there isn’t any federal certification required for service dogs. However, many organizations offer voluntary certification and training programs. Establishments aren’t allowed to ask for proof of certification, but may ask whether or not a dog is a service animal and what task they perform.

Do service dogs have public access rights?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are granted full public access rights. This means they can accompany their handlers into restaurants, stores, public transportation, and other places where pets are typically not allowed. However, if the service dog behaves aggressively or poses a threat, establishments may require the dog to leave.

Can any dog be a service dog?

While there aren’t any laws regarding which breeds can be service dogs, not all dogs have what it takes to be a service dog. They must have the temperament, health, and ability to perform the specific tasks required by their handler as well as be comfortable, well-behaved, and be able to work without being distracted in public settings. Suitable breeds are often chosen based on these characteristics, though many breeds can qualify with the right attributes.

Consulting with a professional trainer or breeder prior to choosing a dog can save you a lot of time and money in the long run. It’s not uncommon for dogs to “flunk out” of service dog training due to not having the right personality or traits for the job even if their breed is usually a good match, so doing your due diligence when choosing a dog is important.

What do emotional support dogs do?

Emotional support dogs provide comfort and emotional stability to individuals with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Their primary role is to offer companionship and alleviate emotional distress.

Emotional Support Dog Training Requirements

Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs do not require specialized task-oriented training. Basic obedience training is beneficial to ensure good behavior, but there are no formal training standards for these animals as they only need to be able to live with their owner.

Do emotional support dogs need to be certified?

Whereas service dogs do not have certification requirements, ESAs do. A letter from a licensed mental or medical health professional is necessary to designate an animal as an emotional support dog. This documentation is required for the animal to qualify for housing accommodations and air travel privileges where pets would not be allowed. 

There are many scams and websites out there claiming to register or certify your emotional support dog for a fee. Don’t fall for these! Check with your state’s laws, but most states require a letter from your medical doctor for a dog to be considered an emotional support animal by law. This shouldn't cost you anything (other than the cost of the doctor's appointment, of course), and will likely need to be renewed every year.

Do emotional support dogs have public access rights?

Emotional support dogs do not have the same public access rights as service dogs. They are permitted in housing with no-pet policies under the Fair Housing Act and can fly in the cabin of airplanes under the Air Carrier Access Act. However, they are not allowed in other public places by default. 

If you plan to travel with your ESA, it’s important to check with your airline first. Due to the misuse of emotional support animals and bad experiences, it is becoming harder to travel with them.

Can any dog be an emotional support dog?

Any dog that provides emotional comfort to its owner can be considered an emotional support dog, regardless of breed. The key requirement is the documented need for the animal's presence for the handler's mental health

What do therapy dogs do?

Unlike service dogs and emotional support dogs that provide assistance to their owner, therapy dogs provide comfort and support to people other than their owner in various settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, courthouses, and disaster areas. They are trained to interact politely with people, offering emotional support and affection.

Therapy Dog Training Requirements

Therapy dogs undergo training to ensure they are well-behaved, calm, and comfortable in diverse environments. Their training focuses on socialization, obedience, and adapting to different situations and people. Occasionally dogs may to trained not to do certain things, like lick faces, for example, as that may put someone with a compromised immune system at risk. 

Because there are different organizations that run therapy dog programs, training may differ slightly between them. However, most organizations start with having dogs pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test and building from there.

Do therapy dogs need to get any kind of certification?

Therapy dogs typically need to be certified by a recognized organization, which ensures they can handle various settings and interactions. This certification process evaluates the dog's temperament and behavior and organizes the “jobs” that the therapy dogs will attend.

Do therapy dogs have public access rights?

Therapy dogs do not have public access rights under the ADA. They are only allowed in specific facilities where they provide therapeutic services by invitation, such as hospitals or schools.

Can any dog be a therapy dog?

Not all dogs are suitable for therapy work. Ideally,  therapy dogs need to have a calm and friendly temperament, be comfortable around people, and be able to handle the stress of different environments. While many breeds can qualify, the individual dog's personality is what determines a good fit.

Understanding the distinct roles of service, therapy, and emotional support dogs highlights their incredible contributions to our lives. Each type of dog brings unique skills and comfort, supported by specific training and legal protections. Whether they are performing tasks for individuals with disabilities, offering emotional solace, or providing therapeutic interactions, these dogs make a profound difference in many lives. We hope this guide has been helpful and answered all your questions.  Thanks for reading!

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