Service Dog vs Therapy Dog vs Emotional Support Dogs

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Service dog with handicapped swimmerIf you’re anything like me, you probably use the terms service dog, therapy dog and emotional support dog interchangeably. To be honest, until researching this article, I didn’t know there was a difference. However, these three types of dogs are used in completely different situations. To help clarify, we’ve written this article to explain where you may see a certain type and when someone may need one.

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

A service dog is trained to help people with disabilities such as visual impairments, mental illnesses, seizure disorders, diabetes, etc. A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospice, disaster areas, retirement homes, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and more. Emotional support dogs provide their owners therapeutic benefits through companionship.

Service Dog Training

The option to use a service dog is given under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and local governments. According to the ADA, service animals are working animals, not pets. They have been specifically trained to perform tasks related to the disabled person’s specific disabilities. For example, if you are diabetic you may have a dog who can detect when your blood sugar level is too low or high. Training can be done by you, a friend, family member or professional trainer.

Service dogs must be on a leash, harnessed or tethered unless it interferes with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability. Service dogs should be controllable and it is in the individual’s best interest if the dog knows verbal/hand signals such as sit, stay, come, down and heel. The service dog should also be house broken. Simply having a disability isn’t reason enough to categorize your own dog as a service dog. Your service dog must be able to complete tasks that you are unable to complete yourself.

Document Training

Be sure to document training dates and accomplishments in a notebook or online document. Not only will this help you through training, but it will also provide a paper trail for your service dog. Having a professional training certificate or video recording can offer validity if your service dog certification is challenged, but it is not required. If you have a psychiatric service dog, a doctor’s note may be required for airline travel and other public areas.

Service Dog Laws

There are two key service dog laws to keep in mind. First, service dogs have to be allowed into businesses and it is illegal for someone to ask about your disability. However, someone can ask if the pet is required due to a disability or what tasks your service dog is able to perform. Second, pretending to be disabled to gain access to an area is against the law. Service dog registration is not required by the ADA.

What Not to Do Around Service Dogs

Please do not pet service animals while they are working. The man in the video below has some more thoughts and tips based on his experience with a service animal.

What Do Therapy Dogs Do?

Therapy dogs are used in facilities to comfort people and give affection. Spending time with a therapy dog has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce anxiety and increase endorphins and oxytocin. Therapy dogs do not have to be trained to perform specific tasks like service dogs.

Therapy Dog Training

Are you asking yourself, “Can my dog be a therapy dog?” It’s important to first state that not all dogs are good candidates to be therapy dogs. Therapy dogs should be naturally calm as well as affectionate and friendly to strangers. They need to be obedient in addition to having regular wellness check-ups and also be well-groomed for each visit.

To train a dog to be a therapy dog, you may wish to do the following:

  • Socialize your dog to new people, places and things
  • Complete obedience training with commands like look and leave it in addition to teaching them to not jump on people and more
  • Enroll your dog in a therapy dog class
  • Register your dog with a national therapy dog organization

How to Certify a Therapy Dog

Depending on where you plan to take your therapy dog, you may not need to register him/her. Therapy dog certification can be achieved through various organizations but we recommend the AKC. To earn the AKC Therapy Dog title, you and your dog must do the following:

  1. Be certified by a therapy dog organization that is recognized by the AKC
  2. Perform the required number of visits:
    • AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished (THDD) – 400 visits
    • AKC Therapy Dog Excellent (THDX) – 200 visits
    • AKC Therapy Dog Advanced (THDA) – 100 visits
    • AKC Therapy Dog (THD) – 50 visits
    • AKC Therapy Dog Novice (THDN) – 10 visits
  3. Dog must be registered with AKC (both purebred and mixed breed dogs are eligible)

Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support dogs provide comfort, a calming presence and company. Emotional support dogs do not have access to all public areas, but there are two legal protections. First, they can fly with a person who has an emotional or psychological disability. Second, they can qualify for no-pet housing. A letter from a physician may be requested by housing authorities and airlines because the use of emotional support dogs has been abused by some over the years.

There is no formal training needed to be an emotional support dog, which is why you may see some that are not the most well-behaved. However, there are some characteristics you’ll want to know, so you have the best experience with your emotional support dog.

Characteristics to Look For

Your emotional support dog should be devoted to you and responsive to your emotions and commands. The dog should also be calm and laid back. A rambunctious dog has the capability of becoming an emotional support dog, but it will require more training. It is recommended to look for a dog that is around one year old so you can build that relationship with him and have him be out of his curious puppy phase. However, puppies can be emotional support animals as well; they’ll just need to be a breed that is people-oriented (e.g. Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Goldendoodle, poodle, etc.).

What Kind of Dog Is Needed?

We thought it’d be fun to “quiz” you to see if you can distinguish which type of dog is appropriate for various scenarios. Test your knowledge below.

Q: What kind of dog helps a person when they experience social anxiety while flying?
A: Emotional support dog

Q: What kind of dog is needed at school to help children experiencing anxiety?
A: Therapy dog

Q: What kind of dog is needed to pull a wheelchair?
A: Service dog

Q: What kind of dog offers companionship in day-to-day activities for one person?
A: Emotional support dog

Q: What kind of dog is needed to protect someone who is having a seizure?
A: Service dog

Q: What kind of dog is needed to remind a person with mental illness to take their prescription?
A: Service dog

Q: What dog helps a person with autism?
A: Service dog

Q: What kind of dog works with numerous people?
A: Therapy dog

Q: What kind of dog calms a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
A: Service dog

What do you feel best defines the different characteristics for each type of dog?

Growing up, Kimberly used to get the sniffles when she was around dogs. Thankfully, she grew out of her allergy and is now able to play and snuggle with dogs as much as she wants! She and her husband adopted Sally, a four-year-old hound mix, in early 2017, and she has brought so much joy into their lives. Life as pet parents has been very rewarding.

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21 Comments on "Service Dog vs Therapy Dog vs Emotional Support Dogs"

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Can a dog be both an emotional support animal and a trained therapy dog?
I think many people are faking the need for emotional support dogs. They seem to be everywhere now. “There are many sites out there that sell emotional support animal letters” – exactly, anybody can buy one on line. People just seem to want to take their animals everywhere so they are getting these “letters.” It’s ridiculous and there should be some other qualifications put in place to stop this. Takes away from people who really need these animals.
Thank u for sharing with us.
Nice article.It’s wonderful and interesting.
Only service dogs fall under the American With Disabilities Act which means they have to be allowed into businesses. Emotional support & Therapy dogs do not. Per ADA website, ” Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. ” Staff at a business can ask 2 questions if it is questionable if the dog is a service dog. (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Michelle Schenker
Thank you Lizzie for further clarifying this. We made some minor updates to this article based on your specific details.
I have an registered emotional support dog. I now have seizures and cancer. This dog knows before I do that a seizure is coming plus stays by my side when my cancer is causing a bad day. Does this mean I can now call him a service dog? If so, what is my next step. I am disabled and money is tight. I know longer can drive because of seizure.
Are all of these types of helpful dogs called working dogs?
You’re still quite confused on some facts.
No, an emotional support animal does not help with social anxiety in a store. Only housing and airplanes are legally obligated to allow ESAs. Stores, restaurants, etc don’t have to let them in.

Service dogs absolutely exist to help people with autism. Your vague quiz question is not necessarily accurate.

Please continue to check into further information before you decide you’re capable of answering others’ questions on this subject.

What an absolute cluster.
Does no one perform proper research and investigation into the subject they write about anymore?
Gads, the inaccuracies are mind numbing. I lost IQ points just reading it.
It’s not like the proper information is hidden away in some locked vault in the Andes mountains.
With a simple Google search, looking for a url ending in ‘.gov’, all the pertinent laws are readily and easily accessed through a wide variety of media devices.
Sheesh, people. I certainly hope you didn’t pay a lot for tuition at college for journalism classes. What a colossal waste if you did, as it is obvious that the correct methods of research and investigation were not covered.
Laura Costanzo
Nice article (some things a little wrong) but the one major thing you got wrong (and hopefully you will correct your article) is ther is NO SUCH THING AS A REGISTERY in the US. This places pop up online and charge money for something that no one with a legitimate Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal needs.

Also people with Autism also use services dogs. As long as the dog has at least one trained task to mitigate the handler’s disability (and is good in the public) the dog is a Service Dog.

Q17. Does the ADA require that service animals be certified as service animals?
A. No. Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.
There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

There is no service dog registration required. None. CERTIFICATION AND REGISTRATION

Q17. Does the ADA require that service animals be certified as service animals?
A. No. Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry.

There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

My grandmother is getting older and I’m concerned about her being alone. She’s very independent so refuses to go into a nursing home but would help if she had someone with her in case of emergencies. This might be a great solution, so thank you for sharing! Going to look into this…

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