Service Dog vs Therapy Dog vs Emotional Support Dogs

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Service dog with handicapped swimmer

Are you using the terms service dog, therapy dog and emotional support dog interchangeably? Did you know there’s a difference between these three types of dogs? To help clarify, we’ve written this article to explain where you may see a certain type of dog and when someone may need one.

What’s The Difference Between Service, Therapy & 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.). Learn more about emotional support animals.

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?

About The Author:

Kimberly received her Bachelor of Arts in multimedia journalism from Simpson College. She has been writing about dogs since 2014, covering subjects such as dog insurance, training, health, accessories, and more. Her work has appeared in many notable brands, including The New York Times' Wirecutter, Reader's Digest, Forbes, People, Woman's World, and Huffington Post.

Kimberly's natural curiosity helps her research as she seeks the truth when learning about, comparing, and personally testing canine products and services. With every piece she writes, her goal is to help our readers find the best fit for their unique needs. Kimberly grew up in a family that loved Labrador Retrievers and remembers running and playing in the yard with them as a child.

In 2017, she and her husband adopted their Coonhound mix, Sally, from a local shelter. Kimberly’s research was put to good use since Sally faced some aggression issues with other dogs and needed some training to be an inside dog. She worked daily with Sally and sought help from professionals to help Sally become the happy pup she is today. One of Kimberly’s favorite pastimes is spoiling Sally with new toys, comfy beds, and yummy treats (she even makes homemade goodies for her). She tries to purchase the safest products for Sally and knows that each canine has their own specific likes and dislikes. Kimberly is passionate about dogs and knows the bond between humans and canines is like no other.

Disclaimer: This website contains reviews, opinions and information regarding products and services manufactured or provided by third parties. We are not responsible in any way for such products and services, and nothing contained here should be construed as a guarantee of the functionality, utility, safety or reliability of any product or services reviewed or discussed. Please follow the directions provided by the manufacturer or service provider when using any product or service reviewed or discussed on this website.

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Chloe Moody
August 26, 2020 11:13 pm

So what if your dog already knows how to notice a seizure coming on and several other of the things that you have discussed in the post but has just started training and you need more ways to train a service dog??

Apiffany Gaither Billings
August 27, 2020 10:17 pm
Reply to  Chloe Moody

Is the dog being trained by an organization or professional trainer?

July 4, 2020 5:34 pm

Can a dog be both a therapy dog and an emotional support?

Apiffany Gaither Billings
July 6, 2020 9:52 am
Reply to  Carilyn

Typically therapy dogs are not trained for a specific handler and are used at hospitals, nursing homes, etc. Emotional support dogs are for a specific handler.

May 6, 2020 8:44 pm

My son Joshua has autism. We got him a dog and they are great together. Now we are buying a condo and the pet limit is 35lb our dog is 45lb. They are not accepting emotional support dogs. So I talked to a friend of mine and she ask me what service the dog provides for my son. He goes to him when my son is getting upset. He puts his paws on him and makes little notices. He is doing that by himself. Would he be considered a service dog?

Apiffany Gaither Billings
May 7, 2020 5:28 pm
Reply to  Monika

Hi, Monica. There are several differences between a service dog and an emotional support dog. The first difference is that your dog would be considered a pet whereas a service dog is considered a working animal. The animal would have been specifically trained to meet your son’s needs. A service dog is used for tasks that your son is unable to do for himself, for example, a dog leading someone who is visually impaired. As for an emotional support animal, your dog would need to be registered. Here is another article about emotional support certification. That being said, it is recommended that you speak with your son’s treating physician or psychologist for a letter as it is illegal for emotional support animals to be denied due to the Fair Housing Act. However, the letter can serve as proof.

Kristen Mullen
February 7, 2020 10:29 pm

I have been dealing with depression anxiety PTSD for a long time. Nothing as helped.

February 27, 2020 7:15 pm
Reply to  Kristen Mullen

Sorry to hear that. Stay positive. One day at a time.

Animals do make great companions. Dogs are great at helping through rough times.

January 24, 2020 12:18 pm

What kind of dog would be for diagnosed severe depression? I’m guessing emotional support but please correct me if I’m wrong. Thanks!

May 25, 2020 8:38 pm
Reply to  Giovanni

I would say start with your doctor. Because some breeds are better than others. Personally for myself I would say a lab. But it can be different person to person.

Lucy De Leon
January 5, 2020 3:06 am

How can i get started to get my puppy as an emotional support dog?

Jazzi Kao
November 11, 2019 11:26 am

I recently attempted suicide and ended up in a psych ward. I’m only 22y/o. I already have a dog, white German Shepherd, he’s 2yrs and is very in tune with me. While I was gone my bf told me that he left a portion of his treat for me in the driveway. He helps me stay happy and calm. All I wanted was my dog when I was there because I was nervous I was alone in a place I didn’t know anyone or anything about. I’m unsure if I should get him as a therapy, service or ESA dog. He helps me set a routine like waking me up in the morning, getting antsy when it’s almost his time for a walk. I think he would be an ESA but idk how to go about getting this done. I would even go as far as getting the DO NOT PET patches on his harness. Thanks in advance.

November 10, 2019 5:18 am

You make a mistake in including companionship/company as part of what emotional support dogs provide owners. A doctor’s note that includes companionship/company as either or both reasons for the person to get the animal will likely be worthless since the landlord could say that a pet provides companionship and then refuse to allow the tenant the animal. Service, Therapy and Emotional Support dogs should be recognized for the work they do that helps the owner. Even including companionship/company as the reason for getting any of these dogs could even be a reason for a doctor refusing to write a note for the person to be allowed to have the dog. I have an emotional support cat and I’ve had to tell many people that my emotional support cat is not a pet and that pets provide company and companionship. She does several things to help me which is the most important.
I’ve also told them that if a landlord should hear them talk about how an emotional support animal provides company and companionship that could lead to the landlord no longer allowing the tenant to have the animal. Doctors hearing this might refuse to write a letter asking that the person be allowed to have the animal.

Jose Holmes
November 1, 2019 8:28 pm

I literally don’t understand why people discriminate between an Emotional Support animal, a Therapy animal, and a Service animal. If an Emotional Support animal is given a proper Training he can serve as both Therapy animal and service animal.

January 21, 2020 12:44 pm
Reply to  Jose Holmes

You answered your own question about why people make the distinction between the three. It is about the level of training and the certification awarded upon completing the training. Your statement is correct that given proper training an emotional support animal could serve as a therapy or service animal, but even completing the training doesn’t guarantee that the animal will pass the test and be awarded the certification. There have to be procedures in place so people don’t take advantage of the system.

Jayna James
October 21, 2019 9:30 pm

Service dog registration is not required, however some businesses and public transportation operators in New York requires service dog registration cards to ride the bus or train. You can make sure that your dog is trained by taking them to a professional trainer for your disability.

David Johnson
August 30, 2019 8:16 pm

My grandma has been disabled for at least two years now and it really frustrates her, especially because she’s often lonely. Your article gave me an idea when you mention that service animals will have been trained to deal with each person’s disabilities individually. I’ll have to look into getting a service animal certification so my grandma can have a companion.

September 5, 2019 6:02 pm
Reply to  David Johnson

Hi I have had my service dog for 4 1/2 years. It took 2 years to train her with a “Professional” trainer and myself, then have her pass the necessary test to be a service dog. My service dog undergoes training every day for a 15-20 minutes in order for her not to lose her training. For each command she needs to learn it takes weeks if not months for her to master it completely. I love my dog but it is like having a 2 year old with you everywhere you go. Good luck!

August 30, 2019 8:27 am

I Have epilepsy and have considered getting a dog because my seizures have been getting worse, here in Wyoming there are so many people with dogs everywhere that I am afraid people will think that my dog would also be a pet, how do you get around that? Guess I don’t. I suffer for the people who want to take the family pet everywhere call the emotional support dogs or service dogs and people like me go without, how sad.

DJ Hllr
May 23, 2020 6:27 pm
Reply to  Kimberly Alt

As someone that has dealt with this at work it gets messy. I am a firm believer in service animals. But there are A LOT or people that take advantage to have their pet and claim it’s a service animal and make up what service it provides. Service animals generally do not act like pets. They are more focused like a working dog should be. Like a bomb dog. And a person that even has a legitimate service dog can be asked to leave an establishment for a number of reasons… it’s starts disturbing others, barks, people try feeding it in a restaurant. The dog is asked to leave I mean; not the owner.

I there are tons of people online coaching other people how to cheat the system. I’ve even overheard people saying that they just claimed their dog was a service animal.

A legitimate ID card that photo identifies the dog and the owner with a phone number of the doctor(or whomever) that prescribed that dog Would go a long way. It would not violate HIPPA in that it wouldn’t provide any information about the person’s condition.

As a parent of a special needs child I truly empathize with the needs people have. But this honor system doesn’t work when so many people are dishonorable. The few ruin things for the many.

Gerty Gift
October 24, 2018 3:51 pm

I thought it was interesting that you mentioned a service dog can help detect when your blood sugar is low if you’re diabetic. I never thought that a dog would be able to do something like that. It’s simply amazing what these animals are capable of.

Zona Novak
August 25, 2018 5:55 pm

Thank you for clarifing the difference. I get into arguments with people about this. My husband has a note from his nuerologist to be allowed to have a dog. The note states that a dog would benefit him due to having a nuerological disorder essential tremor. His dog helps him keep calm . What category would this dog come under? I say an emotional support dog.

Lori Coleman
October 16, 2018 10:20 pm
Reply to  Zona Novak

Best rule of thumb that I’ve been taught over the years…in order for the dog to be considered a Service Dog and be covered under the ADA, the dog must be “task” trained. In other words, the dog provides some task that the owner is in need of regularly (out in public). Making someone “stay calm” would not fall under the title of a service dog unless the dog actually performs some sort of task to help keep someone calm. A good example of that would be a dog that is trained to lay over top of someone that is suffering from PTSD symptoms to help mitigate an episode of fear or anxiety.

Charlie Brugnola
March 11, 2019 8:34 pm
Reply to  Lori Coleman

Lori, very well informed post. Thank you. Another “task” a service dog may provide for a Veteran with PTSD is “Impulse Interruption”. I am a Veteran and assist fellow Veterans in training their service dog. It’s called a “trigger”. A vet may get into a stress situation where a trigger goes off, instantly filling his/her brain with cortisol and other stress hormones. This in turn pushes them back into the battle zone and they lash out in a blind survival instinct. The service dog instantly recognizes the scent as a negative and jumps on them, barks at them, which interrupts that impulse to lash out in a rage. That’s amazing, but it gets better. When the Vet turns to his dog hug them, pets them his/her brain fills with Oxytocin, Serotonin and Dopamine. This instantly calms the Vet and they go about their way! All dogs are just wonderful!
Dogs are my passion. Therapy dogs are my obsession. Service dogs are my compulsion.

V. M.
October 22, 2019 12:35 am

I am not a veteran but a police officer injured in the line of duty. I have PTSD due to severe incident. I just received my letter for two ESAs. But how can I get training for one of them to be a service dog as i see he picks up on my triggers and instantly disrupts my actions until i stop then stays on me until i am calm. He shows great potential even without official training.

Charlie Brugnola
December 6, 2019 12:24 pm
Reply to  V. M.

Please give me a call 760 952-2416. I can give you some direction on the training of Service Dogs.
I am also a retired police officer PTSD. Your dog is already performing a TASK, he sounds wonderful.

December 14, 2019 11:45 am

Myself as well. Retired due to traumatic injury and having worked with canines for many years, specifically gsd’s, I trained my own and now have an incredible service dog; and as a much earlier poster mentioned it can be like having a two year old with you full time, but the ability to live my life especially out in public is the greatest gift.

Michelle Schenker
August 27, 2018 9:56 am
Reply to  Zona Novak

If you are unsure of the classification of your dog, I would suggest that you ask your doctor. Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer because there is a lot of disagreement in cases like this where it is a brain-associated condition rather than a purely physical one. So only your doctor could make this determination or a trainer who raises these pups to help in the respective fields.

December 14, 2019 11:40 am

I have to disagree in part, asking your doctor who is not educated in service dog training, is likely going to be unable to give you a true answer. The defining answer is if your dog is trained to do something in relation to your neurological disorder. Now I don’t know the specifics of the disorder oh, but I do know that if the dog is trained to perform some ACTION to assist your husband with anything caused by his disorder then the dog is a service dog.

Daniel Jameson
August 20, 2018 3:55 am

In whatever category we may list our pets, something common amongst the three is, they understand our feelings and react accordingly. They can’t speak in our dialect, but can response. Therapy pets play most crucial role as they have to work for a master who does not convey under the conditions of a healthy mind. I had the opportunity to avail the service of a therapy petfor my aged grandma. She was recovering from a trauma & the therapy was recommended by experienced doctors at Steady Care Medical. The result was astonishingly encouraging.

Norman Seaton
August 17, 2018 6:19 am

ESA therapy for the patient not keeping a good mental health is getting popular day after day. With the passage of years, not only our physical, but mental health is alsoweakened. Besides, there are situations when we get over stressed or land ourselves in depression. These are a few situations when we need the company of an ESA. But an important aspect that you should keep in mind is, not to forget to obtain a recommendation letter from an experienced and licensed mental health specialist lest you are thrown out of your rented accommodation or the Airline crew declines your request to board your ESA. I have had to face such a situation and it’s well-known mental health specialists, Pet Support Doctors, who provided me an ESA letter online and helped me in need.

Josh Howell
July 28, 2018 2:29 am

My 7 yr old boxer is my life and she honestly keeps myself calm qnd collective at times and truly keeps my emotional state in a positive mannor. Having ptsd, my anger flies off the edge into deep water to the point that i want to take extreme actions qt the time of something happening and if it was not for her, i would be in a bad situqtion. Instantly, her happiness and joy with me doesn’t allow my mental state take advantage and put myself in bad situations but instead and knowing she is with me, i rethink qbout what actions i want to take qnd it makes me tqke the best course of actions. I absolutely owe her my life and she has made the best of life for my life. I would be so lost without her!

July 24, 2018 10:51 pm

Hi, I think you are a bit confused. The AKC does NOT register therapy dogs but rather recognizes a number of therapy dog registries that can be found here.

Lori Coleman
October 16, 2018 10:22 pm
Reply to  Shenova

Exactly…AKC only hands out titles for the number of visits you make. Titles you pay for at $20 a pop. Make sure that you get registered and/or certified with a National organization!!

July 20, 2018 6:12 pm

What helps you calm down from a anxiety attack?

June 12, 2018 3:03 pm

I’m having a little trouble figuring out on how to contact trainers for what I need. .I have anxiety,ptsd and depression. I often have times where I have panic attacks and will disconnect from reality thus avoiding meds and signals from myself that I need to leave the situation. I’ve heard people have service animals for their anxiety by alerting their owner from certain things that might be a trigger,but I also hear people bring up ESA and I was trying to figure out what would be best for me? Any help would be much appreciated and thanks in advance!

February 20, 2019 7:50 pm
Reply to  Luna

Just get the dog and you will train each other, the best training))

June 11, 2018 11:45 pm

I’m confused! My husband and I own a dinner theater – a venue that typically wouldn’t permit animals of any kind. Can you please tell me which type of dog (or miniature horse?!) we are required by ADA law to let in? Thank you!

Service Dog Registration
May 24, 2018 12:26 am

So weird. I was just searching for information about this stuff and you popped up. You must be doing something right. Thanks by the way, this really answered some questions I was throwing around in the back of my mind.

Amanda Drew
May 22, 2018 4:42 pm

That’s really cool that a service dog can actually detect when a diabetic has low or high blood sugar. It’d probably be a good idea to use something like a golden retriever or Labrador because they already tend to be happy and useful breeds. You’d just need to find out how you could make your dog be a service dog.

Anna Sakila
March 21, 2018 4:41 am

I think all three of these working dogs require unique skills that help them do their jobs. Each job keep a role in making life just a little bit easier for the people who love and need them.

February 11, 2018 3:08 pm

Can a dog be both an emotional support animal and a trained therapy dog?

Dianne Mede
December 6, 2018 6:41 pm
Reply to  Sarah

I have a St John’s Ambulance (Canadian) certified therapy dog. He is certified to work with seniors and children. The evaluations are very different for either group. As others in the discussion have said, the therapy dog works with many, many people. That is their strength. The training for a therapy dog is much different than for other task oriented dogs. It is mostly socializing a pup with many people and watching for the desired behaviour of empathy. It’s not something that all dogs have. When that happens give big praises to the dog, but not necessarily treats. Early on the dog recognizes the situations that earn the most praise. The most important training is complete obedience to the handler. A good therapy dog recognises stress in people of all ages and wants to comfort that person. What I’ve seen is that most comforting situations last from a few minutes to around ten minutes. The dog knows when it has done its job. During that time you can almost see the person relax inside. It’s very rewarding. My pouch and I visit senior homes and attend a program in elementary school called Paws for Stories. He helps relieve the child of anxiety while reading out loud. It really works!!!

Lori Coleman
October 16, 2018 10:26 pm
Reply to  Sarah

Yes, there is nothing stating that an ESA that helps you at home, couldn’t be trained to visit with other people as a therapy dog. I will say though, that the dogs that excel in therapy work are the ones that are always looking for attention. So, those that are good ESA’s aren’t always necessarily well suited for therapy work.

Sara Y.
April 25, 2018 1:41 am
Reply to  Sarah

yes, i am also trying to understand if a dog could wear multiple hats. did you find an answer?