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.). 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 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.

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David Johnson
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.
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!
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.
Gerty Gift
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
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.
Michelle Schenker (Admin)
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.
Lori Coleman
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
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.
Daniel Jameson
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
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
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!
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
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!!
What helps you calm down from a anxiety attack?
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!
Just get the dog and you will train each other, the best training))
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
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
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
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.
Can a dog be both an emotional support animal and a trained therapy dog?
Sara Y.
yes, i am also trying to understand if a dog could wear multiple hats. did you find an answer?
Lori Coleman
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.
Dianne Mede
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!!!
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.
Emotional Support Animals can not go into businesses that are no pets allowed because they are not task trained. Also ESA’s do not have to have any training.
They can go on a plane- no training at all required. A little girl was just attacked at an airport by one yesterday I believe. A pit bull.
Colleen, please provide details to the above incident. I would like to research and find out exactly what happened. Unfortunately when these type of incidents happen the first to get “blamed” is the dog. What we, as a society, fail to understand is that Pit Bull has a human owner. The owner is solely responsible for their dog behavior. The owner does not have a dog problem, the dog has a owner problem. My heart goes out to the Pit Bull, if true the Pit is dealing with some serious anxiety/stress issues and the owner has not helped him. Sue the owner, that’s why we have courts. If enough bad/ignorant/misinformed ownwers get sued, the problem will go away. Pit Bulls are dogs.
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 (Admin)
Thank you Lizzie for further clarifying this. We made some minor updates to this article based on your specific details.
Fact Checker
Really?? you made ‘updates’ to your article based on ‘Lizzie’s’ information? Doesn’t matter if Lizzie is right or wrong. the fact that you would update your article based on someone’s comment in the comment section .. This is whats wrong with articles today. folks just write them based on what someone says and NOT by researching the information themselves.
Don’t you think it would behoove all of us, if the information was verified as correct? way to many articles are written and not confirmed/verified information.
Nothing against Lizzie, i’m sure her info is ‘correct’ ( I say that because I haven’t verified it ) .. But my issue is with the article writer who will make changes to an article just based on a users comment. it’s just LAZY writing.
CONFIRM your articles information. don’t just take Jane Doe’s or John Does word for something. this is how Miss information travels so darn fast these days !!!
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?
Lori Coleman
Yes, sort of. Because ESA’s work is typically at home (or strictly on flights), they aren’t really (or aren’t SUPPOSED to be) in the general population. Where as the Service Dogs most certainly are considered a working dog and the Therapy Dogs are to a certain extent (where they are invited in to hospital, nursing homes, etc). Other working dogs are Police K-9’s and Search and Rescue 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.

K. Looney
My dog is registered as SERVICE DOG, both for ME and MY DISABILITY, BUT FOR MY TWO DISABLED DAUGHTERS WITH AUTISM AND SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER!! And registering your animal as a SERVICE DOG / ANIMAL is PROTECTED UNDER THE ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) which DOES NOT VARY BY STATE as you say.

If you have a Dog that was once used as an EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL but now realize and become DISABLED, then all you have to do is (recommended training if needed by yourself or friend), and RECATAGORIZE DOG AS SERVICE DOG and you can do this for FREE online – and again, DOES NOT HAVE LAWS THAT VARY BY STATE AS ONCE YOU ARE DISABLED, THAT IS FEDERALLY PROTECTED!!

Please fact check THIS, nothing at all is needed by your doctor with SERVICE ANIMAL – and won’t cost you ANYTHING to register online (and ADA doesn’t even require that, we did it so that we could have our dog on the registry and get SERVICE ANIMAL VEST)!

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.