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Service Dog, Emotional Support Dog, Therapy Dog: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Reading Time: 4 minutes Emotional Support, Therapy, Service. Each is a different type of job a dog can have. Can you guess which label fits each dog?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Jack the spaniel goes to nursing homes and schools with his mom, a volunteer. He is great at snuggling and loves giving kids a high five. Jack has never met a stranger. He loves everyone!

Tara the terrier is good at retrieving. If her dad drops his billfold, she’s right there to pick it up for him. She’ll even get his phone upon request. When her dad feels dizzy, Tara will stay by his side and get ready to bark for help if he loses consciousness.

Griffin the mini-Labradoodle is very perceptive. When his mom has a panic attack, he often crawls into her lap and rests his head against her shoulder until she relaxes. Sometimes he’ll bring her his favorite toy to help cheer her up. He was never trained to do this. He just figured it out on his own!

Jack is a therapy dog. Tara is a service dog. Griffin is an emotional support dog. They have different tasks and require different levels of training. They also have different rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

These days, people want to take their dogs everywhere with them. Who can blame them? Dog companionship is wonderful. The law, however, is very specific about what dogs are allowed public access. The laws used to be broader, until people started taking advantage of them and bringing ill-suited dogs, cats, even peacocks, onto planes and in stores. Increasingly, there were incidents of “service dogs” jumping on people in airports, growling at people or other dogs, and even snapping and biting. With all these incidents came ill will from the public, which only made it harder for people with disabilities to take their legitimate service dogs into stores, and on public transportation and airplanes. The laws tightened.

Service Dogs: Specific Jobs to Do

The ADA defines a service animal as a dog, of any breed or size, who has been trained to perform a task directly related to a person’s disability. Other animals no longer qualify. Service dogs are allowed in stores, hospitals, schools, restaurants, and hotels.

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulates service animal access on airplanes. Service dogs are allowed on planes.

Service dogs require a tremendous amount of training to perform their tasks, often taking several years. Examples of tasks include retrieving objects, pulling a wheelchair, guiding a person who is blind, or alerting a person who is deaf to an alarm. Service dogs are trained to ignore other people and dogs and focus solely on their person. They have excellent manners in public.

Service dogs do not have to wear vests or have ID cards proclaiming them to be service dogs. You don’t need a note from your doctor saying you need a service dog. There is no required certification for service dogs. Under the ADA, it’s illegal to ask you what your disability is. It is legal, however, to ask if a dog is a service animal required due to a disability, and what tasks the dog is trained to perform.

If a service dog is not housetrained, or is out of control, you can be asked to leave. If you have a service dog in training, under the ADA he does not have the same rights to public access. Some localities and states allow access for dogs in training, so check your local regulations.

Therapy Dogs: Bringing Joy to Others

A therapy dog is trained to visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other facilities to bring joy to others. Some participate in animal-assisted therapy; for example, helping a person who has had a stroke develop better hand-motor coordination by throwing the dog a ball in a game of fetch. Therapy dogs must have excellent manners in public, following cues from their handlers. They are outgoing, social, and confident.

Therapy dogs do not have the same public access rights as service dogs.

Emotional Support Dogs: Taking Care of Their Person

An emotional support dog provides comfort to his pet parent simply by being near him. For example, someone with social anxiety may be hesitant to go out in public but feels more confident accompanied by his dog.

Emotional support dogs do not have any specific training. They do not have the same public access rights as service dogs.

When it comes to these dog jobs, the terms matter because they involve different rights under the law. The labels are important, but even more so, the training that goes into them.

No matter which role your dog performs, remember that all of these jobs can be stressful for dogs. It’s important to have a relationship built on a Fear Free foundation of trust and empathy, in which you recognize and understand your dog’s body language and stress signals so you can ensure your dog’s emotional health. If you are planning to train your dog for one of these jobs, seek the advice of a Fear Free certified trainer who can help you achieve your goal.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

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