Service, Therapy & Emotional Support Dogs: The Difference

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An assistance dog is a specially trained companion that provides aid or assistance to individuals with disabilities. These dogs are often trained by assistance dog organizations or their handlers, with the guidance of professional trainers.

Throughout history, dogs have played crucial roles in human activities such as farming, hunting, and protection. Service dogs, working dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals all serve important functions in assisting humans. However, it’s essential to recognize that these terms are not interchangeable. Each category has specific definitions, encompassing the tasks they perform and the legal rights they possess.


Exploring the Roles of Service Dogs

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are individually trained to perform tasks and work with people who have disabilities. The ADA recognizes disabilities as physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. The tasks performed by service dogs are directly related to the handler’s disability. Here are some examples of what service dogs can do:

  1. Guide dogs assist blind individuals in navigating the world.
  2. Hearing (or signal) dogs alert deaf people to various sounds, such as knocks on the door or someone entering a room.
  3. Psychiatric dogs are trained to detect and mitigate the effects of psychiatric episodes.
  4. Service dogs aid individuals in wheelchairs or those with physical limitations. They can open doors, fetch objects out of reach, and carry items for their handlers.
  5. Autism assistance dogs help individuals on the autism spectrum by distinguishing important sensory signals, such as a smoke alarm, from other sensory input. They may also alert their handlers to repetitive behaviors or overstimulation.
  6. Service dogs trained to recognize seizures provide support by either standing guard over their handler during a seizure or seeking help when needed.

Rights of Service Dog Owners

Service dog owners enjoy comprehensive public access rights as mandated by the ADA. This means that service dogs are allowed to accompany their owners in places where other animals are typically prohibited. They can enter restaurants, stores, libraries, and other public spaces. Service dogs must be permitted in housing, even if other pets are not allowed. Additionally, service dogs are welcome on airplanes and other public transportation. However, it’s important to note that each airline may have its own specific rules regarding service dogs, such as their placement during the flight. Service dogs are exempt from the pet fees charged by airlines.

Understanding Working Dogs

Working dogs are purpose-trained canines that learn and perform specific tasks to assist their human companions. These dogs excel in various fields such as detection, herding, hunting, search and rescue, police work, and military operations. Their exceptional sense of smell often plays a vital role in supporting humans. Here are some examples of the jobs performed by working dogs:

  1. Search and rescue (SAR) dogs play a crucial role in finding missing individuals during emergencies or natural disasters. They can follow scent trails in the air or track specific objects to locate those in need. SAR dogs are deployed in various situations, including disaster scenarios, cadaver searches, drowning incidents, and avalanches. Bloodhounds are particularly well-known for their expertise in this field.
  2. Explosives detection dogs collaborate with law enforcement agencies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the military to locate dangerous materials. These dogs undergo rigorous training to identify and alert their handlers to a wide variety of explosives. German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are commonly employed in this line of work.
  3. Cancer detection dogs have demonstrated remarkable abilities to sniff out cancer in patients’ breath samples. By detecting the distinctive odor emitted by cancer cells, these dogs can provide early indications of the disease. In one notable case, a Labrador Retriever correctly diagnosed cancer 98 percent of the time, surpassing the success rate of commonly used tests, which detected the cancer only 10 percent of the time.
  4. Allergy alert dogs are trained to detect allergens and their residues in various settings, such as schools, social events, and everyday activities. These dogs alert their owners to potential allergens, similar to how police dogs track scents or drugs. Breeds like Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs are often chosen and trained as allergy alert dogs.

While working dogs are highly trained for specific roles in particular locations, it’s important to respect their focus and avoid approaching or petting them when they are on the job.


Understanding Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs fulfill a different role than service dogs and emotional support animals. They are not trained to live with a specific handler but instead volunteer alongside their human partners, often the dog’s owner, in clinical settings such as hospitals, mental health institutions, hospices, schools, and nursing homes. These dogs provide comfort, affection, and companionship during their visits. Therapy dogs are trained to be comfortable in new environments, interact with diverse individuals, remain calm amidst unfamiliar noises and movements, and enjoy human contact.

Legal Rights of Therapy Dogs

While therapy dogs are often referred to as comfort dogs and widely used in therapeutic settings, they do not have the same legal status as service dogs under the ADA. Therefore, therapy dogs do not possess the same rights of public access. The regulations for therapy dogs vary among different organizations, and there is no uniform set of state or national rules for their certification. As a general guideline, therapy dogs should undergo proper training, be insured, and obtain licensing through the non-profit organization that coordinates their services.


Considering Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

Emotional support dogs are distinct from service dogs under the ADA. Although they may receive training for a specific owner, they are not trained to perform specific tasks or duties to assist individuals with disabilities. However, emotional support animals play a crucial role in providing companionship and support to individuals with psychological disorders. They offer comfort, alleviate anxiety and depression, and address various phobias and feelings of loneliness. To qualify as an emotional support dog, a mental health professional must prescribe the animal to a patient diagnosed with a psychological or emotional disorder, such as anxiety disorder, major depression, or panic attacks.

Rights of Emotional Support Animals

Unlike service dog owners, individuals with emotional support animals have limited legal rights, typically requiring a letter of diagnosis from their doctor or psychiatrist. While emotional support animals do not have unrestricted access to public spaces, the Fair Housing Act mandates “reasonable accommodations” for them, even in buildings where pets are not allowed. However, as of January 2021, airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals.


Training PurposeSpecific tasks related to disabilitiesProvide comfort and support in clinical settingsProvide emotional support and companionship
Legal Rights
Full public access rights as mandated by the ADANo legal right to access public spaces, regulations varyLimited legal rights, requires a letter of diagnosis
Tasks/ResponsibilitiesGuide individuals with visual impairments, alert deaf individuals, assist during seizures, perform physical tasks, etc.Provide comfort, affection, and companionship in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, etc.Offer emotional support, alleviate anxiety and depression
Training Requirements
Intensive training to perform specific tasks related to disabilitiesTraining to be comfortable in new environments and interact with various individualsMay receive training but not for specific tasks
CertificationRecognized under the ADA, no specific certification requiredCertification requirements vary among organizationsNo standardized certification, requires letter of diagnosis
Public Access
Allowed in public spaces, including restaurants, stores, libraries, housing, and public transportNo full public access rights, restrictions in public spacesLimited access, reasonable accommodations mandated by the Fair Housing Act
InteractionsNot to be approached or petted while workingInteract with people in clinical settings, comfortable with handlingProvide emotional support and companionship, interaction varies
Please note that the chart provides a general overview, and specific rules and regulations may vary depending on local laws and organizations.