Therapy/Service/Emotional Support Dogs

DEFINING TERMS: Therapy vs. Service vs. Emotional Support Dogs

These three categories of working dogs are often misinterpreted, confused with one another, used interchangeably as though they are all the same, and/or unknown to the general public. As a therapy dog handler, chances are you’ll be asked what defines a therapy dog, and what differentiates therapy dogs from service and emotional support dogs. The following brief explanations and graphics will be a great reference in these situations.

What is a Service Dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the legal definition of a service dog is a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks that mitigate the effects of a person’s disability.  Examples are a dog who alerts his diabetic handler to low blood sugar, a dog who opens doors, turns on lights, and picks up dropped items for a person who uses a wheelchair, and guide and hearing alert dogs for blind or deaf handlers. Service dogs should be trained to the highest possible standards, such as those set forth by Assistance Dogs International ( However, it is not legally required for service dogs to be professionally trained (in other words, individuals handlers are allowed to train their own service dogs, even if they don’t have any training experience or relevant credentials). Service dog “certification” is something of a misnomer, because there isn’t actually any legally mandated certification for service dogs. They simply must be trained specific tasks directly related to a person’s disability. They should also be extremely well behaved in public places, and able to work in the midst of significant distraction. Service dogs can be outfitted in vests or capes to identify them as service dogs, however this is not legally required, nor are any sort of ID tags, cards, or paperwork.

What is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy Dogs also receive extensive training but have a completely different type of job than service dogs. Their responsibilities are to provide psychological and emotional comfort to individuals other than their handlers; who are usually their owners. These dogs have stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personalities. Typically, they visit institutions like hospitals, schools, hospices, psychotherapy offices, nursing homes and more.  Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize and interact with a variety of people while they’re on-duty.

Somewhat similar to service dogs, therapy dogs can have a variety of jobs.  While most people are familiar with therapy dogs who visit places like hospitals, nursing homes and hospices to provide emotional therapy, these are not the only environments in which therapy dogs can be beneficial.  Therapy dogs may also visit schools, day cares, group homes and rehabilitation centers.  Their roles vary, from dogs who give learning disabled children the confidence to read out loud to actively participating in physical rehabilitation therapy. In some cases, a therapy dog will work in a particular establishment exclusively, like a psychotherapy practice.

Therapy dogs may be trained by just about anyone, but must meet the standards set by a particular organization to be certified and actively participate within the respective organization.  They are usually handled by their owners, but in some cases of Animal Assisted Therapy, the therapy dog may be handled by a trained professional.

It is important to note that, despite thorough training, certification and the therapeutic benefits therapy dogs provide, they do not have the same jobs or legal designation as service dogs.  While some institutions offer therapy dogs access on a case by case for the benefit of patients, guests, customers or clientele, the handlers or owners of therapy dogs do not have the same rights to be accompanied by these dogs in places where pets are not permitted.

What is an Emotional Support Dog?

An Emotional Support Animal is a dog or other common domestic animal that provides emotional support to a handler who is severely depressed, has social anxiety, is elderly and requires the companion animal for stability and purpose in life, etc. If a psychiatrist or MD determines that a patient with mental illness would benefit from the companionship of an emotional support animal, s/he can “prescribe” an ESA, usually by writing a letter that states as much. This type of letter allows ESAs to live in housing that otherwise doesn’t allow pets, and/or to travel with their handlers in the cabin of an aircraft.

ESAs are not task trained like service dogs are. Little training is required, so long as the animal is reasonably well behaved by general pet standards. This means the animal is potty-trained and has no bad habits that would disturb neighbors such as frequent or lengthy episodes of barking. The animal should not pose a danger to other tenants or to workmen. But there is no requirement for specific training or mitigating tasks since emotional support animals are not generally taken anywhere pets would not ordinarily go without permission.