What’s the Difference? Service Dog, Emotional Support Dog, and Therapy Dog

Originally posted 2-20-18

Recently, I went to a fast-food restaurant and noticed this sign. It got me thinking about the different types of support our canine companions provide. From medical reasons to simply leading a floppy ear. Whether you are having a bad day, feeling sick or scared, dogs can sense it. (Snuggles always make me feel better.) Because of dogs’ natural disposition, they have become a beneficial part in the world of mental health and social interactions.

Today, we have service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs. Each has their own purpose and not all have the same rights in the eyes of the law. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as “A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” These animals generally are working animals, not always pets. They help with disabilities such as disorders, mental illnesses, diabetes, etc. Next, a therapy dog is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in places like hospitals, libraries, schools, etc. In recent events, we have seen the heroism of humans and the unconditional love of dogs. Therapy dogs have recently visited those affected in Florida to allow them to deal with their emotions and relieve their stress. Small moments like that are so helpful during the healing process. Lastly, emotional support dogs provide their owners therapeutic benefits through companionship. The focus of this is dogs however, I personally know an emotional support cat. Who knew?! There are 2 legal protections for emotional support dogs (1) they can fly with a person who has an emotional or psychological disability and (2) they qualify for no-pet housing.

Unfortunately, dog training is not a regulated field. There is no universal certification or national registry of trained service dogs. On a well known online website, you can get a Service Dog Vest Harness with Emotional Support Patches for $34.95, free 2-day shipping with their premium membership. Because of this unregulated access, there has been controversy regarding individuals falsy claiming a pet as a service animal to allow them into restaurants, hotels, etc. When dog in a service dog vest misbehaves in public and is not properly trained, there is a strong possibility of a change in the public’s perception of real service dogs. This does affect those genuine individuals that have service dogs. (Highly trained and often expensive, I might add.) It can prevent them from going into certain establishments and cause individuals to question the purpose of the animal. Note: Under the ADA, it illegal to ask an individual what their disability is. I experienced this when I worked at a Theater. Although there were accommodations, it may still be questioned as to the behaviors the dog does to assist the handler.

When looking at options for training your dog, consider what the purpose of the animal is. Some require training, some don’t. Consider temperament and socialization. Remember, labels do matter when it comes to service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs.