18Apr

Service Dogs Vs. Therapy Dogs: What’s the Difference?

Being out in the public with a service dog, I am constantly asked questions. Over the past few weeks, one question has dominated: Is that a therapy dog? Where can I go to get my dog trained as a therapy dog?

There appears to be a great deal of confusion among the general population about the different types of service dogs, and what their roles, responsibilities, and privileges are. For example, most of these “Is that a therapy dog?” questions have come when I have been in a retail setting, like a grocery store or drug store. Therapy dogs would not be in such a setting with their vests on. And although some people seem to understand, basically, what a therapy dog does (provide assistance and comfort in a more clinical setting), others believe that a therapy dog will be for them – to give emotional support to the handler.

So, in the hopes of clearing up some of the mystery behind all of this, I am going to lay out the basic definitions of the three categories of dogs who help people: emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and service dogs.

Emotional support dogs fall into the most common (and least understood) category. To qualify to get an emotional support dog, all that is required is a letter from your doctor or psychiatrist saying that a dog would be beneficial to you as an emotional support animal. You are not required to have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So this is something that is available to anyone – an elderly person who simply needs extra comfort, for example. However, the privileges of an emotional support dog are extremely limited. They are only allowed two things:

  • to live in an apartment or other rental unit where otherwise dogs would not be permitted, and
  • to fly on an airplane with their person.

That’s it. Emotional support dogs are not allowed entry into restaurants, stores, etc. You are not given permission to bring your chihuahua in your cart in the grocery store. Emotional support dogs are not required to wear vests, although some identification may be helpful when flying. (Paperwork is always important when dealing with airlines.) And, depending on the airline, you may find some difficulty, as some have more rigorous guidelines.

Therapy dogs are dogs who are specifically trained to give affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and schools. They often work with people with learning disabilities or those in stressful situations, like a courtroom, or a disaster area. They can come in all sizes and breeds. The most important thing about them is their temperament – they must be friendly, gently, and patient. A therapy dog will be petted constantly, and may have children climbing on top of him or her, or the dog may be asked to jump up onto a patient’s bed. So the dog must be very confident, and comfortable with lots of contact.

They are allowed to go into settings such as schools and hospitals, libraries and daycare centers, rest homes and courtrooms, to perform their duties. However, they do not have the rights of a service dog. Just because they own a vest, it does not mean they can go into restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores or concerts. The handler is not disabled, so those privileges are not extended to the therapy dog/handler team. The therapy dog is only allowed access rights when she/he is  performing her/his duty — at the school, nursing home, office, etc.

A therapy dog should wear a vest that clearly says “therapy dog,” not “service dog.” And the vest should be removed when the dog is not on the job.

There is no one standard for training a therapy dog. However, many organizations who use therapy dogs provide training, to help get your dog ready to become one of their volunteers. I have added a page in my resource section with listings of organizations that provide training in the Northern California Area.

Service dogs have the most privileges, and, correspondingly, the highest level of responsibility. In order to use a service dog, the handler must have a disability, as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Go to Sec. 12102. Definition of disability for a complete listing.) Although technically there are no laws stating this, it is highly recommended that the handler have a letter from his or her doctor stating that a service dog is required because of the person’s disability. I have such a letter, and carry a copy of it in Ripley’s vest at all times.

The most important difference between a service dog and the other categories of dogs is that a service dog has a task or tasks. Legally, a business owner can ask you only one question: What does your service dog do? And “My dog comforts me” is not an adequate answer. You must be able to say something like, “My dog picks up objects,” or “My dog opens doors,” or “My dog reminds me when to take my medications,” or “My dog is an alert-and-assist dog for seizures,” or “My dog notifies me when my blood sugar is low,” or “My dog helps me to stabilize my balance,” or “My dog responds to my PTSD symptoms.” There are many, many different tasks a dog can do – but a bona fide service dog is a working dog, and has a job.

Service dogs also are not required to wear vests, but it makes their work much easier, for simple identification in the eyes of the public. Having an ID card can also ease access, so registration with a service dog organization is a good idea. The most recognized one, and the one I use, is USAR Plus. That way, I have an ID card with our pictures to show in case anyone ever asks. And they do ask sometimes.

A working service dog/handler team has the right to access to any place the public has access to — the only limitations are private homes, and some places in the public arena that may be inappropriate for safety reasons, such as sterile areas in a hospital or rooms where x-rays or other imaging equipment is being used  (most areas in a hospital are OK), some construction sites, etc.

OK — whew. Hopefully that makes all of this a little less murky and a tad more understandable. Onward to the next public encounter!

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One comment

  1. Really helpful, Michelle. You probably “should” post on FB once every three months or so. Seriously! Thank you for taking the time to educate us. Marlene

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