What’s the difference between a service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog?

Dogs and other pets can be immensely helpful for folks living with chronic pain or other serious conditions like anxiety and depression. Dogs with ’emotional support’ vests are appearing in classrooms across the country. People have tried to bring peacocks on board planes as support animals.

My dog and I are just beginning our training as a therapy dog team, and our trainer said the most common question she gets when out with her dog is “Where can I buy a best like that? I want to take me dog into restaurants with me.”

Learning the language

I recently published a post on Psychology Today, explaining the difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs.

  • Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks for specific people with a confirmed disability. They are a recognized accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) – like a wheelchair. Service dogs are allowed in all public spaces – restaurants, work, hotels, airplanes, and hospitals.
  • Therapy dogs work with their handlers to provide emotional support to many people. They visit people in hospitals, provide emotional support in courtrooms, crisis centers, and therapy offices, and work with children in libraries and schools.
  • Emotional support animals provide emotional support for specific people living with anxiety, depression, or other conditions. Emotional support animals are not covered by the ADA, but can be allowed into housing that normally does not allow pets.
Table summarizing the difference between service, therapy, and emotional support dog.  Identical material appears in text.

What kind of dogs might help me?

Companion dogs – pets – have been shown to reduce stress in their owners. If you like dogs and can care for them, research shows that they can be emotionally calming. Having to care for someone who needs you – your pet – can also release hormones that make you feel good. And I know that walking my dog gets me up and moving in a way that just talking to my doctor does not.

Service dogs and emotional support dogs are both working dogs whose primary job is to care for their owners. Both are focused on meeting their needs.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are granted access to all public facilities and help their owners, who have a documented disability, to function. Most of us are familiar with seeing-eye dogs that help people with limited vision navigate. Service dogs can also warn their owners of incipient seizures or when their blood sugar is low. People with PTSD or anxiety disorders use service dogs to check out spaces for them and assure them of their safety.

A friend whose teenage daughter has hemiplegic migraines provided me with a particularly striking example of how service dogs can be helpful. Hemiplegic migraines cause partial paralysis. My friend’s daughter’s leave her unable to speak and often unable to walk or balance. Her dog can identify a migraine coming on. He guides her to a safe spot and carries her medication for her. He also guards her and keeps her safe. She once passed out in the shower from an attack, her hitting her head. Her dog fetched her phone and repeatedly nudged her until she was able to call her mother for help.

Service dogs need to be trained to perform specific tasks to serve their owners. They also need to be calm and under control in complex situations like restaurants, airports, or noisy crowds. Although a service dog is allowed to enter any public setting, they must be under control at all times and are normally leashed except when their duties require them to roam freely. A dog who misbehaves (for example, sitting at a restaurant table or barking repeatedly) can be asked to leave.

Service dogs can be obtained from organizations that train and provide them to people with specific disabilities. However, you can train a service dog yourself or work with a trainer to help you form a good bond with your well-behaved and well prepared dog.

Emotional support dogs

Emotional support dogs are there for their owners. They do not require specific training nor do they perform specific tasks. They help their owners just by being there. Although the only requirement for emotional support dogs is that they be essential for the well-being of their owner, training is still important. Both you and your dog will be happier if they are well-behaved and comfortable if you take them out of your home. So will your landlord! Some locales and some states allow emotional support dogs in public spaces. If so, they, like service dogs, should be well trained and under control. They can’t do their job if they don’t feel safe. You can be asked to leave if they are not behaving appropriately.

Therapy dogs

Service and emotional support dogs are working dogs who should not be disturbed when they are on duty and out with their owners. On the other hand, therapy dogs main job is to be a pet. Their side gig is to help others. Many people think that a ‘therapy dog’ is a loving dog who helps its owner cope. The opposite is true. A therapy dog is chosen for its friendly temperament and ability to cope with stress. A therapy dog and their owner make a team who help others.

I want a dog! What do I do next?

If you think a dog may help you, realistically think about your needs and those of the dog. Who will care for them? Train them? Walk them?

Dogs are expensive. Do you have many for food, care, and training?

Next, decide what your needs are. If you are looking for love and comfort around the house, maybe a pet if just what you want.

If you are living in an apartment that will not accommodate pets but want a companion, perhaps beginning the process of documenting your need for a therapy dog (or cat!) is a good place to start. Remember – an emotional support dog does not give you the right to bring your pet on a plane with you or, in most places, allow you to bring it into hotels, restaurants, or stores.

If you think a service dog would be helpful to you, your process is more complicated, but potentially very rewarding. You need to document your disability. Then identify exactly what tasks the dog will perform for you. Mobility? Identifying an oncoming medical crisis? Helping you reduce disabling anxiety?

Next, think about what kind of dog might be of help to you and who will help train them. Dog training can be fun, but it is a real skill and not for everyone. Is this something you want to take on?

Then think about what kind of dog you need. If your dog will identify seizures or low blood sugar, you might want a very small dog you can carry so they can feel your tremors or smell your breath and warn you. If you want a dog to guide you to a safe spot, a large, calm dog may better fit your needs.

Dogs are long term commitments. Do your research to help find the helper that will become part of your life.

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